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The day we may have seen a man die

Oceans by Artemis Design Studio, etsy.comA few days ago, in a moment rushing with gratitude and sunshine and possibility, I saw a man pulled from the ocean.

He was limp, ashen, water foamed from his nose as swimmers dragged him to a flat of sand and a lifeguard pressed air into his mouth. Right there, as the sky turned a golden blue and sun stretched its fingers from the horizon to the crashing tide. Right there, with the babies with hats and protruding, full bellies splashing birds and stepping tiny toes into the water. Right there, with kids surfing in unzipped wetsuits and a photographer gently moving a family posed on a blanket into the right light. And me and my love, taking pictures of each other and of the seaweed, walking and talking about the big, beautiful future.

Then and there, a man may have died. 

Moments before, I'd seen a woman holding a toddler boy on her hip. She was smiling, just a little bit, saying something to her son. He had a mop of brown hair. Her blousy swimsuit hung from her thin arms and shoulders. She was bald. Cancer, I imagine. 

I wondered if she was recovering, noticing a fringe of light hair i could only see with the sun angled a certain way. I thought, "It must feel so good to have the sun on her face and her boy in her arms." I knew nothing about her. Maybe she went to the beach every day. I could have been reading the scene entirely wrong. 

Moments before that, the Not Boyfriend and I were talking about being in Manhattan Beach, his old stomping grounds, where he lived with another chef friend, had parties on the balcony with champagne and oysters and any passer-by welcome. He seemed surprised that I loved it, the beach town and cottages and pier. But I did. I loved it. 

I thought of what it would be like to raise E there, for him to feel free enough to run into the water with abandon, surf board in hand, eye on the waves rolling in. 

"I wonder how my writing would change if I saw the water every day," I said aloud.

"Maybe one day we should buy a beach home here and come a few times a year," the Not Boyfriend countered. The sentences didn't seem to line up, but they did. We were both envisioning our lives there. 


All weekend, we'd been talking business. Over glasses of wine, while getting the kitchen tour of his friend's new restaurants, in the car while riding up the 101, stopping to laugh at something we both caught a glimpse of or one of us remembered randombly, or gasp at the oceanview as we rounded a bend of the highway. And while walking the beach. 

We'd been trying to squeeze our business plans down to three words.

We'd been sketching out logos. We'd been pushing each other, gently, lovingly, to move good ideas forward. We were envisioning our lives that way, too. Exciting enough to keep us engaged. Big enough to be challenged. Less stressful, long-term, true to each of our own selves. Comfortable enough to buy a getaway cottage on a California beach.


We kept coming back to the Ensō, a Japanese symbol, not character, for circle. It is strongly associated with Zen, as is the Not Boyfriend, and symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe and the void.  

This seemingly simple unmended circle holds the present moment, and some artists practice the one-stroke symbol every day, brushing silk and rice paper with ink over and over, incomplete. 

I thought I saw that symbol in seaweed, or close enough, just after we'd talked about how to capture the ensō in the Not Boyfriend's work. To other ears, this may sound impossible. But to my love, who kneads doughs and delicately spoons purees and layers sauces and spices and textures, his business is about collecting just enough spirit in ramikins, spring-form pans and tea cups. 

And so the wide stretch of the world was on our minds when we came down a hill of sand so I could put my feet in the ocean. 

"Oh, the ocean," I said. "It does the soul good."

"I guess I think the ocean is the universe," he said. We were wading deep. "Vast and right there."


 We walked and walked, in and out of the tide. My dress was soaked up to my knees and I was taking pictures of the details of the sea life and the two of us, caught in this moment of just-enough.

That's when we passed the mother with cancer. 

That's when I closed my eyes and let a prayer unfold in the darkness edged by bubbles of sunshine. 

"Dear God," I thought hard, "thank you. Thank you for all of the blessings I have. I am so grateful. For my boy, for the Not Boyfriend, for my family. For the abundance I have been given. For all this love. For this big life." 

And I meant it. I felt it rise up in me, full and warm. Just then, I heard the yelling.

It was the shouts that forced my eyes open, scanning the beach to see where they were coming from. They weren't "HELP!", but "HEY! HEY! HEY!" over an over in a panic.  It took a moment to process that the people yelling were not trying to get the attention of someone on shore to throw a frisbee or leap in because the water was bath-like in the sun. It was an emergency and they were doing all they could to beckon the lifeguard.

