As promised in an earlier editorial, here is the short story about my near-death kayak adventure in Maui! In my next editorial, I’ll talk about the process of writing it.
Susan gasped, as she surfaced from the almost tsunami size wave, desperately pulling down her choking lifejacket. For a moment she considered taking it off, but immediately remembered that she can’t swim. The smell of the ocean overwhelmed her, the taste of the ocean now in her respiratory track burned within her. She turned around looking for Michael, when she found herself under another wave. Surprisingly, she came out of it alive, although suffocating in salty water. She opened her eyes to see a wall of water rising in front of her again, and placed her fingers on the snap button of the lifejacket, ready to cut it loose… God, thank you for letting me die in such a beautiful place…
A Month before the Surf
Susan and Michael have barely lived as a couple two years out of the 30 that they have been together. One was before the arrival of their first daughter, the other after the last daughter moved out, and before Susan’s parents moved in with them four years before. Yes, they needed a vacation, so when Nico (the oldest) and her husband gifted them a week at a Maui resort they couldn’t pack their bags faster; especially Susan. She had spent the previous year in a wheelchair after triple surgery on her foot gone wrong. She still needed the cane to walk, but that was not going to spoil her romantic getaway. They signed up for all the adventures they found on the resort’s website that matched their bucket list.
“Let’s do the zipline!” said Michael in a tone that resembled a 12-year-old.“I want to do the horseback trail!” replied 11-year-old Susan.
In the end they realized that Susan would be limited to water adventures thanks to her bad foot, so they booked all of them and settled for the zipline for Michael and a spa day for Susan. The youthful excitement kept them going until May 27th, departure day. They had shipped her parents to Florida the day before to visit her sister while they were gone; her daughter would dog sit her puppies. After four years of chaos everything fell easily in its place for them to take some time for themselves…it was too good to be true.
Three Days before the Surf
“Michael are you ready?” Hollered Susan towards the bathroom while rolling her suitcase out the room. She couldn’t hide her excitement. Her claustrophobia, which would always act up at the thought of getting on a plane, was missing in action. “Come on! I don’t want to miss the plane!”
“Coming!” Michael replied storming out of the bathroom with his grooming bag. “Do you have my suitcase? I need to pack one more thing.”
“Yes! Come on! Omer is here to take us to the airport.” Susan’s excitement now border-lined on annoyance.
Thirty minutes later they are saying their goodbyes to their son in-law at the Austin Bergstrom Airport’s departure drop off and grabbing a wheelchair for Susan’s ride to the gate.
The flight was long, but their excitement made it seem shorter. It wasn’t until they arrived at the resort that the word ‘vacation’ kicked in. They were giggling a little louder, holding hands a little longer during their check in. After a quick romantic nap, they emerged from their love nest to explore the grounds. The resort was huge! Multiple building clusters, each with cascades over few level pools at their courtyards which faced the Pacific Ocean. Each building cluster had their own amenities. From sports bars/restaurants over the pools, and groceries and gift shops in the lobby, to beach sports equipment rentals and luxury dining.
“I can’t get over the flowers here! Are they even real? Said Susan as she wobbled her way with her cane on her left hand and the other one stretched towards the white plumeria flowers plants decorating the entire courtyard. “They are real!” She laughed.
“I know! Being here is surreal, the word ‘aloha’ is already imprinted in my brain,” affirmed Michael.
“Right? My face hurts from smiling! How about we have dinner out here?”
“Yeah, let’s do that. We can go over our adventures schedule the concierge gave us. I think tomorrow I will spend most of the day ziplining, and you will have your spa day.”
“Sorry, I can’t join in the zipline…but I’m getting a SPA DAY!!!” Michael knew Susan really couldn’t go ziplining, but he had his doubts on her regretting not joining him.
“Yeah, I bet you are really sad about it…” he said while slowly leaning towards her from his seat for a short and sweet kiss.
One Day before the Surf
Susan woke up with barely enough time to get ready for her spa appointment after a relaxed and romantic night with Michael. It felt a little weird not to have two dachshunds barking, jumping and licking her face, and her Mom waking her up, asking her if she is still sleeping…
Michael, had already left for his zipline adventure. Come on Susan don’t let yourself worry…he will be fine. It had always been her nature to worry about everything and everyone, except for herself. She rushed in the shower and gulped her breakfast eager to begin her spa day. It was that eagerness that helped her endure the long walk to the other building where the spa was located. Its just like me to miss the shuttle…but once there the steam room and treatments she signed up for proved worth the pain.
The day went by too fast for Susan and Michael, as they enjoyed their separate activities. The evening wasn’t any different. Although, they spent it relaxing with a candlelight dinner over a water view, time flew.
“I can’t believe I had to miss the zipline…” Susan complained after Michael told her all about his adventure.
