Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Almost Lost

You may have heard Randy or me tell this story before. It's one of those family chestnuts that we recite by heart, filling in each other's usual gaps. Why bring it back today? Well, the website that published this account has gone away to www.heaven and when I was looking through old pictures yesterday to find something cute for Randy's birthday, I came across some shots that got snapped that awful, amazing day.


Baja California Sur, Mexico. 

I last talked at God fifteen years ago on the beach at Los Palmas. Randy was drowning in front of me, unreachable, the riptide pulling him beyond a promontory, out of my sight. Brent and Serena had run to climb the southern cliff to see if they could keep him in view. I stayed in the shallows, watching. I paced and wept, angry, fruitless tears, my shins struggling against the surf. 

"I'm not asking for anything!  I'm just talking here!" I shouted in my head. "I'm just talking!" Furious at my own weakness and panic.

One cubic foot of water moving at four miles an hour packs a sixty-six pound punch.

A few minutes earlier, a man from Todos Santos had approached the three of us as we stood in a tense cluster, watching Randy in the rolling waves and trying to decide if his splashes and movement could still be called swimming. Serena translated the man's words: he had a strange feeling that morning that pulled him to the beach. He stood with us and watched Randy being pulled out to sea. 

"Cinco muerte," the man said and pointed to the top of the cliff to the south. A small white cross stood against the sky. I had not noticed it before, or, like so many symbols in this foreign landscape we had been drifting through, I had given it little thought as significant to the lives of actual people.

The man told Serena he was going for help. He would need to hike though the palm oasis to reach his truck, then bump laboriously over two kilometers of twisted ruts, boulders scraping the low metal innards of his truck, before reaching the main road. Town would take five more kilometers after that. The man was a stranger to us and yet he would do this.

We could still see Randy in the water. I could pretend, I was tempted to pretend, there was no emergency. We could still see him in the water.

Then Randy raised his arm. And his other. Help. Brent and Serena ran to climb the cliff.

In recent months my flirtation with the idea that prayers are no more than thoughts had begun to calcify into my truth. But at this moment, I felt more sure of God's capriciousness than His absence. I bristled at the layers of His joke. Randy was a strong man, a strong swimmer, son of a preacher man, splashing around on the first day of vacation. The cruel parts of my past that had lain dormant this easy week suddenly loomed before me -- bad things have happened to my family on vacations.

A strong swimmer. Moment after we arrived at the beach, he had barreled straight out into the waves, alarming me as he passed me in the shallows. Yes, the water was seductive, with sparkles of suspended sand you could reach for but never capture. But the movement of the water felt strange and strong here in the bay. The surf rose from my knees to my shoulders in quick thrilling surges. When it lifted me off my feet, I gasped with a laugh. Randy had passed me like one of the 4x4 Jeeps that blare past the cautious drivers on the straight-aways of the shoulderless Highway 19 from Cabo.

I could no longer see Randy. The waves had carried him beyond the southern point of the rocks.

The agony was acute, yet ended suddenly. Serena scrambled back. "He's okay! He's on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff."

I scrambled, often on all fours, after her. The beach side of the cliff was a climbable slope if you didn't look down. We climbed over scratchy brambles, ankle-breaking piles of smooth and round rock, gull guano, the dried remains of tiny vermin bones and fish.

At the top of the cliff, the view and the buffeting wind took my breath. The sun poured on us, spilling down in a sparkling trail over the sea. We looked over the edge and I saw him. I saw him! Perched on a boulder no larger than a closet, surrounded by exploding surf. How did he get there? How would he get out? There would be no climbing here. The wall fell away below us. The surf was too loud and he was too far away to hear our screams of counsel or comfort. 

The white cross looked so much larger up here. Below it sat a coffee can painted blue and white, filled with desiccated flowers.

The angel from the village returned. Todos Santos has no police force, no ambulance, so he brought the only other help available: a truck full of soldiers, all dressed in faded green shirts and pants. Each man carried a rifle slung over his back.

The men hiked to the top of the cliff, took a look down, conferred. Serena talked to them. A couple of the soldiers climbed back down to the truck to retrieve a rope. Serena and Brent and I exchanged glances. Now that Randy had found safety, we were just along for the insane ride.  Our gringo mood turned giddy. Brent peeked over the cliff, mimicked aiming a gun at Randy, then recoiling from a shot. Randy mooned him back.

I dared to look down at my boyfriend little bit later.  Randy was sitting on the rock, bent over, his face down on his folded arms. I stepped away from the edge.  I felt like I had seen something I was not supposed to.

Later, Randy would tell us that he realized he had to get on the rocks but he knew riding on the brutal surf could crush him.  He said getting pissed was what saved him.  "I'm not going to be that guy!"  he said to himself. He dove down under the waves, reaching out for the rocks, found them.

The soldiers got right to work, lined up on the rope. There was no strategizing, no attempts to communicate with Randy. This is just what you do - throw the guy a rope. Randy told us later that when the rope came down, he didn't know what to do with it, just wrapped it around and around his waist and his legs and held on.

They hauled him up. I could barely see them working against the sun - all was silhouette. No one saw Randy's ascent. Brent, Serena and I were trying to stay back out of the way and the soldiers were all on the rope. The hardest part came when Randy dangled right at the edge; there was a painful pause getting him off the rope and into the men's arms.

Then he stood up at the top of the cliff, safe. When he saw me, he cried a little. I couldn't. I was too amazed, stunned in the brightness at the top of the cliff. I hugged him.

His hands were battered and bloody where they hit the rocks on the lip of the cliff. One of the soldiers poured alcohol on the cuts. Randy cursed, "Fuck!" at the pain.

I did not say thank you to the sky. The sky does not touch our lives. It remains miles above, blue and implacable. What I did do: with both of my hands, I shook the hands of some of the Mexican soldiers and the hand of the angel of Todos Santos, all of a sudden feeling improperly dressed and self-conscious in my swimsuit.

Randy, Brent, Serena and I went back to Los Palmas the next day. Randy did not swim. We renamed the beach "Lost Palmer" and celebrated. We were elated, a horror turned into adventure, a beloved almost lost, then found.


Rachel Creager Ireland said...

Amazing story. I always feel I should thank you for your stories, for your willingness to share your vulnerability.
Also nice to see Brent and Serena, my old neighbors.

Will Meyers said...

Cindy, I hadn't seen the pictures from the incident at Lost Palmer before. It doesn't seem so long ago, until you see Randy's baby face. You of course look the same. Thanks for sharing, Happy Birthday to Randy!