Today’s Tuesday Tale is kind of a long one and is excerpted in pieces from an even longer essay I wrote some time back but never finished. I decided it was appropriate to put it out into the world today, as last week I re-visited the “scene of the crime” at the Olivine Pools in Maui, Hawaii, with the parties who experienced it with me 6 years ago. They all seemed to imagine, or at least wonder if, I might be flooded with some kind of fear or be overwhelmed reliving the experience. I wasn’t. Erik was cross with me for venturing so close to the water’s edge where a couple waves washed up onto my feet. He held on to me and wouldn’t let go until we had walked back a safe distance. He's the one who coined the term, "The Olivine Death Pools." The incident 6 years ago still receives a lot of attention from curious, and usually rapt, listeners when it occasionally comes up in conversation. I could be more brief and relay only those details of what actually physically happened in this tale, but to me the story is far deeper than that, and if I’m going to bother telling it to you, I might as well tell you the whole thing. I’ll try as succinctly as I can .....
I had been standing out on a little peninsula, or shelf, of lava rock that jutted out into the ocean. Waves crashed against the rocks with magnificent sprays and the water below was a beautiful blue-green foamy froth of motion. (When I told my mom about what happened, she said, “You’re just like your father, always standing out on the farthest point, the highest rock, making everyone else nervous. Just like your father.”) I wasn’t on the tip of the peninsula, but about as far out as you could go before it became too narrow to have any middle ground safe from the crashing waves.
I’d been watching, hypnotized, as the waves came in on either side of me and pounded against the hard lava rock; often I was soaked by the resulting spray. But the spray seemed harmless enough, merely wet. I had come in my swimsuit with my husband and father-in-law to swim in the clear pools of water that had formed in the rock over the millennia, constantly replenished by the ocean spray. We had all spent some time before heading down the peninsula itself standing at the back of it mesmerized by the cauldron of water that violently heaved and frothed below us in a little cove where the left side of the peninsula curved into the mainland, where waves were trapped by the curvature as they crashed against the rocks. I thought to myself, and was later told that Erik and Greg said out loud between them, that it sure would suck to be down in there.
I’d seen the wave come in and the spray shoot up in a towering white curtain. I braced myself slightly, expecting to get drenched. A few drops of water hit me and then I was surprised to find myself lying on the razor sharp topography of the lava rock, having been instantaneously knocked flat to the ground. My mental reaction was not fear but sheer awe at the unexpected, raw power of the water.
I tried to find some air to breathe as salty water filled my mouth and nose and slipped down my throat. I tried to stop myself from rolling down the rocks, tried to grab onto something for leverage, but I was completely submerged in water and I was being pushed across the rocks with such shocking force and speed, my efforts were rendered less than feeble – utterly inconsequential. It was like being pushed by a freight train. Then I felt myself briefly free-fall through the air and I knew I was about to plunge into that cauldron of foaming sea.
For the first 10 years of my life, I was terrified of water. My parents enrolled me in swimming lessons at the local YMCA and I never got past “pollywog.” When it came time to jump from the diving board, I stood at the edge petrified, crying. The instructor would tread water below me for what seemed like hours, waiting and promising and swearing that she would catch me as soon as I hit the water. Still, I couldn’t jump.
My dad could not understand this. When I was 9, we visited California, where I was born, and went to the ocean. I didn’t want to go into the water. My dad gripped my hand and said it was OK, there was nothing to be afraid of. I’ll hold your hand; we’ll just go in a little ways, just up to our knees. I dug my heels into the sand and squatted down as my dad pulled on my hand, "There’s nothing to be afraid of, I’ll show you," he insisted, trying to drag me into the water. I couldn’t understand his intolerance of my whimpering pleas: “Don’t make me!” But he didn't intend to be mean, he simply couldn’t fathom my terror.
When I was eleven, my parents built a huge addition to the house and installed an indoor swimming pool in a room of windows and skylights. I couldn’t even dog-paddle the width of the pool in the shallow end. I was forbidden from the deep end. I felt humiliated that I was forbidden from something in my own house. My older brother deepened my humiliation, constantly chastising my anxieties, and deriding me for my restriction to the shallow water. In the end, he taught me how to swim. Within a year, I was a water rat, spending hours on hours in the pool. We took a vacation to Hawaii when I was twelve, and I was out in the ocean swimming and boogie-boarding.
Buried deep in my core, though, I still had a hard kernel of fear of the water, even though I loved being in it -- swimming, treading, floating, snorkeling, inner-tubing; I loved it all. But occasionally my chest tightened up for no apparent reason. A little wire got tripped somewhere inside and fear lit up.
As far back as I can remember having dreams -- which, incidentally, have always been extremely vivid and intricate and wacky, and are a constant source of amusement for my husband and friends with whom I share them -- my dream world has portrayed a consistent link between my dad and water. Up until the day at the Olivine Pools, the water in my dreams was seldom, if ever, placid; rather, it was usually threatening me in some manner. Having my dad consistently appear in tandem with landscapes of water, whenever water was a primary and menacing character in the plot of my dream, I spent my life thinking maybe my dad appeared at night as some protector since I had had such a deep-rooted fear of water. The logic of this is that in waking life, my dad was the ultimate guide and protector of me, his only daughter, in every aspect of my life. It was not a stifling over-protectiveness, but the perfect kind of care and reliability that eventually made me trust my life to him through countless wilderness adventures without any doubt or hesitation whatsoever.