“It’s okay, we can come back, and by then I’ll bet your foot will be totally recovered from the surgery. Didn’t you enjoy the spa?” He smiled.
“Umm, YEAH!” They both laughed and enjoyed each other’s company over a wonderful dinner oblivious of what the next day would bring.
Day Zero - The Surf
“Susan, wake up. Do you want some coffee?” Michael is always the first one to wake up. Susan, not so much of a morning person.
“What time is it?” She answered.
“Time to go. Come on we can’t be late. Here is your coffee. Drink it before it’s too cold.” It always takes Susan a while to get going in the morning, but his excitement soon rubbed off onto her.
“Okay. Let me grab a bar for breakfast so that I can take my meds.” In less than 20 minutes they were on their way.
“Darn it! I forgot my water shoes.”
“It will be okay. We will be in the kayak, plus there is no time to turn around. We have to be there before 7:00 am, to meet up with the guide and the rest of the group at seven sharp.”
They finally arrived at 6:50 am. The guide arrived after them. Just few minutes later two other couples showed up. The group was complete.
“Good morning. My name is Don. I have worked as a kayak adventure guide at this company for 30 years. I am going to pass along some life vests. You are always required to wear the life vest while on the kayak. I will also pass along snorkeling equipment. We will get a chance to explore underneath the water at one spot, visibility permitting. Please state your name and where you are from as I pass along these items to each one of you.”
The first couple were Lisa and Darren from San Francisco. The next one was Robert and Amy from Las Vegas.
“Michael and Susan from Austin” Stated Michael as he passed along a life vest to Susan.
“Great,” continued the guide. Everyone, please pick a kayak and stand beside it. These are the paddles. They will be tied up to the kayak so that they don’t get lost in case your kayak turns over.”
“Michael, should we tell him that I can’t swim?” whispered Susan.
“Hush and listen,” he whispered back.
“You need to keep the kayak pointing to the wave. If your kayak is parallel to the wave it will turn over. Is this clear?” the guide kept going. “Shortly we will all push our kayaks in and jump on it. Once on the kayak, begin paddling and follow me. Any questions?”
“Michael, should we ask him about the guy killed by a tiger shark three days ago? Should we be worried?” Susan whispered again. They had heard about that on the news the day before casually while watching TV resting at their suite before dinner.
“Really Susan, you want to bring that up now?” Whispered back Michael, this time getting annoyed.
“Everyone has water shoes?” asked the guide.
“Yes,” the other two couples replied.
“Not us,” said Susan, “Is that okay?”
“Yes, just watch where you step. Okay! Let’s go!” He said as he began pushing his kayak into the water. Susan and Michael pushed their kayak in.
“Get in first, and sit in the front.” Said Michael. Susan jumped in and as she sat down, she felt a weird impulse to sign the cross with her right hand, something she only does when flying.
“Are you scared?” Michael asked with his usual joking smile.
“Not really. I don’t know why I did that…C’mon jump in!” She said as she grabbed the paddle.
The ocean was calm and cooler than expected.
“Ahhh, can you smell the ocean?” said Michael after a deep breath.
“I love it!” Susan replied not being able to stop smiling.
They paddled nonstop over the calm ocean, speechless, almost hypnotized by their own paddling rhythm as they kept close to their guide. It was almost as if time had stopped, and the only thing moving was their boat. Finally, the guide signaled them to a spot near the rocks.
“Let’s try here,” he hollered. “Come around, we need to tie the kayaks together in a line.”
After tying the kayaks, the group got into the snorkeling gear before jumping in the water. Susan was the only one wearing the life vest off the boat. She tried snorkeling with the life vest, but it was very difficult for her to move, so she decided to take it off and just hang on to it like a swimming board, as she used to do in her youth in the Caribbean. Visibility was good enough that she was able to watch a turtle, and some colorful little fishes swim around. As she felt young again, she totally forgot about Michael, the kayaks, the shark risk, and oh yes, she forgot she can’t swim.
Finally, Susan got tired and returned to the kayak. Once on it she realized that Lisa had not jumped in the water.
“What happened?” She asked, taking off her mark.
“I can’t swim.” Said Lisa, holding on to her buckled up life vest.
“I didn’t want to say anything, but me neither!” Susan laughed, as Don jumped back on his kayak.
“You can’t swim?” asked Don.
“Nope. But I somehow managed to snorkel holding onto floaters, tried scuba diving (…ended up being slapped by a sergeant to make me breath again…), both in the Caribbean, and also jumped off of a cliff into a mineral water pool in the Amazons…”
Don laughed as he gave her a water bottle. Lisa looked at her like she was a creature from another planet.
Soon everyone was on their kayak, having refreshments, and getting ready to leave. Don untied all the kayaks, and they all started their way back.
