Catalina Island

This is a prose piece I wrote six years ago about a brush with death. There is also a corresponding poem, written three years after the incident, which I posted a while back on my poetry blog.

It was father’s day 1994. We set out for a day of diving and carried our gear down the Catalina tiled streets to the dive park in Avalon Bay. My dad was my diving buddy that day. As soon as we entered the water, our personalities changed. No more talking. Period. We waved our hands around and flicked our finned feet as we smiled and made big eyes through our masks at schools of silver fish and pink, purple, and yellow coral beds. At 40 feet down, the big colorful fish became friendly and really, this was my favorite depth. But I was in the water that day for a deep dive to complete my open-water certification. We went down to the sandy bottom. No more plant life and bright colors but there were interesting treasures hiding in the sand as well. We fiddled around on the bottom, a current slowly and silently taking us down a slope to deeper depths. Soon we realized we were at 120 feet and heard boats overhead. Boats could not enter the dive park so we figured we weren’t in the dive park boundaries anymore. We made some primitive signs to each other and decided to begin our ascent.

As soon as we’d gone up a few feet, I knew something was wrong. I was breathing in bits of water—the awful salty substance that plagues the ocean—with each breath. I told myself to stay calm and that it was not so much water that it hindered my breathing. Dad and I were supposed to wait for five minutes every 15 feet but when we stopped at 100 feet, and needed to wait, I was overcome with more water coming in as I breathed. My mask began filling with water as well and after failed attempts at trying to clear it, I could no longer see my father. He could tell I was becoming panicky but there was no way of communicating. I could not see. He held my ankle as I panicked and tried to go up for air for another breath toward the light above where I knew there was air and what could he do except let go and hope and pray that I wouldn’t be hurt. He was caught in the realization of being my father at that moment I’m sure, and it pained him more than it pained me to let me go like that. His prayers were ascending faster than mine. I twisted for breath and went up, up, up and he probably thought, she could have breathed my air I have plenty and I would have but I couldn’t tell him what was wrong and I couldn’t tell him and he couldn’t tell me anything because I couldn’t see him but I knew he was only trying to save me by grabbing my ankle, and I just plain panicked. I went up, kicking, but I wasn’t going any faster than my bubbles that were full of prayers and urgent ones and my lungs were tightening with air as it expanded and my eyes were looking up because when I looked down the water in the mask got into my eyes and the light above became brighter and I couldn’t breathe where was the air my body needed and why was it taking so long and why did the surface look so close but it was taking so long and I needed air and I said, God, I can’t do anything now to save my own life, you have my life now, save it or take it now because it is no longer in my hands. And he saved it because I came to the surface and came into the air and broke through that mirror of light that was the top of the thick substance we call water which we cannot breath to stay alive.

Everything was so bright and I coughed and yanked off my mask. My diving vest was extra tight because the air inside it also had expanded as I ascended. My lungs exploded with air as I forced it out and pulled it in and coughed all the water that had come into my mouth and throat and burned inside my sinuses. A boat came over and helped me up. The men in it were middle-aged yuppies and they were kind and suntanned and the boat was bright and clean and everything was bright and clean and where at last, where was my father? We waited and he finally came up, and was looking for me. And he was safe and he saw me and I was safe and he was full of love and relief. I was okay that day. I only had a little ache in my chest from my expanding lungs, but I must’ve been letting air out of my lungs the whole way up. And after that day, I was fine. Death had seemed to be upon me in a form as clear as I had ever known. God is merciful.

That day, my father gave me a rock he’d found at the deepest part of our dive. It has an interesting shape from years and years of being swept along a bare, sandy bottom. It stands almost like a tiny, dark statue of some whimsical creature with long legs and neck. I still have it and keep its significance mostly to myself. In one of the darkest moments of my life, the dancing surface above me and the twirling bubbles and the sunlight as spotlight had all been so beautiful, a contrast that continues to stay with me.

Have you ever felt close to dying? If so, how has it changed you, your relationships, and how you see things?


I am a children's librarian. I have 2 kids. I have a professor for a husband. I obsess about writing and about making things.

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6 Responses

  1. EmilyCC says:

    Phew! This story made me feel like I was trying to swim to the surface!

    When I was 17, I got really sick and didn’t get better until I had a colectomy. Seeing my body fail like that gave me a glimpse of my mortality that has definitely affected the rest of my life, both personally (I have a slight phobia about dying, even though I worked with them every day) and professionally.

  2. Caroline says:

    I love the way your prose mirrors your panic.

    I also nearly drowned at one point. I was 12 and had followed my older cousin into the waves. Which were huge. I got sucked further out than I wanted to be and the waves kept crashing over me and holding me down. The lifeguard had to rescue me. Embarrassing! But once when I was under water for a long time, I could swear that my life actually flashed before my eyes.

  3. Caroline says:

    I just read your poem based on this experience. Loved it!

  4. Deborah says:

    I love your use of run-on sentences to communicate the feeling of desperation . . .

    I have a strong fear of drowning. I’ve never learned to swim because I panic when I enter a part of the pool where I cannot touch the bottom. It’s the closest I’ve come to understanding the term “survival instinct” — the desparate, primal fight to reach shallow water.

    I’ve had a few close calls — a boulder, a bolt of lightening, a train, and too many near accidents on the Jersey Turnpike to number — but none left me panicked, but rather . . . protected. As if this chaos isn’t my chaos, yet. I like to look into a future that seems miles long. I hope I get a chance at all the different seasons of life. If I don’t, I hope the Buddhists are onto something with reincarnation, because this earth seems too rich for an abbreviated stay.

  5. jana says:

    Oh Brooke, this is so beautiful! I am thrilled by the _way_ you wrote about this incident as well as the insight gained, too. Terribly lovely and thought-provoking.

    And Deborah, your line in the comments made me choke and sob. “This earth seems too rich for an abbreviated stay.” Oh yes, that’s how I feel every day.

    I feel so blessed to have friends who offer such insights, who apprach life with such purpose and grace.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Very nicely written. You deserve an A+.

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