I ran closer, dialing 9-1-1 as I went. The Not Boyfriend was already ankle-deep in the water, hanging back to assess how he could help without getting in the way of those already dragging the limp man's body from the surf. 

When the lifeguard got it, he raced in as he radioed for more help, tripping and falling and pulling himself up in one fell swoop. The bodies were all silhouettes in the slowly fading sunlight and time slowed. 

I hit "call" on my phone as two yellow emergency beach SUVs screeched across the sand. The man was being turned on his side, water frothed from his mouth. People pulled in closer, making it harder to see his slack face. The helpers were easy to find, doing CPR and keeping the gathering crowd back a bit. 

I ushered two girls and a group of boys off, telling them to find their parents and check in. Their parents would want to know they are OK, I said. 

The Not Boyfriend and I stood frozen, twenty or so feet apart, each of us moving forward to see if we were needed. We weren't. But I couldn't leave. The Not Boyfriend tried to get me to go, protectively placing an arm on my shoulder. I couldn't go. 

A man's life was ending - maybe. Or being rescued. It was too crowded and complicated to know.

"He's dying," I said. It sounded out of place and obvious. 

"Or will soon," the Not Boyfriend said back. "It doesn't look good. It has been minutes."

In the midst of the CPR, the circle swelled to make room for someone else. The mother with cancer, still holding her child. She watched in awe, maybe disbelief.  She was crying. Husband or brother or neighbor, somehow, this man belonged to her. 

The crew of lifeguards and rescuers loaded the man into the back of a bright yellow emergency pick-up truck, holding him, breathing life into his lungs. I watched teenage boys watching the scene.

"Back up," the tallest boy said. He had sun-streaked hair and freckles across his nose. A wetsuit was hastily pulled off his bare chest. All of the boys were dragging bright green boogie boards. He was their leader, at least in that moment. He'd seen things like this before. "Don't get too close."

An ambulance wailed and parked hastily on the sidewalk a few hundred feet away and the woman, now with what looked like a wallet belt with pockets, ran back toward the scene. An older woman was holding her son. Barefoot, wet, billowy swimsuited, too thin, bald, shell-shocked, she climbed into the pick-up truck holding a possession of the man in back. His insurance cards? Identification? I had a flash of her sitting in an emergency room, shivering, covered in a thin and tattered hospital blanket, holding on to that wallet for dear life.

The truck made its way to the ambulance, where the man was gingerly transfered. 

"It's good they are still giving him CPR," the Not Boyfriend said soothingly. "It's good they are still holding his head."

"This is horrifying." That was all I could think of to say. "That woman."

The sirens screamed. The crowd dispersed. The older woman held tight to the young boy while she spoke to the lifeguards who stayed behind.

Maybe the boy would be too young to remember this scene, I thought. But the young lifeguard who ran out, he will think of this moment every time he closes his eyes for a long time.   

We turned back toward the flat of sand, then again to look out at the quieted ocean, then up toward all those emergency vehicles left only tracks in the sand, where kids went back to playing and adults leaned back into their lounge chairs. 

We walked on, silent. I saw the teen boys ahead of us. I hoped silently that they were running toward their mothers. A group of old men played frisbee, and one leaned over slowly to let it slide to a stop on his back. It was a good trick and we laughed out loud. The sounds of the people and the pier the faraway cars filled the emptiness in our conversation. A lifeguard posed for a picture for tween girls in bikinis. A toddler girl chased her mother, laughing, into water.

Later, in our hotel room, I'd stretch out on the bed and think only of that woman. My heart ached for her pain. And even with my eyes closed, I'd see the outlines of the man being hoisted from the ocean by the yelling rescuers. A prayer wound through all those images. 

Later than that, over a glass of wine in the hotel lobby, the sun would set and I would cry. I would explain to the Not Boyfriend that my grateful words to God were interrupted, perhaps by a man dying. I'd tell him how my own experiences made me wary of feeling too much happiness, how I'd learned to live protectively, waiting for disaster or tragedy or heartbreak. I'd say I was so sorry. That I don't want to live this way. That I'd been working so hard to release and release and be present inside the moments. I'd apologize for being afraid to move in together. For frantic prayers to never, ever let anything happen to the boy who once sat on my hip, to the Not Boyfriend. Please, God. Enough. I'd tell him I am trying to stop worrying when the other shoe will drop and just say my thanks for what is right now.