“Did you get to see the turtle?” Susan asked Michael while paddling.
“Yes. That was cool. But I was disappointed to see so much trash.” He replied.
“I know? I was taken back by it, and by the little quantity of living creatures!”
“I guess we had a picture in our minds that is 30 years old…” Michael replied, before both went silent, reminiscing on past times. They paddled right next to Don, and Michael and Don held some conversations through the trip back to the starting point. Susan just sat quietly, taking in the scenery as her arms got more tired with each paddle swing. She felt happy, filled, and exhausted. It had been a decade since she was this active physically and enjoying the moment so much that totally forgot about her autoimmune conditions, and chronic pain. But as they got closer, she felt each row of the paddle more, yet you wouldn’t be able to tell she was in pain as she smiled through it, enjoying each minute of her adventure oblivious of what the surf would bring. After half an hour of paddling they got around 300 feet off the shore.
“Ohhh, the surf is already there…” mumbled Don as he stopped the kayak looking towards the shore. “I guess we stayed too long at the snorkeling site…. ok, everyone, gather around me.” Susan couldn’t help noticing Don’s concern. Something is not right…her gut was telling her that. “I need all of you to follow me carefully to the shore. We must avoid the surf and go through the little canal on the right. Just before those rocks. Can you see it?
“Yes,” said Susan along with everyone else, but she couldn’t see it. Besides all they needed to do is follow behind Don. No one saw it coming…
One second Susan was paddling right behind her guide, the next second she was under, confused, surrounded with bubbling water; coughing while being under as she swallowed the salty pacific water. She felt the surf pulling and pushing in all directions. Is she going up, down? She didn’t know. It hit her suddenly, she was drowning. The burn of the salt reached her chest. She started coughing while being pulled and pushed the second time around. Susan gasped, as she surfaced from the almost tsunami-size wave, desperately pulling down her choking lifejacket. For a moment she considered taking it off, but immediately remembered that she can’t swim. The smell of the ocean overwhelmed her, the taste of the ocean now in her respiratory track burned within her. She turned around looking for Michael when she found herself under another wave. Surprisingly, she came out of it alive, although suffocating in the water’s saltiness. She opened her eyes…she didn’t even realize they were closed, to see a wall of water rising in front of her again. She puts her fingers on the snap button of the lifejacket ready to cut it loose, God, thank you for letting me die in such a beautiful place…maybe giving up was the best thing…
“Breath and go under!” Susan heard someone say and even though she knew she was alone and there was no point in extending her suffering, her reflexes took over and followed the directions offered by that voice. She goes down and comes out on the other side of the wave.
“See? You can do it!” She heard and turned towards her left.
Right there out of no where he was sitting on his surfing board.
“Now all you have to do is breath and go under a few more times…” he said calm and focused on the wave rising behind me.
“You don’t understand…I can’t swim. I can’t do it!” Susan cried out turning to see what seemed to her an 8-foot wave rising right in front of her.
“Yes, you can you just did it. Now BREATHE!” he yelled and almost simultaneously Susan took a breath and went under right before the wave crashed down.
“I can’t do it, anymore!” Susan screamed as she came out of the other side of the wave.
“What do you mean? You are doing it!” Said the surfer, now right next to her.
“Please, help me!” Susan pleaded.
“OK. Listen to me, hold my hand. Don’t get on the board and don’t pull me under because it will be worse. Hold my hand! BREATHE!”
Susan grabbed his hand and went into auto-pilot mode…she would breathe when he told her to, and go under when he said, ‘go under.’ Wave after wave the surf kept pounding. She was numb, exhausted, in her mind this was a nightmare that would end only when she finally drowned underneath the wave and didn’t come out on the other side. She could hear the surfer yelling something else, but she could only focus on the words: ‘breathe’ and ‘go under.’ The surfer was calling out to Don who was still on his kayak, to come over to help her to no avail. Michael was also calling Don for help. Although he was a good swimmer, his life vest was choking him as the water made it rise upwards.
“You did great! That was the last wave for a little while.” Said the surfer, but Susan was confused…she expected more, so she kept looking for them.
“Do you want me to take you to the shore or do you want to go to the boat?” He asked.
“Is my husband there? Is he okay?” Susan turned to the right and she saw Michael floating, holding on to Don’s Kayak.
“Please take me to them.” She begged.
“Are you sure? You don’t want to go to the shore?”
“I want to be with my husband.”
The surfer finally took Susan to the kayak, yelled at Don for not helping anyone out and swam away on his board. As soon as he left, Don looked at Susan and Michael floating right next to him and said, “Float here for a bit, I will get your kayak.” As soon as he said that he was gone.
“What is wrong with him?” Susan cried.
