I watched as the young boys ran towards the cool waters of the lake. The hot Texas sun was doing its best to encourage us to attempt to find relief from the blistering sun. It was working for everyone – everyone but me. As my friends ran on ahead, shoving and pushing to see who could get into the water first, I hesitated. I took my time removing my shoes and shirt. I nervously laughed as they finally reached the edge of the water, dove in and began to swim out into the blue comfort.
All of me wanted to be right there with them, racing to be at the front of the line but I knew I was a weak swimmer with a fear of water – they didn’t. My swimming was limited to backyard pools that allowed me to jump in, push-off the concrete bottom and sling myself towards the safety of the wall. I had that down. I could see where I was going and prepare my exit with 100% accuracy every time.
Staring out at the rippling water in front of me brought a sense of angst, uncertainty and fear. At the age of seven-teen there was no place for fear, especially in front of your peers. One of the boys slowed his wide strokes and turned back towards the bank where I still stood attempting to blame my procrastination on a stubborn knot in my already untied shoes.
“Come on Paul! Let’s go!” He called out, turning away before I could respond.
I walked up to the edge of the water – the edge of the unknown. I had no choice in this scenario, although I pretended that I did. I forced myself to jog out into the water. The coolness distracted me from my fear momentarily. After going out about 20 feet, I did my best to tip toe as far as I could before I would be enslaved to attempting my swimming technique.
My feet were pushing into the loose ground and I knew I had to do something – now. I was still more than 40 feet away from where the rest of the guys awaited me. I saw them up ahead of me when the water suddenly reached up and made its way into my mouth. I spit it out with more velocity than it deserved.
“Come on man!” the call came again from one of the guys bobbing in the water at the edge of barrier that attempted to keep anyone from swimming further out.
“Here we go.” I whispered.
I pushed off the ground as well as I could and began to swim towards the group. I began strong. My arms and legs worked together to propel me through the water with great ease. About 30 seconds into my swim, I gulped a large amount of water again. I attempted to spit it out but this time my body responded by contracting and allowing itself to be entrapped in fear.
My arms attempted to reach for something to grab onto but there was nothing I could get a grip on. I was still at least 20 feet away from where I needed to be. My legs kicked at a frantic pace as I began to feel myself sinking. My sides cramped and my heart sped up as I realized I was going to drown in this bottomless hole of water.
I continued to fight against my fear but as I did I only put myself in more danger. I sank hard and fast. My entire body was falling deeper and deeper as I desperately tried to find the ground. I kept sinking. There was no bottom. I felt something brush against my legs. More fear set in as it began strangling me and finalizing my short-lived life. This is how it would end. Lost in the unknown. Submerged in the grip of fear. Dying alone. So close to someone being able to reach out and help me. So close to finding something to grab a hold of.
What felt like an hour passed by. Suddenly something reached into the water and grabbed my arms. Within seconds, I was above the water again, gliding towards the barrier. Two of the boys had come back to me in my desperation and saved me. We made our way to the rope that bobbed above the surface. I leaned over on it coughing up the water that had just threatened to take me away.
Twenty years later and I am once again attempting to push-off and get to the place of safety that I see on the horizon. Others seem to have made it with such ease. They look back at me, telling me to hurry up and get there. I want to reach them but the unpredictability of what awaits me below the surface of this grief is greater than the desire to make it to where I need to be.
I feel like I am lost in the unknown. Submerged in the grip of fear. Dying alone. So close to someone being able to reach out and help me. So close to finding something to grab a hold of.
Will someone come back and help me? Will someone reach out into the grief that is suffocating me and pull me to safety? Where is the family? Where are the friends? Will anyone come back and reach out for me? Anyone?