I grew up in Northport, New York, on the edge of the Long Island Sound. As my family tells it, I learned to swim before I could walk. By the time I was 5, I was on a swimming team, and pretty shortly I was learning to sail, too. When my brothers and I went to the south shore of the island, where enormous waves pounded into shore, we were fearless. We couldn’t get enough. As a teenager, I worked as a lifeguard, and by the time I was married, my affinity for the ocean was so deeply rooted that when my husband and I bought a house in northeastern Connecticut to be near his job, I couldn’t stand it: two years and one day later, we moved back to be near the water again.
Many years ago, on a Labor Day weekend, when most of the lifeguards had left for school, a friend and I went to the beach and swam out to a sandbar about 500 yards from shore. On the way back in, we were caught in a fierce riptide. As we swam parallel to the shore, waiting to be released by the rip, my friend began to tire. I knew what to do: I told her to lie on her back and rest for a few moments, and then we swam in. Once onshore, we saw another woman caught in the rip, in real trouble. I dove back in the water, warning her not to grab on to me, or we’d both go down. I circled around behind her, placed her in a loose cross-chest carry, and helped lead her in.
So I thought I knew what to expect from that beach when I returned the next day, on my own. I swam out to the sandbar, but by the time I was above it, I wasn’t able to touch bottom—it was a day later, and the tide wasn’t far enough out to expose the sandbar. I was heading back toward land when I was caught in the rip again. Instead of swimming parallel to shore, as I had known to do since I was a child, I was gripped with fear. I pushed straight toward the beach, exhausting myself with the effort and overwhelmed with panic. The people onshore appeared to be three inches tall, as if they were receding further and further away.
In those instants of panic, my life literally flashed in front of me. I saw myself as a baby getting a bath in the kitchen sink. I could see my brothers playing baseball in the yard, and I could smell the scent of summer. And then, I had a vision: it was the cover of the East Hampton Star, with a headline announcing: “Local Teacher Drowns,” followed by another line: “And she was such a good swimmer.” I thought, “I’m not doing this. This is not happening this way—that’s not going to be the headline.”
I don’t know what happened next. I don’t know if the rip let up, or if I let go of my panic, but something happened and I was able to make my way in.
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