Our dream vacation in Maui almost turned into a nightmare.
Posted in , Jun 30, 2009
One brochure was all it took for my wife, Judy, and me to fall in love with Hawaii. Maui at Christmastime! We were there with our two kids on our dream vacation.
Waves crashed right outside our hotel room. The ocean called to me on the balcony. The sky was cloudless, a brilliant blue. This really was paradise. "Don't even unpack," I said to the family. "Let's hit the beach before the sun goes down." Judy grabbed some towels, and we were off.
I led the way to an ancient lava rock wall that had formed on the beach. "Follow me," I said, and found a way to get up top. The clear blue water stretched on endlessly. We walked the length of the wall, which jutted out into the ocean for about 50 feet before coming to a point. There it hooked back into a tiny cove.
"Look at those beautiful fish," Judy said. Red, yellow, blue—every color of the rainbow flashed in the sun just below the surface.
"Why don't we get some snorkel gear tomorrow?" I said to Judy. "We can explore underwater and maybe get a good look at those fish up close."
The next day Judy and I rented snorkels and diving masks from the hotel. We made our way down the crowded beach. The kids got right to work playing in the sand at the water's edge. "Your mother and I are going for a swim," I told them. "We'll all go in the water when we get back."
Judy and I plunged into the ocean. The water was crystal clear; I could see all the way to the bottom, about 30 or 40 feet down. I swam alongside the rocks till I got to where the wall hooked. I continued on around the point and turned to look for Judy. She wasn't behind me. What happened? I wondered. Waves started to kick up a bit. I eased back to the point, my head above water.
I heard a shout: "Help! Ronnie!"
I only had to take a few strokes before I saw my wife. She'd swum past the point. She sputtered and coughed, barely treading water. She was in trouble.
Water must have gotten down her snorkel. "Judy!" I called. "Hang on!"
I had my Red Cross lifesaving certificate. I knew what could happen. Judy was a strong swimmer, but she was panicking. If I swam out to her—if I could reach her—I had to grab her just the right way. Otherwise she might latch onto me and take me under with her. I thought about our children. What would they do with both of us gone? But my wife needed me now.
Frantic, I looked around for other people. A sailboat was anchored about 20 yards from the beach. Two guys stood on the deck talking. "Help!" I shouted. "Help!" I clung to the rocks with one hand and waved my free arm wildly over my head, shouting as loud as I possibly could. They were so close I could recognize the brand of soda one of them held.
But the two paid me no mind. Can they hear me? I looked back at Judy. The waves had pulled her even farther away. "Judy! Judy, can you hear me?" I shouted. "Try not to panic."
Something moved beneath me. I stuck my face mask into the water. A group of scuba divers scuttled along the bottom in single file.
I slapped the water to try to get their attention. It wasn't any use. They kept on going. Again I saw movement in the water below. Once more I stuck my head under. A very large bald man clung to the lava wall maybe eight feet down. He was alone. Was he studying the sea life growing on the rocks? I slapped the water again.
The man turned his head to look up at me. I waved, motioning for him to come up. Please, help us. Please.
He floated up until he broke the surface of the water right next to me. He was about six foot five. He wore goggles like the ones I'd seen on Japanese pearl divers, but his size made the goggles seem oddly small.
"Help me!" I begged. "My wife!"
He looked Judy's way. She was still coughing, trying desperately to stay afloat. "You're going to be okay," he said calmly to Judy. "Come to me."
He spoke in a regular tone of voice. I couldn't imagine how Judy could have heard him. Yet I knew she had because the panic in her face disappeared. I saw that she was back in control.
Judy broke into an overhand stroke and swam toward me, crashing her way right through the swells.
The man turned back to the wall and sank, as if to go back about his business. Didn't he want to wait to be sure we were all right?
Judy reached me, and I hugged her tight. "The waves were pulling me out," she said, shaking. "I was so scared I couldn't think to swim."
I was shaking too. I didn't know what to say for myself. The thought that I'd failed my wife miserably kept going through my head. If I'd just had the wherewithal of the bald man in the goggles, if only I'd spoken to Judy the way he had, I could have saved her.
Once we'd calmed down I helped Judy to shore. The kids were still filling buckets with sand and making castles. They had no idea of the danger we'd been in. And we didn't dare tell them.
We never told anyone what happened. We tried talking about that day to each other, but every time we started we both got choked up. Our emotions wouldn't let us relive those terrible moments of Christmas vacation.
Until one Saturday morning years later. Our pastor dropped by the house unannounced. Judy and I sat with him in the living room. I never knew just what he was going to say, and that day was no different. "Have you ever had an encounter with an angel?" he asked, right out of the blue.
"Maybe," I told him. That's when it came to me, a picture in my mind of the bald man with the pearl-diver goggles. There had been something more than a little unusual about him....
I started telling the story of that fateful Christmas Day. And for the first time ever, I didn't get choked up. My voice remained calm. My tone was as regular as the bald man's voice had sounded when he called out to Judy. "Come to me" was all it had taken. "And then he disappeared underwater," I finished. "Just like that."
"No," Judy said. "That's not the way it happened at all."
I looked at her. What had I left out?
"There was a man by me," she said. "He came up from the deep water below. He had dark hair and a beard, and he didn't say a word. He grabbed my arm so tight it hurt. And then he carried me over to you, Ronnie."
But that is not what I saw, I thought. There was only one man. The bald one, by me.
"There was no one with you," Judy insisted. "I didn't take my eyes off you the whole time."
But, then, how could that be? I don't know. The only way I can explain it is that we both got an angel of our own. One came to me, calming my fears. And one held on to Judy, bringing her back to me.
It was a dream vacation, all right, but what happened to us was no dream. It was real. And it was a Christmas we will never forget. Never.
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