Saturday, December 17, 2005

Memorial Stone #13 - Death came calling, again.

I absolutely love animals. One of my favorite shows is "Planet's Funniest Animals" on the Animal Planet channel. I am especially fascinated with wildlife. I mentioned in a previous post that my first time in the ocean was in Hawaii and I was on cloud nine. One of the best memories of the honeymoon was a snorkeling tour we took off the coast of Maui. I was mesmerized with all the sea life that I saw. I rented an underwater camera so I could take pictures of it all. I even saw a couple green sea turtles. When I told the tour guides they didn't believe me at first because apparently those turtles are almost extinct. I knew I had the pictures to prove it.

Last September my wife and I went to Florida for a week with her family. I had been to the ocean a couple more times since the honeymoon, but there was not much to see in the water. I was excited to see that the water was very clear and I bought a disposable underwater camera as well as a pair of goggles. I spent hours taking pictures of fish, crabs, stingray etc. and got myself a pretty bad sunburn. One day we saw a fishing boat circling a ball-shaped buoy that was some ways out. It circled for 20 minutes or so and I wondered what they were looking at. Traps maybe? More photo opportunities? My wife wondered the same thing and asked if I thought I could swim out there. I played football and ran track in high school and feel that my judgment of distance relative to yards/meters is pretty accurate. It looked like about 80-100 meters of shallow water and another 80-100 of deep water. I reminded her that I had swam 500 meters and then biked and ran during a triathlon I did in 2002. I failed to consider the fact that I am 50 pounds heavier now than I was then (will post about that some other time). My answer to her was, "Yeah, I'm sure I could probably do it." I really wanted to know what was under that buoy. As the saying goes, "Curiosity killed the cat." Curiosity, and stupidity, almost killed me.

A couple days had passed since the conversation about the buoy and I had pretty much captured everything on film that I had seen to that point. I kept looking at that buoy. It was about 4 in the afternoon and we would be heading inside soon to get cleaned up and go to dinner. I asked my brother-in-law if he wanted to swim out there with me and he agreed. We got out to where the deep water started and he said, "You're on your own from here, dude." I should have stopped as well. I started swimming out there and realized right away that there is a big difference between swimming laps in a pool and swimming against incoming waves. What maybe was only a couple hundred meters was actually much more. It's like walking the wrong way on one of those people-mover belts at the airport (which I have been known to do just because it is fun).

About halfway to the buoy I felt myself getting tired. I considered turning around, but then I thought, "The buoy floats, so even if I am tired I can hold onto the buoy when I get there and rest." So I kept going. I then began getting very tired...tired enough that I knew I had to get to the buoy because I may not make it back if I turned around.

There is a weightlifting technique, "lifting to failure", where the subject does repetitions until he or she can lift no more. Then the weight is reduced and they again lift to failure, and so on. They end up with just the bar - no weights - and it's the hardest thing to lift because there is just nothing left in the muscles. It is a good workout technique, but a very bad thing to have happen when one is swimming. By the time I got to the buoy 3 or 4 minutes later my arms felt like they were full of cold molasses. To my utter dismay, when I tried to grab on to the buoy, I couldn't stay on. It was slimy and moved around a bunch, and each wave that hit me knocked me off. I realized very quickly that I was not going to make it. I looked back at the shore and nobody was in earshot, and even if they were, they would not make it to me in time. I tried to grab the buoy again and was knocked off another time...and another. I felt panic set in and colors, smells, and sounds all intensified as I felt death surround me. I was so out of breath that the only prayer I could muster was a breathy "Father!!!" It was guttural and desperate. I tried once more to grab onto the buoy and this time I was able to wrap my legs around the cable and bear hug the buoy itself. Several seconds later I realized the waves were not as big. For a brief moment I was able to work on catching my breath, but then I looked toward shore again. It was a LONG WAY back. I had nothing left in me. Panic set in again and I started pushing down instinctively with one hand and then fell off again and frantically pushed down with both. In retrospect I realize how dangerous it is to try to save someone who is drowning because they are in a panic-zone and will push down whatever they can (including the person trying to save them) in order to keep themselves up. I recognized that it was panic and repeated to myself out loud, "Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic." I grabbed the buoy again and worked on catching my breath. My arms and chest were beginning to cramp up and "charlie-horse" to the point where just holding on was painful. I knew I was inevitably going to die, but at least I had a little time to think and prepare.

