Life stunk. Every area of my life was in upheaval and it had been a long, difficult summer.
My parents were in a hard season and I had to walk on eggshells. No matter what I did, it was always wrong and it was never enough. My hormone-influenced friendships were turbulent and fickle. And no guy had expressed any interest in me. My diary entries documented my despair: I was unloved and unloveable; I would be better off dead.
To escape, I spent my days at the beach. One August morning, I put on my swimsuit, slipped on my flip-flops, and grabbed my towel, suntan oil and transistor radio. As I opened the back door, my mother stopped me.
“If the water is rough, don’t go in.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I closed the door behind me.
The beach was only two blocks away and, instead of following the sidewalk, I took a shortcut through the yards of the cookie-cutter military houses. When I reached the beach access, I stood at the top of the stairs.
The ocean was dotted with surfers. The waves were big, thundering loudly as they broke. Whitewater churned as the waves, in quick succession, came ashore. The sea spray was thick and the scent of saltwater tickled my nose.
I spotted my friend, in our usual spot, and hurried down the two-dozen steps, holding tight to the rusty handrail; my shoes splatted noisily. The tropical sun was beating down on my shoulders. At the bottom of the stairs, I kicked off my flip-flops and walked along the water’s edge, pausing as the water rushed over my feet, shooting water up my calves. As the water receded, it sucked the sand from away my feet; I shifted to maintain my balance. I continued my trek and, once I reached my friend, spread out my beach towel, took off my shorts and plopped on my towel.
Conversation waned and I turned the dial on the radio to our favorite station. I slathered myself in coconut-scented suntan oil and laid back to soak up the sun rays. The sea salt on my skin ticked as it dried. Eventually the pleasant warmth gave way to radiating heat. I sat up and wiped sweat from by brow.
“Wanna cool off?” my friend asked.
I glanced at the surf and, dismissing my mother’s instructions, followed her into the water. I navigated around the brown reef, stopping short of where the waves were breaking. The water tugged at my legs. I was — I reminded myself — a good swimmer.
A set of waves broke close by, I caught my breath and ducked under. As I surfaced, my feet were swept out from under me. Frantically, I tried to regain my footing. I was pulled backward and under by the current and hurled forward into the ragged reef. The reef scraped my knees. Again, I was sucked backward and propelled forward. I held out my arms and tried to brace myself from hitting the reef. The waves mercilessly pounded on me, pulled me, tossed me, and rolled me. Again and again and again. Exhausted, I gave up.
It was eerily quiet underwater. The roar of the waves seemed distant. As I tumbled face-up, the sun shone brilliantly through the blue-green hues of the water. Tears fill my eyes; I regretted my disobedience and I was agonizingly sorrowful for the pain I was going to cause my family.
“Lord, is this what it feels like to die? I don’t want to die! I’m only 15!”
I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face. I struggled to keep my eyes open against the sting of the salt water. I needed to see the sun…I HAD to focus on the sun. My lungs were burning. I had no concept of time. I sensed I was floating, yet I knew I was still underwater. Peace replaced my anxiousness.
“How much longer is this going to take, Lord?” I closed my eyes.
Excruciating pain racked my body. My hair was caught, my scalp was on fire. Suddenly, I was yanked upward. I sputtered, gasping for precious air. I looked into the face of a dark skinned man.
“Take a deep breath. We need to go underwater and ride the surf over the reef.”
Did he think I was crazy? I wasn’t going under water again!
“I promise I won’t let go of you.”
I was hesitant to comply. His eyes pierced mine and he glanced over his shoulder. He slapped my cheek. I gasped and he plunged me under the wave, holding tight as we were propelled over the reef. For a second time, he pulled me to the surface.
“Can you make it from here?”
I nodded and struggled to stand in knee-deep water. My unsteady legs buckled. He helped me up and walked me to the beach. Before I could speak, he turned and ran back toward the water, disappearing as he dove into the surf.
I sat on my towel. Tears streamed down my face. I silently apologized to the Lord for my disobedience. I profusely thanked Him for sparing my life.
I scanned the water, but I couldn’t distinguish my rescuer from the dozens of others in the water. I needed to find him. I needed to thank him. I had questions.
Did he know he had saved my life? That I would never be the same? Where did he come from? No one had been near me, so how did he see me go under? How could he have found me in the whitewash? How could he be so calm about it all? How could he go back in the water as if saving my life was not a big deal? How could I ever thank him?
Finally, he emerged from the surf and jogged toward me.
I nodded, but I couldn’t speak. He gave me a thumbs-up and jogged off in the opposite direction. As he disappeared out of sight, I had more questions…
Who was he? Was he a new transfer to the base? Was his trip to the beach unplanned? Where were his things? Didn’t he even bring a towel? Will I ever see him again?
For two years, I looked for him at the beach, but I never saw him.
Yet somehow I know that one day I will encounter him again...
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him,
And rescues them.
~ Psalm 37:4