Two years ago, my son and I had a brush with death that significantly changed my perspective on the past, the present, and the future.
It was Thursday, August 16, 2012. My family and I were vacationing in Navarre Beach, Florida, a favorite destination and an annual end-of-summer “family tradition” that we have been blessed to enjoy for several years. The previous night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I sat up late and worked on the draft of a blog post. Three months earlier in mid-May, our special needs son, Coleman, and I took our first ever “Man Trip.” It was just the two of us on a father/son excursion to St. Louis. It was an incredible journey for us, but I had never gotten around to sharing the experience on my blog. I finished the rough draft that night, went to bed for several hours of deep, beach-fatigue sleep, and arose early Thursday morning to proofread, edit, and post it on my blog (see “Man Trip”). I ended the post with these words:
“Thanks, Coleman! I couldn’t be prouder of you or more grateful to have shared this “man trip.” I hope and pray that there will be many more to come.”
Those almost became the last words I ever wrote.
After posting the new blog entry, I took a load of chairs and umbrellas down to the beach, then returned to the condo for another cup of morning coffee. Coleman and my wife, Kim, were now awake. Our daughter, Hannah, decided to sleep in that morning. As always, I was anxious to get down to the water. As I was slathering myself and Coleman with sunscreen, Kim stated that she needed to go to Walmart to pick up a few things. I remember that we argued. About what, I cannot recall. I’m sure it was something trivial and ultimately inconsequential, the very kind of thing about which husbands and wives often find themselves arguing. But, I do remember that we were both angry when we parted company.
Coleman and I went to down to the water, walking quite a distance down the beach to where I had set up our camp for the day. The sky was very overcast and gray, the surf was quite rough, and hardly anyone had ventured out onto the beach because of the threatening looking weather. As we sat there in the chairs, a new beach friend, John from Houston, stopped by to chat for a minute. He had his fishing gear with him and said that he was heading out to the sandbar which lay about 100 yards offshore, beyond the channel that normally was only about chest-deep. Even though the water rather choppy, I figured that we could follow John and turn back if it proved unsafe for Coleman.
Coleman doesn’t know how to swim. However, Coleman doesn’t know that he doesn’t know how to swim, and he has absolutely no fear of the water. Countless times before, we had simply carried Coleman through the deepest part of the channel, suspending him under his arms, until we reached the waist-deep waters on the sandbar. As we followed John that morning, the waves began washing over my shoulders. I found myself questioning the wisdom of carrying Coleman through such deep, rough water, and experienced a couple of anxious moments before we safely reached the shallower depths of the sandbar.
We stayed out on the sandbar for about 30 minutes. I talked with John as he repeatedly cast his line out into the Gulf, keeping an ever-watchful eye on Coleman as he played in the shallow water, jumping and flapping his arms each time a wave rolled in. There is always another wave! John talked about how Coleman exuded such joy, what a special young man he was, and how he loved to see our family playing together on the beach. I told him about our trip to St. Louis and the blog entry that I had posted earlier that morning.
I prolonged our time on the sandbar in hopes that the tide would go out a bit. I expressed my concerns about the water depth to John, and he suggested that we wade along the sandbar about 50 yards where he thought the channel might be shallower. I took his advice and headed back in toward the shore with Coleman.
Much sooner than expected, we were back in water that was up to my shoulders. I had a firm grip on Coleman underneath his armpits, but I was having to push off from the bottom to keep our heads above the passing waves. A big wave pushed us forward, and suddenly we were in water significantly over my head.
We had never been in this situation before. I was struggling hard to keep Coleman above the water, catching a breath whenever I could. It is amazing how quickly I fatigued trying to keep him afloat. Within a very short period of time, I was physically spent and simply couldn’t struggle any longer. I slowly exhaled, waiting for another opportunity to catch a breath, but it didn’t come. After fighting it as long as I could, I instinctively inhaled, aspirating nothing but sea water.
At that moment, I realized I was drowning. I didn’t feel panicked. Coleman was still in my grip. I just felt suspended underneath the surface of the water. It was completely silent. Small breaks in the clouds were allowing a few bright shafts of sunlight to pierce through the water. I felt surprisingly peaceful as I processed and accepted the thought, “So, this is how I’m going to die.”
The thought of death didn’t frighten me. I knew that Jesus had saved me and that He had a place prepared for me in the presence of God. Coleman had always had a reserved spot at the heavenly banquet table. It was okay!
But, then, I started to think about what this would mean for my family: the horror of the discovery of our death, the shock, the emotional trauma.
