(I describe some injuries, some bloody stuff here. If that makes you squeamish, you may want to skip this one...)
I have witnessed firsthand, a few times now, how dangerous the ocean can be. A few months ago, we took a group of guys from Tennessee to a beautiful spot on the Atlantic Ocean. There are some massive rocks there, jagged, formed by lava a long, long time ago. You have to watch your step, otherwise you could tumble and gash yourself real nasty-like. We like to go up there and watch the waves crash up against them, spraying up thirty, forty, fifty feet into the air. You can stand up high above them, at a safe distance, and watch the deep blue water churn and toss and crash. It gives me, as a Midwesterner, a great deal of respect for the ocean and how awful and deadly it can be.
Some of the guys wanted to get close and let the waves crash over them, like an amusement at a waterpark. But soon, the last of a barrage of three big ones crashed and surged, flooding down over the rocks, a fleeting, shallow river, just a foot of water, knocking most of them over. Some of them fell to their knees, one of them lost his footing and rolled down, his body tumbled over the jagged rocks. They cut him like glass and knives would.
It could have been so much worse. Luckily, these were tough guys and they mostly laughed off their scrapes, cuts, gashes like they were merit badges. We sat in the Walgreens parking lot and bandaged their wounds, horrifying the passers by.
Monday, we took a day trip to Isabela, to a beach called Montones. It's a beautiful spot, with the same kind of lava rocks, and a tidal pool where you can snorkel and see colorful fish and crabs, and only a few sea urchins (which I detest). It's a good place for kids.
The lava rocks are ringed by a flat walkway, where the water has collected into pools and flattened out over the centuries. It's like a boardwalk. In one spot, there's a gap where the water surges underneath and splashes upward like a blowhole. I went for a hike around it with John Cox, his foster daughter Lourdes, and Becky, an old friend and our intern for the summer.
As we walked, I watched the waves come up, small ones, gentle ones, rolling by, topping out just below our walkway. It seemed mostly harmless, but all along the way we walked through puddles of water. Soon, one wave rolled gently, barely above the surface, washed over our feet. It was pleasant. But as we went further out, the water really surged. It would rise to our level, then drop ten feet, then rise up again. If I were the type to get seasick, it would have made me nauseous. This was dangerous water - strong, steady, irresistible. It was not for swimming... to end up in the drink, as they say, would very likely kill someone.
Soon, the walkway ended and there was just a jagged cliff of rock down into the ocean in front of us and a steep hill up beside us. "I guess we go up and around," I said, and took a few steps up the hill while John, Lourdes, and Becky lingered on the flat spot.
It's weird when you have a near-death experience. I suppose some of them are immediately obvious, while others, the less serious ones, take a minute to sink in.
I stood there and looked down as one big wave rolled up from the ocean. It was slow and steady as it breached the edge of the rocks, and John, Lourdes, and Becky were suddenly standing in a swift current of water just a foot or two deep. With nothing to grab onto, they quickly lost their feet, and the water carried them determinedly away from me, back toward the edge. The ocean might just as well have had hands to grab them by the ankles. John immediately grabbed Lourdes by the waste, and the two of them struggled against the water, trying to sink their fingers into something to hold onto. Becky fell too, and I winced as I thought about what I've seen those lava rocks do.
All I remember is feeling numb, not so much scared, standing there watching these people very nearly get swept into what could have been their death. I think I saw it coming, I think I said, "watch out, watch out, watch out!"
John and Lourdes stopped just about a foot from the edge. Becky wasn't carried so far, but she got a fair number of scrapes, and I saw her sandals almost immediately 50 yards out to sea. They regained their feet and came up to the edge to inspect their wounds.
Down Becky's legs, a few trickles of blood had already started flowing. Lourdes joined me up on the rocks, remarkably free of any scratches. John had some minor ones on his legs. He's an older guy in his upper 60s, but he's active enough that you probably wouldn't guess it. Becky was missing her flip-flops, so John agreed to hand his off to her and make the trek back barefoot.
And then, as they continued to stand on the flat surface, another wave came up over where they were standing. This one knocked John over again, and Becky quickly fell too. I was close enough now that it knocked me off my feet, but I didn't go anywhere. I grabbed Becky's hand and held on as the water pulled at her. John didn't get nearly as close to the edge this time, but the tumble was enough to add some significant scrapes. As the water receded, they got to their feet and joined me a few feet up the hill.
Whereas Becky had kept her composure through the scrapes before, she was now wincing in serious pain and had a nasty gash on her knee. Julio later described it as "an open mouth," and I could see in just the briefest glance that it had cut through all of the skin, both sides open and thick like lips. She and John immediately scaled a few rocks and sat down at a safe height as blood from their fresh wounds trickled down their legs the rocks, a little red stream pooling up at the bottom. He took off his t-shirt and tied it around her knee. She didn't need to see it.
Soon, Lourdes was running for help, and I was left standing there, waiting for someone to come to help me help Becky, with my thoughts about all of it catching up to me.
I got to wondering how many different ways this scenario could have unfolded. Had any of us been standing near the edge, instead of where we were, it could have been so much worse. We could have been quickly tossed into the soup. I emerged from all of this with just a few scrapes, nothing more than what walking past a thornbush might do to me. John and Becky had to go to the Emergency Room for stitches, and a tetanus shot, and IV drips for some reason.
Skin is a remarkable thing to me. A few months ago, I had a nasty rash on my arm that came from something I touched in the jungle, I think. And you would have sworn by looking at it that my arm was disintegrating from the inside out. Jokes were made about leprosy, and someone else seriously thought I might have mange. Freaking mange. But this whole crazy battle on my skin was taking place on the outermost layer, the epidermis (that of "your epidermis is showing" fame). Everything underneath was unscathed. It took a while, but it faded into oblivion, and you'd never know by looking at it today that people were making leprosy jokes. And now Becky and John - with 26 stitches between them - have disgusting looking wounds that will simply heal themselves with the help of a little bit of string. It amazes me that our skin fixes itself, without thought, without medicine. Truly, we are well-equipped.
A lot of the time, when we deal with wounds, or blemishes, or lapses in judgment, or anything that involves a mistake, really, we feel a sort of regret that leaves us wondering what we might have done to avoid this situation. Could have stayed on the beach... could have stayed home... could have done anything differently and maybe saved ourselves a whole lot of pain... inconvenience... discomfort... embarrassment.
How could I have avoided this?
But there is another side to that thinking, the side that focuses on the grace, on what the hand of God hath stayed. Becky and John have cuts, but they weren't swept out to sea. We can wonder endlessly about where and when He's been good without our noticing, where He's intervened on our behalf to spare us, to preserve us, to bless us.
Just what did I avoid?
Maybe I'd rather not know.
p.s.: Here is a Simpsons clip that seamlessly integrates all of the elements of this blog: The water, the injury, the epidermis joke, it's got it all: