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Ocean City Took My Breath

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on March 26, 2010

Stopped breathing.  Just like that.  The ocean had been cold.  Much colder than I’d expected from a warm Spring day. It was early in the beach season.  The winter had been harsh. Cold currents still flowed past the Jersey shore where my parents had dragged all seven kids. Normally, in Summer, they dragged us out of our comfortable beds early on a gray Baltimore morning, drove us across the Bay Bridge and down to the Ocean City on Maryland’s coast. I had no idea there was another Ocean City in New Jersey, and I have no memory of why we went there.
Me and my brother John had run into the waves, let them knock us over, felt the water churning and rolling over our heads.  We never tried to swim in the crashing surf, just dived under the waves and tried to touch bottom. Felt the undertow trying to drag us out to sea. Tried to body surf our way back to the beach. That was our relationship with the ocean. The younger kids were still too young to play in the surf like that.  They were walking along the sand, sticking their feet in the frigid water and running away from the incoming waves.
Me and John were the oldest. We did what we wanted sometimes. We were always together:  walking to school, serving mass as altar boys in the early mornings, riding our bikes miles away from home, sledding down the steep city streets in winter, building a tree house, or carrying groceries home from the store down the road.
Sometimes, when fighting the wild bucking waves and swift undercurrent, I’d do my best to stay under water as long as possible. John and I were pretty good at holding our breath.  I always hoped to see fish, crabs or starfish on the ocean bottom.  I was always digging in it, hoping to find something.
I came up after a long dive and didn’t see John anywhere.   No big deal.  He’d probably gone in.  I was freezing anyway.  Even my frenetic play hadn’t warmed me up all that much.  I headed into the warm dry sand towards my father.   I still didn’t see John anywhere. I knew Dad would know where he was.  As I got closer to him, I felt funny.  My body had instantly started to warm under the 75 degree sun, but I felt hotter than that. My breath became ragged, uncertain. I sped up, saw my dad turn his head towards me, and that was all I saw.
I awoke on my back, but my hair was full of sand.  A crowd encircled me.  “What happened?” I heard a voice ask.  I wanted to know that myself. Another disembodied voice in the crowd answered, “I think some old man drowned.”  Old man? At 15, I could hardly look old.  My dad was there too, looking down at me.  He picked me up.  A beach jeep pulled up, and hands grabbed me, loaded me into the jeep. It flew along the sand, bouncing and twisting.  Suddenly we were off the beach, on the street. An ambulance waited.  I was hustled into it.  A mask was pushed onto my face.  Oxygen poured into my nose and mouth. It felt good.  I didn’t notice anything else, but I wondered where John was.
Next thing I knew, I was lifted onto a gurney, rolled into a curtained-off room.  “I’m cold,” I remember saying.  It was warm in the room; everyone was in swimsuits around me.  The air was humid, but I shivered in all that heat.  A thick wool blanket was dropped over me.  I shook, uncontrollably.  I just couldn’t warm up. “I’m still cold,” I said.  Another heavy, dark green blanket was draped over me.  I still shivered, amazed that I could be so cold, warm as the day was, and covered in heavy blankets.  I felt like a freak.  Well, I was, I guess.  Turns out my rare allergy to cold had been my nemesis. In recent years, after playing for hours in the snow, and coming in the house to warm up, I had developed swollen hands, fingers that wouldn’t bend, red blotches on my face.  But this was summer!  Somehow, the cold ocean currents had swollen the muscles in my throat, tightening around my windpipe, cutting off my air.  As I warmed up, my breathing slowed, and I relaxed.  My parents had my clothes. I got dressed.  I remember being back in the station wagon, surrounded by all the other kids, including John, next to me as always. Freaks need their families.

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