Angels in the Outer Banks
Guest Column by Jodi Nisly Hertzler
Twenty years ago, I married my college sweetheart. Four days later I nearly lost him.
I worried about whether he was okay but kept telling myself that he was a good swimmer and would be fine.
We’d gone to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for our honeymoon, and were staying in an area that was fairly remote. Beautiful, undeveloped beaches. No lifeguards. We were a cliché: young and in love, blissfully spending our days on the beach and our evenings exploring restaurants and bookshops. We had no need of television . . . and what little we watched was decidedly not the local news. We had no idea that a hurricane was traveling the Atlantic, parallel to the East Coast. It was too far offshore to do any damage, but was causing rough seas along much of the coast. We didn’t know that people were being advised to use great caution in the water; we didn’t know that some of the patrolled beaches in the area had been closed to swimmers.
The surf was definitely rough that day. The wind was a bit fierce . . . but the Outer Banks are almost always windy, and in our optimistic honeymoon state, we didn’t register the danger. Very few other people were out that day, but we didn’t mind being alone. The waves were too rough and breaking too far from shore for my taste, but Shelby decided to go in for a bit of body surfing.
I don’t like remembering the next part, and I’ve never told anyone the complete path my thoughts traveled as I watched him in the water. I probably never will. I sat on a chair and tried to read my book, but my eyes weren’t able to focus on the words and kept looking up to track him in the water. I worried about whether he was okay but kept telling myself that he was a good swimmer and would be fine. I’ll probably never forgive myself for not approaching the two men who walked by with kayaks . . . in a nearly fatal combination of shyness and obstinate denial I failed to ask them to paddle out there to make sure Shelby was okay. I still hate myself for that hesitation.
His head never went under water, which helped me maintain my self-delusion, but in truth, he’d gotten into a trough of some kind where he couldn’t touch bottom, and though he was able to tread water, he was caught in the wave-break area and the force and rapidity of those waves crashing over his head prevented him from getting a breath clear of foam—he was tiring and suffocating and I was unknowingly witnessing it all.
I don’t know how long it took before I was finally convinced that something was horribly wrong. But by the time I got to the water, he’d miraculously found his footing (I strongly believe it was the push of a celestial hand) and was stumbling toward me. His shoulders were slumped and he barely had the strength to hold himself up by the time I got to him. We made it ashore and he collapsed, shaking and struggling for breath. I hovered over him, trying to keep the sun out of his face, fighting hysteria, not knowing what to do.
A couple walked by, and I finally broke past my shyness and ran to them, asking if they could get to a phone to call for help (ah, the days before cell phones). I told them what had happened and that I didn’t know what to do—even though he was out of the water, Shelby was disoriented and unable to recover his breath. Miracle number two: the couple were off-duty EMTs. The man ran to their truck to radio for help and his wife stayed with us, covering Shelby with a blanket and keeping us calm until the ambulance arrived. After the ambulance drove him away, the couple (I never learned their names) escorted me to our car and made sure I was okay to drive to the clinic before they left. Guardian angel tally: three.
The oxygen he was given quickly restored Shelby, and we stayed out our honeymoon, though we’d lost much of our exuberance. We later learned that two people had lost their lives in the ocean that day, on a beach just a little bit north of where we’d been.
Now, almost exactly twenty years later, my hands shake and my vision blurs as I commit this story to paper for the first time. It’s a memory I avoid and one I refer to only in vague terms. And yet, I’m also strangely thankful that it happened. Knowing I almost lost my husband before we even had a chance to start making a life together is a powerful, life-altering thing. I was given a divine gift twenty years ago—a gift I did nothing to deserve . . . but that’s true for all divine gifts, isn’t it? Praise be to God.
Comments? Stories? Jodi and I would love to hear from you. Post in the comment section of our website at www.thirdway.com/aw or email MelodieD@MennoMedia.org. Or write to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802.