Editor’s Note: While I was vacationing in California over the September 14th weekend, I had a surfing accident. The incident changed my life, possibly forever. As part of this, I decided to write about the accident, the events preceding and following the accident and what I have to do to completely heal again. I sat down and began to write… and write… and write… the words came nearly as fast as the tears. This is a very personal project for me, but, like just about everything I do, I decided to post it to the Internet as more of a healing step. It’s over 5,000 words and very personal. I will post it in segments over a couple of days. Feel free to comment or just move on about your day. The point is that it’s something that changed my life, and I’d like to share it with you.
Here now… my Moment of Silence… Part 4.
PART IV – Luck
It was the winter of 2006 when my cousin had his car accident. He laid motionless in the ice and cold for hours after being ejected from his car before a car drove by and noticed him laying near the road. What followed was the worst of worst case scenarios. Life flight. Ventilators. Wheelchairs. A life forever with quadriplegia.
This section is about luck – both dumb, bad and good.
My accident was just that, a true accident. It was due to a combination of location, lack of awareness and just dumb luck.
Huntington Beach is a prime location for well-conditioned surfers. We saw many of them that morning as we walked the pier. It is also, however, a keen place for danger because of the confusing surf breaks that are present there. The best place to surf a break is the farthest break out, where the waves are the highest and the most “pure.” That is, the energy is traveling in one direction, towards the shore. In Huntington, there are two and sometimes three breaks because of the way the shore blocks that energy. The second break is the one I had been body surfing on for 90 minutes previous. It was my first time body surfing and I was very nervous about it. I talked with my buddies about it, but we took baby steps and before you know it, I was having the time of my life. It was so powerful and yet, so silly to have water push you forward, but I can certainly understand the appeal. It was just what I was needing that weekend, to be free. To fly.
Luck is defined as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity,” and it is that force, that energy that I had been playing with for an hour and a half. But I was doing it on the second break. And, if I do say so myself, I was doing pretty well.
We lost track of Phil. God damn Phil. Captain America. Had to go out to the furthest breakers and took the “rip tide” further down the beach. So the three of us left the water to go check on him. We eventually found him, apparently after he didn’t find a mountain to climb or a baby to save, and we all huddled back up to take stock of the surfing so far and catch our breath.
Wheezy laid his surfboard down on the beach and sat down on it. Next to him, sat Phil. Brett flanked them on his boogie board to their left and I sat down on my board flanked to their right. It was a postcard moment as the sun had just started to go down in the West, past the horizon.
For a number of minutes, we didn’t say anything and just looked out upon the majesty of where we were. Of what we were seeing. We had felt that power, that energy and we had, for just a few minutes, been able to ride that force. Our conversation then reopened and we talked boastfully about the waves we had “shredded” and the ones we didn’t catch.
It was a conversation between four life long friends whose lives were about to be changed.
It was clear that we weren’t done surfing yet. We had to go back out there and shred more.
I never really got surfing before. I get surfing now. You are riding the wind. You are pushing your luck.
The four of us all got up and I headed into the water first, followed by my guys. The guy who had to be convinced to surf was now leading the guys back into the water.
I had gotten about 15 feet into the ocean when I noticed that the place we entered the beach was different. We later labeled it “angrier.” The waves were a little bit higher and as I hit about the 20 foot mark, I saw a whitecap just starting to form. This matched the same parameters of whitecaps I caught earlier in the day, the only difference was that I was closer to shore. I was still standing with the water up to my chest. I was standing on “the inside.” Which is what accomplished surfers call the place too shallow to surf. (A fun, timely fact I learned from the ambulance driver as he was speeding me to an emergency room.)
Plus, the afternoon sun adds to the explosiveness of wave energy.
I turned to catch the wave and surf the short 20 feet back to shore. I turned to my right and jumped.
Everything was different. Everything was wrong.
Instead of being pushed at the back of my butt and back horizontally, I felt a very powerful energy underneath my feet pushing up, vertically. Instead of setting up at an inclined angle, I had somehow gotten into a declined angle, like I was teetering head-first down a playground slide. Pointing down. Pointing the wrong way. Straight down.
It is at this moment that things slowed way down. I can tell you microsecond by microsecond what happened next. Not because the energy was any slower, if anything it was faster. I can tell you it was the most real moment of my life.
Pitched downward, the energy did not dissipate, rather it pushed me down the 5 feet; down the playground slide into the Ocean floor. I plowed my face into the ground with a thud and I had that moment of silence I referred to above. Only that moment was followed by even more force, even more power. Then pressure. Then pain. That power continued to drive my face into the ground. I felt my skin start to split open and the wet grains of sand touching me. The power continued bending me backwards as my feet continued to go forward as my face stayed buried in the sand. I’d imagine I looked like a spandex-wearing seal bent backward into a really poorly shaped “C” as the energy continued to push my body, blocked only by my face in the sand.
I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t breathe. I was underwater. I’m pretty sure I was face down. All of these specific thoughts popped into my brain in nanoseconds.
Then I thought about Ronnie.
I knew I had a serious problem. I couldn’t move my feet. I couldn’t move my hands. I was still underwater.
I had met Luck. A force that brings good fortune or adversity. And I had met it, quite literally, head on.
The thing about luck, though, is that it only encapsulates an event. Something with a beginning and an end. This event only lasted a moment, but that meant another moment had to come next.
The next moments were kinder, the energy wave passed by me, the boogie board which was providing much of the resistance finally flew away from my body and I somehow (and I honestly don’t know how) flipped face up in the water.
I took a quick inventory of what was working. Hands? No. Feet? No. But my neck was working and I was close enough to the surface to lift my head out of the water. At that point, luck started to run my way because my friends that I had sat so close to on the beach just moments before were still very close to me. Five minutes later and they would’ve been 50 feet away and I would’ve easily drowned.
I turned my head to the left and found Wheezy’s eyes. The first “help” didn’t come out, but I kept his gaze. The second “help” wasn’t much louder because I still wasn’t breathing, but it was audible. Brett walked the 3 feet over to me and yelled, “he’s bleeding.”
“I can’t move anything. I can’t move anything. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Let’s get him out of the water.”
The fortune of nearly killing myself “on the inside” also meant they only had about 10 feet to drag me to shore.
“Be careful, I’m pretty sure I hurt my neck real bad.”
Fortune took away and also gave that day. I was terribly unprepared and undertrained for what I was doing. But had those guys been 5 minutes further away, I easily could’ve drown. Had Phil not almost gotten lost, we might’ve just left after our first tussle with the sea. Had the power of the wave been just a little bit stronger, my neck could’ve easily snapped.
Luck. An alternate definition is “favoring chance.”