At night, he was like Aqua-Man, taking shape from the crashing waves and dark pools of my dreams. Never did I dream of water unless he was there also. Since water had been so fearful to me while awake during my formative years, I assumed that the fear just leaked right through into my sleep—deep, deep into the molten core of the strange planet I lived on at night—and my dad’s exasperation followed me too, and that’s why he was always there in the middle of the floods and raging rivers and tidal waves, as if to say, It’s OK. There’s nothing to be afraid of, for Pete’s sake; we’ll be fine. He never actually did anything to save me; I just always survived. I never cried out for help, he never took any action; his presence simply signaled survival. I got the feeling he was annoyed at having to spend so much time in my dreams, as if he had to leave his own dreams in order to come over to mine and stay with me once again through some watery ordeal.
After my dad died next to a river, I began to wander a new line of thought regarding his association with water in my dreams. Maybe he stood next to the water all the time because that was always his final destiny, maybe he and I both knew it. All this time I was afraid the water would take me, but instead it was my dad who quietly left his life on the banks of a running river. What if the fact that I’ve always been frightened of water was completely incidental to my dreams of water, that they weren’t about fear but about my dad, that he was standing there all those years saying, “Here. Here is where I’ll be.”
The river didn’t take his life, it was merely the last lullaby as my dad laid down willingly beside the Alatna, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, and gave up his soul to babble on downstream without it – to the ocean, to heaven, simply to nothingness, I don’t know. Eerily, the night before he left for Alaska to raft the Alatna, according to the date recorded in the file information details I found on his computer, essentially the very last thing he did before leaving for Alaska, was write 25 pages of memoirs. I had been bugging him for years to write me of his childhood and of his early adult life. The title of this last document he wrote was, “Memoirs of my Early Years,” with the subtitle, “To be given to my daughter.”
Even more spooky, my dad’s last words to me were metaphorical … We’d been having a dialogue via email about how his advancing Parkinson’s disease was changing the nature of our relationship with each other. I began the metaphor, alluding to us floating down “the river of life” together with each other as lifebelts -- I realized that my dad’s life belt had been my companionship and mine was his solidity. Since his solidity was ebbing away and his challenges were becoming greater, I feared, I said, drowning in rapids. His last words to me, after which he boarded the plane to Alaska, were: “Fear not the rapids. We shall not drown.” At the last minute, he wrote to me in words what he’d been showing me in my dreams my whole life.
When I came to Maui in 2008, it was my second visit to the island, the first had been with my dad when we took a trip just the two of us around several of the Hawaiian islands. If I had been told ahead of time this unlikely crazy experience would happen to me in 2008, I would have been terrified, would have devoted my life to figuring out how to stop time so the moment would never arrive. But it was just like my dreams -- I simply survived. I never cried out for help, or indeed said any words at all, I never suffered from fear, things just happened and I was OK.
When I dropped into the ocean, I knew instantly and with perfect clarity that I did not want to be there, but my focus was on figuring out which way was up so I could surface, stop gulping water and catch a breath of air. When I surfaced, looked around me and confirmed that yep, sure enough, there I was in that frothy, churning span of ocean where nobody would want to be, I immediately began looking around trying to figure out how I would get out of there. I was too focused on this to be scared.
On the mainland it was just sheer cliff. On the peninsula the distance between the land surface and the water was shorter, but it was still sheer, sharp rock and much farther than a person could bridge with their body (it was low tide). If I had been left there in that cauldron for any significant length of time to contemplate the hopelessness of the situation, and the fact that any moment I would likely be dashed against the rocks by incoming waves, I’m sure fear would have set in. But almost right away, I saw Greg, my father-in-law, running down a finger of rock—the only place that jutted out at all from the otherwise vertical rock face of the lava shelf—bracing himself and holding out his hand to me, so I started swimming toward him. The water heaved and I reached up. Wordlessly, we grabbed each others’ wrists, but as a new wave came in, we could not hold on to each other through the motion and I slipped, willingly, out of his grasp, for I had a fearful thought that I would end up pulling him into the water with me, for he had a very sketchy purchase on the rocks and needed one hand on land just to steady himself.
After I got home, I learned that an unsettling number of people had died there in that exact spot from the exact same situation, and sometimes two died at once because the one was pulled off the rock trying to execute a rescue exactly as Greg had done. (And many more people have been injured worse than I was.)
But then my husband crested the hill and came running down the rocks, stood beside his dad and held out his hand. I was far below his grasp, but then the water swelled gently -- only gently -- to lift me up to where he and Greg could easily grab my arms and pull me up onto the rock. Then we hustled up onto the mainland where waves couldn’t reach us. I emitted a burst of laughter at the plain incredulity of the situation. But pain set in fiercely and it was quickly determined by the amount of blood leaking out of me that we needed to leave immediately and that I would need more than a first-aide kit to fix me. The next five or ten minutes were devoted to mustering the adrenaline to walk as quickly as I could up the steep hill back to the car. The following half hour was devoted to “being brave” while my entire body was in intense pain and Greg drove us down the winding road, careening around the corners so that Erik eventually suggested we not die on the way to the hospital.
