This Ain't It: When Death is Looming (and Your Kids are Watching)

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This ain’t it

The salt water mixed with blood and both dripped down to pool in the small holes in the rocks.  I stood doubled over with my hands on my knees in shock and confusion. The fly line was wrapped around my arms and the rod tip bounced on the rock while the rest of the rod was left to the mercy of the tide.

My wife, Heidi, broke the silence, “I think your leg is broken.” 

“It’s not broken.”  I quietly replied while still mentally evaluating each area of my body.  The adrenalin was wearing off and my nerves were waking up.  

“Are you sure it’s not broken?  It looks broken.  Like, it looks like your bone is sticking out.  See, that thing there, on your shin?  It looks like your bone is sticking out”

Everyone should have their wife standing next to them with colorful commentary while contemplating their existence in the galaxy.

“I just need a minute.”

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It had been a while since I felt the presence of death.  The last time that it seemed inevitable I had blown a tire in Mexico while passing a semi at 70mph. Memories are funny.  The clearest memory to this day is the sound.  The sound of wind blowing through every worn-out piece of weather stripping in a 1983 Vanogan as I fishtailed through oncoming traffic and the semi I was passing..  Fate willed the 8-thousand-pound vehicle off the highway and the first words from my co-pilot were "I owe you are margarita."   As one says, that was a different time.  I was younger, unmarried, no kids and being woken up by Mexican gunships or brawling with robbers in Argentina was par for the course.  Surviving was part of the experience and met with celebrations and pride. 

This was not “a different time”.  This was now.  My two children ran down the beach to join my wife and I on the rocks.

I felt shame.

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My wife and I reference travel-with-small-children as “trips”.  They are not vacations.  A vacation implies rest where another noun for trip is “a journey” and a verb for trip is “a stumble; misstep”.  Our trips typically combine the journey with the missteps. 

A trip is a travel badge we wear with honor.  When we land in a foreign country and re-navigate our comfort and unease of “why didn’t we go to fucking Hawaii” the two tiny planets orbiting our every move remind us.  Their minds are open and they trust we brought them here for a reason. 

In March 2018, we took our family trip to Costa Rica.  It was perfect.  And for the first time since we had kids it started to have the feel of a vacation.  We didn’t have to watch their every move, balance nap schedules, or keep them entertained.  They were showing their independence and we got to enjoy the beers and beach sunsets that reminded us of how lucky we are.  I even picked up a saltwater rig to test my luck on the Pacific. 

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The first day I set out was exploratory.  Moving along the rock outcroppings and trying to find some spots that looked good.  Then, blindly picking flies Russian roulette style, learning the rod, and slinging the sea creatures into the tide.   It was fruitless for fish but eye-opening for the experience.

Day two was more successful and I managed to land a couple small fish.  The internet was down (a truck that was too tall drove through the power lines in town wiping out internet for the week…. Pura Vida) and having done little research I can’t tell you what I landed but they were fish and we can leave it at that. 

The following day my wife and kids joined me on the beach. They were ready to see what dad was up to when I disappeared each morning and I was ready to show them.  The ocean was different.  The rocks where I previously stood were wet and the tide was rough and foamy.    Waves hit the outer line of the cliffs and sent the salt spray into the air.  I waited patiently, or what I thought was patiently, catching hermit crabs and building houses for our captives with the kids.  I checked back every ten minutes to see if the ocean had calmed.

After a quiet stretch I figured we were a go.  I bounced out on the peninsula in my flip flops and started looking for flashers.  I had seen some big fish the day before and was ready to put one on the grill. 

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But the ocean was still different.  The tide took control of my line on each cast and the likelihood of hooking up seemed slim. I fished for a while and  just couldn’t figure it out.  My inexperience fishing the ocean was showing and when I was about to move to a new location I looked at the horizon and noticed that a set was coming in.  The wave that was building looked bigger and gave me pause.  I looked back at my wife, put my hands up in the air like “what can you do” chuckled and thought, “bummer that I am about to get my shirt wet”.  I waited, squatted down to hold on, and planned to duck under the spray.

The Pacific laughed.  It reminded me of my insignificance.

I popped- up in a channel between the cliffs; panicked but aware.  My clothes were wet and heavy and I could feel one flip-flop twisted onto my ankle.  My immediate instinct was to swim the channel towards the beach and try to climb out.  A couple of strokes in to the swim and the water sucked out of the channel and pulled me further from land.  The next wave buried me. 

When I surfaced again I could see my wife on the cliffs above me.  The feeling of being physically helpless is unique.  It is not endurance tired or mentally drained.  Both mind and body work but are not built for the task.  The next wave buried me again, but this time into the rock that made up the cliff wall.  Sharp and unforgiving but land. A lifeline from the thoughts previously creeping into my head.  The water disappeared and I was left on the cliff.  All I had to do was climb out.

“Noah!  Hold on!  There is another one coming”

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Anybody who has been married long enough knows that the tone makes the sentence.  The tone that I heard was pillared on helpful, hopeful, and hopeless.   The last wave was a final reminder to make sure the new scars on my legs would be matched with the ones in my mind. The rocks felt like cheese graders under the pressure. I held on.

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Pop culture is a timestamp that can help frame a period.  A song, celebrity, or movie can jog your memory of a time or place totally unrelated to the topic.  Prior to our trip we had been binge watching the western show Godless.   Frank Griffin, the villain of the story played by Jeff Daniels would frequently repeat his famous line:

This ain’t my death.  I’ve seen my death; this ain’t it

That evening there was no irrational confidence like Frank Griffin.  We reset the vibe with a sunset, beers, and butterfly bandages; reflected on the journey and missteps.  But Frank was right about one thing.  We toasted our beers while our kids played out the light on the beach in front of us.   I tipped my can to the Pacific.  This ain’t it.