It’s incredible how time seemed to completely come to standstill. I ran through entire scenarios in my mind. My death would mean that Kim would be left to care for Coleman by herself. But, no, he was going with me. So, it would be better this way, right? I wasn’t sure, and, just that quickly, I didn’t feel as much at peace. I wondered if Hannah had awakened and was witnessing this from the 7th floor balcony or from the beach. That was particularly gut-wrenching. Was Kim with her? I had taken off my wedding band and another ring Kim had given me and had left them on the kitchen counter in the condo to avoid the risk of losing them on the beach. Would she think it was because we had argued?
Even with as much confidence as I had that Coleman and I were going on to be with the Lord, I began to think of the mess of difficulties and the tangle of loose ends that I would leave behind. Would Kim have to sell the house? Would she have to move? Would Hannah be emotionally able to begin her nursing clinicals in just a couple of weeks? I thought about my extended family members. I thought about dear friends that I wouldn’t see again, at least not on this shoreline of eternity. I thought about my church family. Never free from analytical thoughts about my ministry responsibilities, I honestly remember thinking that I wouldn’t be emailing in my bulletin article the next morning.
Then, out of nowhere, my feet were touching the sand. The water was still above my head, but my feet were on the bottom. I was still hanging on to Coleman. I have no idea where the burst of energy came from (adrenaline? angels? angels administering adrenaline?), but I immediately started driving with my legs and my feet as hard as I could, like hitting a blocking sled in football practice. I just kept pushing. A wave washed over, and my head emerged above the surface. I began coughing up water and gasping for air. I stood there in chin-deep water for what seemed like 10 minutes or more before I could begin to breathe with some semblance of normalcy and stop coughing constantly. I slowly began trudging toward the beach, with a vice grip underneath Coleman’s armpits.
It was a few minutes before I could fully assess Coleman’s condition. He had remained still and completely calm through the entire ordeal. Had he panicked or begun to struggle, neither of us would have made it, because I would not have let go of him! He was coughing, but fine. My baseball cap was long since gone. Coleman’s was remarkably still on, and the very top of the crown was dry; miraculously dry. Somehow, his head never completely submerged. We slogged our way back onto the beach and collapsed in the chairs. John never saw what happened. He had just kept fishing, his back turned to us, assuming that we were fine.
Hannah came down to our beach camp about 30 minutes later. I was seriously shaken and had to tell someone what had happened. I made her promise not to tell Kim, knowing that it would result in an immediate forced removal from the beach and a lifetime ban from ever taking Coleman within two states of open water. We would be banished from Florida forever!
I was in daze for much of the rest of the day. Kim asked me several times as she caught me staring blankly into the distance, “What is wrong with you?” I could barely sleep for the next couple of nights. Every time I closed my eyes, Coleman and I were back in the water. I cried. Not that I feared death. I just cried.
As one’s children are prone to do, especially adult ones, Hannah eventually told Kim what had happened a few months later. Sometime after that, Kim told me that she knew.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. I promised myself (and Hannah and Kim later) that I would never take another chance or risk with Coleman in the water. No trips to the sandbar with him if the water was more than chest deep on the rest of us. Yes, we’ve been back out on the sandbar with him since then, but only when the conditions have been safe.
The only lingering ill effect was that I quickly developed an asthma-like wheeze and cough, which worsened each night after lying in bed for a few hours. It continued to grow worse after we returned home. It became more difficult to sleep and harder for my breathing to clear in the mornings. Online reading about the aftermath of near-drowning incidents caused me to take it seriously enough to visit my doctor. A chest x-ray confirmed that I had pneumonia as a result of aspirating so much water. A round of potent antibiotics cleared it up, with no recurring problems.
Never leave mad. Whether you’re just leaving for work for the day or going on a business trip, don’t leave the house or part company with your loved ones when in a state of anger. Don’t risk that being the memory of your last moments together. Stay long enough to calm your voice, temper your tone, and affirm your love for one another, even if you are still in disagreement. The same thing goes for your church family. Don’t leave an assembly angry at someone. Granted, none of us would ever leave our places of worship if agreement with everyone were a prerequisite for departure, but make sure they know that your love for them trumps whatever your little snit was about.
Regularly tell people how you feel about them. You never know when your last opportunity will be. I didn’t expect that to happen on August 16 two years ago. No one ever does. I have since gone to great lengths to regularly communicate in as many ways as I can to family members, friends, and other loved ones how much they mean to me.
Don’t be held in bondage by the past. I experienced some extreme difficulties in 2008 in my physical and emotional health, my family, and my ministry. Although I have remained grateful for the blessings of the present in the years that have followed, I continued to be burdened and haunted by unanswered questions and unresolved issues. To a large degree, I was still looking over my shoulder at the past with regret, confusion, and disappointment, and it hampered my ability to fully live and invest in the present. God cured me of that on August 16, 2012. I made some vows to the Lord that day. These weren’t bargains made with God while Coleman and I were still in the water, but promises to God from the safety of the beach after I knew that our lives had been spared. By the power and strength of the Lord, I have been able to keep them.
“Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)