As I clung to life I went through several intense waves of emotion. First and foremost I was overwhelmed with a sense of shame and embarrassment because I knew I had lived nowhere near my full potential in God. I knew in my heart that I'd go to heaven, but I was ashamed for letting my passion for Jesus fizzle into just a "going through the motions" kind of thing. I felt like I would be greeted by Jesus with something somewhere between "Well done good and faithful servant" and "Depart from me for I never knew you." Maybe something like "Mark who? Hmmm. Sounds vaguely familiar. Let's talk." I felt an incredible sense of anger at myself for not using the common sense that God gave me. It saddened and embarrassed me to think that I would be remembered as the one who died as a result of doing something idiotic and dumb. I thought about my wife and grief poured over me because I knew I would not be able to hug her and help her through the pain. I looked at the camera attached to the rubber band that was around my wrist. I actually thought about pointing it at myself and taking a "goodbye" picture in hopes that someone would find it and find my wife. I didn't know if that would make things worse or better. I chose not to. I just could not believe that this was the way I was going to go. 35 years old...just barely getting started in our revitalized marriage...not a dad yet...95% of the songs I have written have never been recorded...I have done nothing...nothing to show for my life...NOTHING.

It had been about 10 minutes since I first got to the buoy. Panic had hit me four times and each time I had spoken it away. I had pretty much caught my breath, but my muscles were so cramped it was like I was frozen in the clinging position. I knew I was just delaying the inevitable, and so I figured I'd at least die fighting. I knew I had to take off and try to make it back. I released the buoy, put the camera in my pocket, and took off. I was only able to swim about 20 seconds and then had to float on my back and kick because my arms just wouldn't work anymore. I did that for a little while and then my legs started giving out. I looked up at the sky, realizing I'd probably be floating up there in a couple of minutes. I decided to give it one last effort with normal swimming, knowing that if my feet could not touch bottom when I could move no more, that would be it. I gulped a deep breath, turned over, and just swam for my life. I swam for my wife. I swam for the future children that God wants me to have. I swam for whoever the people are who God wants me to touch in my lifetime. I swam until my arms and legs had nothing left and tried to touch bottom. The feeling of the sand in my toe tips was the most beautiful thing. It meant life. It meant hope. It meant another chance to be all God wants me to be.

It took me a while to walk in because I could barely stand up. I acted like I was looking for fish to take pictures of because I did not want my mother-in-law to know I had been in trouble. When I finally made it out of the water I looked down and saw that I was bleeding. There were barnacles on the buoy that had cut my chest and the cable had cut my leg. I realized that I had been out in deep water bleeding for 10 minutes and God had kept the sharks away. Each breath that I took was so sweet. I was so weak I could not raise my arms above my shoulders until a few minutes into dinner. I think I successfully hid the fact that my knees were wobbly and my hands were shaking. The whole trip back I had to fight back tears of joy simply because I am so grateful for another chance to reach God's best for me and shun a life of compromise.

I have never been where I am with God now. I have had passion and zeal before, but it was based more on preparation for whatever ministry I thought I was headed for and not as much out of sheer love for Jesus. Since the middle of September I have gotten up early every morning to spend time with my precious Lord. Personal time. Not something done out of a need to prepare but based on the desire to love on and learn more about my faithful God. When I do make it to heaven I believe I'll have the chance to watch a replay of exactly what happened out there. I am convinced I'll see angels hard at work. The most important thing I learned from my experience in the ocean was that I am nothing without Jesus. Whatever feeling of being invincible - whatever confidence I had in myself and my own ability - is gone. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. I have been trying so long to accomplish things by my own might and power (which amounts to a hill of beans). I cannot describe what it is like to release everything to God and let Him work through me rather than me messing things up with my own human efforts. This is where my blog title came from. I have released my life to God and He is invading every area of it and working amazing things. I never told my in-laws about what happened because I didn't want them to know I did such a stupid thing. I didn't tell my friends either because I felt I'd come across as implying "You should appreciate me because I almost died." Some people are like that, but I'm not one of them. I thought I'd share it here as a reminder for myself and in hopes that it puts things in perspective for you if the cares and activities of this world have been distracting. Life is such a precious gift. Cherish it.


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