He would nod. Tell me he loves me. Say we both come to this place with lots of life behind us. Remind me he knows, he knows.  

"That woman," I'd say, as I had said already several times. Many times, maybe. 

The next day, we'd scour the Internet, searching for any update. The Not Boyfriend would not cry or say much, but he would call the police and fire departments, reach out to a friend from the National Guard who patrols the area. 

Days later - today - we wouldn't have any more information. No words or verdict or updates. Nothing more now, probably ever.


The empty spot inside ensō isn't the white-knuckle part. It is the space where the circle doesn't meet. That opening is where the love streams in. It is where the current of calm pulls us out of the frantic. It is the place where the abundance fills us. And it is also the pause where the life we know is interrupted. The slow tick between the radiance and the sunset. The time when we do not know. 

At least this is how I have been seeing that circle, how I've wanted the careful brush strokes to make sense of that part of living we feel as chaos.

He was right, I think, the Not Boyfriend. The ocean is the universe. It is a majesty and a terror to behold, it is the rhythm of stillness and power, it is the beginning and sometimes, the ceasing. It is the ensō, rolling over and over, beyond us, past time, incomplete, holding us in a space where we have no real control, where we are both prayerful and tearful, fearful and grateful, rescuers and rescued, screaming and silent. Where we are very small indeed.  Where we are cradled by something much bigger than ourselves, then we can ever know.


If you have any information about a possible rescue on Manhattan Beach on the early evening of October 7th, I'd love to hear it. If you are the praying kind, please add yours to this unnamed family. If you believe in energy or light or any other thing, I think all of it goes to the same place. Perhaps we can pull the circle closer together. 

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Reader Comments (11)

Wow. Just wow.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeri

Beautifully written. When I close my eyes, I can picture the entire scene. Many years ago, my husband and I saw a man die when we were enjoying the black-sand beaches of Maui. I called 911, flagged down the ambulance, and led the medics to the site. Out of respect for the family, we kept our distance and remained quiet. It was not until later that day, as we watched the evening news, we learned the man's fate. A heart attack ended his life. Sadly, I had forgotten how profound that moment was until I read your post. While I still feel sad that man lost his life, I am thankful for the reminder to appreciate life.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStacy Libby

Jessica, this held me spellbound. Your writing is beautiful and seems to be blossoming in new, poignant directions. I loved the pace of this piece, the movement back and forth -- between the startling, upsetting story unfolding on the beach for the drowning man and the woman who may have cancer, and your personal story. Poignant and it will stay with me, as will the image/meanings of the enso. It is such a pleasure to read your work. I hope you find information about what happened to these people whose lives touched yours that day.

October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiana D Akers

Thank you, ladies. I respect you all so much and your words mean a great deal. Stacy, it is calming that you understand, even in the heartache of lives lost.

October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Ashley/Sassafrass

Having lived right there on that very beach, having loved and dreamed right there on that very beach, my heart breaks for what you saw and felt there. Thank you for sharing your powerful, moving words and story. I've reached out to multiple friends in MB to ask if they've heard anything of the incident and nobody has. That must be a good sign.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Heinz

I can do nothing other than echo Diana's words. I was captivated, held breathless, tears threatening.

My prayers and thoughts to everyone touched by the events of that day.

October 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrachel

This is the moment the pendulum swings from the mundane to the divine, and we're all on the cusp of it every second. But if we think about it, we never can truly be in our lives- how could we? It's freaking terrifying. You did a beautiful job translating those adjoining angles that make up the shape of being human. I hope you find out his fate. Thank you.

October 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlindsay

This story is haunting and the telling is beautiful. I understand the difficulty of living in the moment and the strong grip of fear that something bad is around the corner. Praying for her today.

October 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I hope that man is still alive - what a horrible thing to witness. It reminded me of one summer we spent in Nags Head North Carolina. I was in high school and on the back deck facing the road. Across the street a woman ran out of her house screaming and holding her toddler by the feet pounding its back yelling "he's choking". I was paralyzed - had no idea what to do. It was less than a minute until the little boy started crying and everything seemed to be ok - but so scary to see things like that. I loved your writing....

October 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJenn@slim-shoppin

I imagine it would be listed here if he hadn't made it:

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSara M.

Thank you all for getting it and for leaving your kind words and prayers here. xo

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Ashley/Sassafrass

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