It seemed our subject was born to the water. And boyhood summers at least in his memory were all about the beach and swimming lessons and the ice cream sandwiches from the small concession stand. At 13 he was too small to pass life-saving, but that didn’t stop his love for the water. He never put in the effort to be a great swimmer but he got by, better than most. The water seemed to fulfill something that seemed missing in him. An astrologer once described it like this: his planets were in earth, air and fire, but none in water. So naturally he was drawn to water, so as to add his missing element and make him more whole. So ever since he was a child, he sought out the water as much as possible.
But not just water, chlorine always gave him a rash. He required water in it’s natural setting, a lake, a river, a sea or an ocean. And he would swim fearlessly, once even jumping from a bridge, based on a friends dare, into shallow water which could have broken his neck.
But that served him as no cautionary tale. He swam in storms when there was lightning, when the waves were high and the threat of rip tide was eminent. The lifeguard’s red flag meant nothing to him. If he was near the water, it was almost impossible to convince him to not go in.
But then one day he suddenly changed. It was not that his love of water had changed, for he still sought the water at every chance. And if given the opportunity would choose vacations, day trips and sudden jaunts just to be near the water. But now, even though he still loved the water just the same, he would no longer go in, not even just a bit, not even to walk along the beach in the waves.
If something happened to cause this, he told no one, not even his wife or children. And no one could think of a defining event that caused this new aversion. All of a sudden, it seemed, he just changed.
Now whenever he was near the water, he would just stare out. It was almost but not quite a blank stare. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. It didn’t seem like he feared the water and it also didn’t seem like he missed being in it. It’s as if he would stare out there, let his mind go blank, like day dreaming, but not just a reverie like a leaf on the wind, but instead intent like a guided journey, like a train with many stops and changes of passengers or like an oarman rowing against the current to who knows what end.
The flags were red that day. There had just been a tropical storm to the south, now passed, which meant extremely high waves and delight to surfers, but danger to lone swimmers. He stared intently out at the ocean and thought he saw just the head of someone far out there. The waves where cresting at 12 feet or more. And the head almost like a specter, disappeared from sight with the crest of each new wave.
He wondered if the swimmer was in trouble. It did seem that he was trying to use the power of each wave to bring him closer to shore. But with each wave, he remained as far out as before. Was he struggling, was he beginning to panic? Did he know that you should never panic. That if you are caught in a rip tide, you must stay calm and swim parallel to the shore until the rip tide releases you.
He wondered if the swimmer knew all of this. And it seemed to him that the swimmer had indeed begun to panic, that he had become desperate to get back to shore as quickly as he could. He knew the swimmer should not make the mistake to panic, but he also knew that when someone is deeply fearful, that it was hard to think clearly. When you are wondering if you are going to suddenly die, that’s all you can think of. Like it or not, fight or flight takes over and any rational thought gets pushed far to the back. If you are thinking you are going to die, that becomes the only thing you can think of. You wonder if this is how it will end for you. Just a dumb decision to go out into the ocean when the flags are red. Then suddenly lost at sea, unable to reach shore, too exhausted to keep struggling and finally finding death by the final wave that takes you; drowns you, makes it impossible for you to continue to breathe or continue any longer.
For a long time, he wondered about the swimmer so far out for so long. And then the solitary head just disappeared from sight, drown or somehow brought to safety. Yet no one on the beach seemed to be screaming at the loss of their loved one or jubilant about their safe return. So it what happened to the swimmer remained a mystery.
And he wondered if he had just imagined it all. The water had that power over him these days. He would stare out there for hours sometimes and no one knew what he was thinking. Perhaps he let his own reverie get the better of him. The swimmer was something he imagined, a mirage on the waves. There was no danger, no fear of drowning, no last thoughts.
And for a short while he thought that the specter of the drowning man should mean something more to him, that maybe it represented a pivot point, a catalyst for some type of change. Maybe it was time to venture back into the water again. And for awhile he did think this would be a good idea. But then a sudden wind came up. A bit of aftermath of the tropical storm was arriving on the beach. It was starting to rain. Maybe it was time to just head for home.