“Come let’s just go towards him” Michael said, and both kicked on their backs facing the Ocean on the look out for waves while following Don. Once they got to their kayak, Don instructed them to get on it while he tied up a rope on it to pull them out. Michael jumped on it first and stretched his hand to Susan to help her up onto the kayak.
“Come on Susan lift yourself up and stick one leg on it.” He begged on the her third try. She tried to climb again but she had nothing left in her.
“I really can’t, Michael. I have no more strength.” Susan just wanted to hang on and maybe be dragged to shore. But Don was not having it.
“You HAVE TO! Hurry up, we are in a very bad situation here!” yelled Don.
Susan stretched one hand to Don on his kayak and one to Michael and as they both pulled, she kicked herself up until half of her body was on the kayak and rolled one leg in first and then the other. Ignoring the pain, she sat, grabbed the paddle and started paddling determined to get to shore. Then suddenly,
“Paddle backwards, paddle backwards!” Yelled Don.
Before they could do anything else, the surf got hold of their kayak, and Susan ended up underneath it. But this time she was determined not to give in. she kicked with her legs and threw fists upwards to push the kayak off her. She punched once, twice, swallowing water desperately throwing punches until the same surf that threw her down helped her, when another wave launched the kayak away while she was punching it upward. She was free! Soon she heard the surfer angel’s voice in her mind: Breathe, go under! She turned towards the wave forming right in front of her, she took a big breath and went under it, repeatedly. When the surf rested again, she saw Don paddling towards Michael. She began back kicking towards them when she realized that there was no way she would be able to climb on the kayak again before the surf started pounding on them one more time. A numbing feeling took over her body as she got closer. If I stay with them, I will doom us all. But if I try to reach the shore on my own at least Michael will have a chance to save himself…
“Can you get to us?” Don called out as he paddled towards Michael.
“I’m going to try to reach the shore on my own.” She yelled back and kept kicking passed them.
After a while of kicking and seeing Don and Michael get farther away, she looked back to the
shore and realized she was nowhere close to shore…on the contrary She seemed farther! The rip current got hold of her and whatever little will she had to survive disappeared at that moment. She stopped kicking.
“Okay God, here I come. Please take care of the girls and my parents. Please save Michael for them.” She prayed out loud.
Susan stayed numbed and motionless for a while. This is how I am going to die…she thought when a horrible scenario of shark attack crossed her mind. For the second time she reached her life vest buckle. Sorry God, I need to drown before a shark gets me.
“Are you okay? Susan heard a female voice behind her.
“No.” she answered. “I can’t swim. Can you help me?”
“Sure! You are my second one.” It was another surfer who along with others had been helping the other couples who also fell prey to the surf. “Here hold on to my board, I will push to shore.”
Susan took hold to the board, not realizing she was being saved. She felt her eyelids close…she was passing out…
“You can kick if you want.” She heard the surfer say but she couldn’t see her. She couldn’t see anything anymore.
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME!” Susan opened her eyes wide and saw the surfer in front of her pulling the board.
“Susan.” she whispered back.
“Susan, my name is Melissa. Do you think you can help me with kicking?”
“Are you wearing water shoes?” asked Melissa
“Ok, just keep kicking and don’t try to step down until I tell you to.” She said.
“Ok.” answered Susan totally surrendered to her fate.
Suddenly, her first surfer angel reappeared to help Melissa pull Susan to shore until Melissa finally told Susan to step slowly off of the board and both surfers helped her walk out of the ocean. Susan felt her legs tremble and let herself fall on the wet sand. On all fours she looked up scouting for Michael, her will to live coming back slowly. She saw Lisa sitting by herself in shock, her husband trying to help Don tend to Robert’s leg wounds, the reefs had shredded his leg. Susan smiled as she saw Michael run towards her. His right leg was bleeding.
“Are you ok?” she asked
“Yea, just scratches.” He responded reaching to the ground for a long due embrace.
“Michael these are the angels that save me.” Susan managed to voice out.
“Thank you so much,” Michael got up and thanked Melissa and the other anonymous surfer.
“You don’t have to thank me” he said, “just go home and have something awesome to eat, and enjoy yourselves, ok? Celebrate that you survived the last surf of the season!”
Susan smiled and stretched her arms, “Can I give you guys a hug?”
Both surfers smiled, kneeled right next to where Susan was sitting, and gave her a big hug. Then they grabbed their boards and disappeared as randomly as they showed up. The surf season goes from December to the end of May…
The remainder of Susan and Michael’s vacation was spent quietly, both enjoying each other. Susan all bruised up and in a wheelchair. They decided not to pursue any litigation. They only reported what happened to the resort, as that adventure was booked through them. And yes, they had something wonderful to eat every day and remembered how lucky they were to be still alive and together. Currently, Susan and Michael live each day as if it is the last. They live every moment aware on how quickly and suddenly life can end.