It wasn’t like I was a stranger to drowning and to bodies being swept away, under dark waters. Jay was nine when he and his brother and one of their friends set out on a rubber raft on the Little Lehigh River after a flash flood one warm, summer day. The river was shallow and narrow and it wasn’t unusual after the fast hard rains in late spring and early summer in eastern Pennsylvania for it to, within minutes, turn from a placid, meandering stream where we used to turn over rocks looking for crayfish and dipping our feet to escape the humid summer heat to a raging river that flooded the neighboring streets and detoured traffic. Years later, long after I had children of my own, my mother, in a hurry as usual, tried to race her car through that very same street after a flash flood, got stuck and depended on the kindness of a neighbor and then the Lower Macungie Fire department to save her (they couldn’t save the car, alas) from the flood waters. At the funeral, Jay’s mom, tear-stained, confused and drained approached me and handed me a shoe box. I was too stunned and confused to interpret what she said to me as she stooped down and placed the box in my unwelcoming hands. When I got in the car after the services, I lifted the lid. It was full of Jay’s matchbox cars. I knew this because Jay and I had played with these cars many times in his bedroom. To this day, I can’t understand what that must have been like to gather up a son’s matchbox cars, strewn across the bedroom floor, underneath the bed, lodged in corners, underneath clothes and quietly, methodically place them in a shoe box (probably her son’s own shoes bought months earlier at the local department store) and them deliver them, at his funeral, to his best childhood friend. Was that an act of grace? Denial? Letting go? Desperation? I wonder if she ever regretted giving those to me. I know that Jay’s mom later on became a grandmother. Maybe she wished she would have saved them and given them to her own grandchildren? I don’t know that I ever played with them. The probably sat in the box, high on a shelf in my closet—just high enough that my nine-year old self couldn’t reach. But why would I want to play with them anyway? And by the same token, why would Jay’s mom want them around. They were only the reminders of loss. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, Jay, and I think about you. What would have become of you? What if I had been with you that day?
But I just didn’t think of any of that at the time that you and I walked to the beach that mid summer day no more than 15 years after Jay drowned. Earlier in the day, we, sat on the beach, reading, chatting, and then we looked up and saw the sky over the sea darken, the winds began to blow the sand and then the rain came, in big droplets at first and then hard, driving pellets that hurt our skin. We, and all the other hundreds of other people who had been walking, swimming, laying about on the beach, packed up our things and ran home. Safe inside, we watched the streets fill up with rain water and the rain drops bounce off the pavement. The storm didn’t last long and after the rain stopped and the wind subsided and the storm clouds carried on across the island and westward, we ventured outside where it was perfectly steamy and lush.
And while everyone else stayed inside, eating a late lunch, catching a few innings of the Phillies game or playing a board game, you and I headed back to the beach.
All I saw was the wide and empty beach in the late afternoon sun. The storm that had just passed over came in from the east, over the ocean, probably originating from the collision of two high pressure systems miles from the shore. And the gigantic rolling, pounding waves but just beyond them, placid, tranquil waters. It didn’t seem that far and we were both pretty strong swimmers.
We stood there in front of the 24th Street lifeguard stand. You stared straight ahead at the waves crashing on the shore and stripped to your pink underwear and bra without a second though. There was nothing else for me to do but follow you. We never asked, Is it safe? Should we do this? There are no lifeguards on duty. We just jumped right in. And off we went. Maybe if I would have finished The Odyssey in college, a cautionary tale about heading straight home and staying there, I would have thought twice about following your lead. But I did and as we stepped into the roiling surf, I reached for your hand. And in we went. The water was surprisingly warm and welcoming. We glanced at each other, ran toward the oncoming waves and plunged headlong into the first one that tried to knock us down.
Even to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been under the sway of natural forces like that. After we burst through that last wave and bobbed up and down—we couldn’t touch the ocean floor with our feet—everything stopped for just a moment. We both turned around to look back at the shore. We must have been 20 yards out to sea by that time. How beautiful it all looked and how small and insignificant we felt at that moment. There we were, in the middle of a terrible yet beautiful event. And we had no idea how much danger we put ourselves in. Years later, in a Romanticism course in college I would learn that it was the sublime that we were experiencing. Then, I just held your hand under the water as we both gazed at the black, powerful clouds that just dumped inches of rain on the island and caused the enormous waves we just broke through steadily march across the island, over the bay, on their way north to Philadelphia or west to Lancaster. Over our heads, though, it was just clear skies and sunlight.
And then it happened.
The tides from the storm that just passed over our heads picked us up and started carrying us, no, hurtling us down the coast, south toward Cape May. Naïve as we were, we felt this was just a free amusement park ride. We held on to each other, a little nervous at first but then you smiled and I laughed and we watched as we passed by one lifeguard stand after the next. Twenty-sixth street, then 28th, 30th, until we got to 36th street and decided it was time to get off the ride. We unclasped from each other, dove under the water, caught the first friendly wave which gently deposited us on the shore and then bade us farewell and returned to its origin.
Here’s how I think about this now. Had that storm come from the west, inland, the tides very well could have been moving in another direction, out to sea, and our little adventure would have ended in both of us drowning, miles of the New Jersey coast. Both of us would have been frozen in time on picture frames on mantels in our respective homes never to have finished college, danced in Europe, skied in Colorado, become parents or even seen another sunrise.
Sometimes when I wave goodbye to my children in the morning, I think of you and me and that summer day so many years ago when we were carried along by unknown currents. Other days, I think of Jay and his quick and lonely death in the Little Lehigh River. All three of us were swept up in currents more powerful than we will ever know. We made it, by chance. Jay didn’t, but his brother and friend did, also by chance. With beauty and danger sitting side by side, compelling us probably against our will, to enter, to give in to and to let it carry us wherever it would, either gently along the coast or tragically out to sea.
We got a free ride from nature that day and nature at least to this point has not come calling.
We never really know how close we are to death. Our moments of pure bliss walk that razor’s edge and we think it’s just a wide open prairie. That’s as it should be, I guess, otherwise, we’d never claim an empty and dangerous beach as our own, strip to our underwear, hold hands and hang on for dear life, carried by tides and currents with origins in warm waters of South America, hurtling north toward the British Isles and the ancient lives from which we’ve come, but think so little about.
I only ever think of things in the middle of the night. Woken by a bad dream or the Chinook winds swooping down the eastern face of the Rockies and smashing into our little house in Denver. And I have to turn away from it all. It’s much too much to consider. I have work tomorrow and the kids get up so early. Now is not the time to consider the death that I escaped and then by natural extension, the one that awaits me.