In all that, I never had time to be frightened. I've been told a hundred times, "you must have been so scared!" But I was always focused on other things. Both Erik and Greg attribute the success of my rescue to the gentle swell of water that lifted me up to their reach, with emphasis on “gentle” considering earlier we had been fascinated by that area precisely because of the chaotic and violent nature of its waters slamming against the cliffs. Greg believes in Jesus – Jesus calmed the waters. Erik believes in science – laws of physics and fluid dynamics calmed the waters. I believe in science, too, but more than that, I believe in my dad. Not in the notion that he was “up there” somewhere looking down and personally affecting the water; rather, in the idea of the connection -- that all those dreams in which his presence signaled safety and guaranteed survival from the oceans and rivers of my dreamscape, they were related to the waking-scape, that it was inevitable that I would be safe because my dreams have told me that all along. I think again of my dad’s last words to me, “Fear not… we shall not drown.” Perhaps they were not metaphorical at all.
Are the dreams and the words merely coincidental with that enormous freak wave? Sure, I believe it’s entirely possible. Yet, I can’t help but muse over all the things that went right enough for me to survive safely, if very painfully, where others did not. I didn’t hit my head though I hit my chin hard enough to put stitches in it and whack out my jaw. So much of my body was lacerated and bruised; why not my head? I managed to keep not only perfect consciousness and clarity of mind, but also enough air in my lungs not to drown despite all the water I swallowed and breathed in. Perhaps most importantly, Erik and Greg happened to be looking right at me when the rogue wave crashed against the rocks, to witness that when the water receded I was no longer anywhere to be seen; they watched me simply vanish before their eyes and immediately began looking for me. (Erik claims it’s the most terrifying thing he ever saw, worse even than seeing me crash my motorcycle at high speed.) The frothing water calmed down so I wasn’t smashed against the rocks, yet it allowed a swell to lift me up just high enough for Erik and Greg to grab my hands and pull me out.
I keep coming back to the speculation that the outcome -- the expedient, straight-forward rescue -- was inevitable because it’s always been that way. Generally the events of our waking life leak through into our dreams, they are expressed in our dreams, vented, rearranged and deranged. Perhaps this was an instance where an event of my dream life leaked through into my waking life. Somehow the gates opened the wrong direction and the current flowed backwards.
Or perhaps my dad spent all that time standing by as the “anti-fear” in order to build up my confidence that I would survive this life-threatening event with the silent efficiency of my dreams. Maybe there’s some “cosmic” or higher reason he laid down next to water to pass away – some connection we have shared: a trinity of me, my dad and water.
If I had only ever had a handful of dreams, it could be more easily brushed off as coincidence. But I find many speculations to be born out of the coincidence that a real life event so closely mimicked situations I’ve dreamed about a hundred times, that these have been linked my whole life: the fear of water, the dreams of water, and my dad staying by my side to see me safely through all the watery ordeals of my dream life. It seems harder to dismiss. But if I don’t dismiss it, it seems I am compelled to contemplate destiny -- 38 years or so of brickwork laid down with one single moment in mind. And if it’s true, the destiny, now what? Where do I go from here?
In the weeks after “the wave incident,” as it became known (and my new nickname became “wave fodder”), I dreamed almost incessantly about water, but without my dad, and they were calm waters -- glassy pools or lakes or seas. The water is calm, and my dad’s not there (the state of my dreams still today) … almost like a closure to the brief real-life ordeal -- one which is fearful and terrifying to contemplate from afar, from outside of myself, but was experienced by me in reality with a strange stoicism.
In returning to the Olivine Pools last week, I felt no particular fear. The tide was high and a wave came in high enough on the rocks to tug at my ankles where I stood. Part of me wanted to keep standing there in defiance, but I followed prudence and the intensely insistent pull of my husband on my arm, and backed away. In spite of all my speculations on coincidences, all I can truly say about it is, “it is what it is: just one of those things.”
And if you go there to the pools, beware and be careful. It’s a beautiful place and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from going, just be wise and don’t stand where waves are actually hitting the land … depending on the tide, your proximity to the open ocean will vary. The wave that leveled me was many times larger than all the others that had made landfall. Waves come in sets and every once in awhile an extra large one rolls in. I just read a ridiculously cavalier account on some lady’s blog about how she wants to get as close as possible to those crashing waves … but I guarantee she would not have wanted to get as close as I did! My own cavalier behavior around the ocean is the only thing at fault in this circumstance. It resulted in several hours in the ER having rocks scrubbed out of my body with wire brushes … one rock took a year, almost to the day, to work itself out of my flesh. I spent the rest of my trip bandaged up like a mummy, and every other night Erik helped me through a 2-hour ordeal of changing the bandages. So enjoy the spectacular beauty and unparalleled power of the ocean with caution!