Who we are is held in the love of God from before time; and as we lean into that now in life and taste it, we’ll be prepared to really see death as the fullness of being and not as the lessening of it.
-Cynthia Borgeault, Dying Before We Die
It was vacation, and all I wanted was to take my daughter snorkeling. It was my favorite part of our annual trip to Hawaii. We went to a small bay in Maui sandwiched by cliffs and a known hideaway for grazing sea turtles. As if that wasn’t enough, in Maui, in February, the humpback whales are birthing. The ocean was filled with them. So much so that if we were to duck under the water, we could hear them sing.
We arrived at the beach through a long walkway tunneled under the rocky cliffs. As we set down our beach gear, we noticed rescue crews swimming through the waters of the bay. A bystander told us they were doing a drill and there was no need to worry. So after getting our things organized, I took my daughter out into the water to spy for fish and turtles.
After a few minutes of fighting against battering wind, swirling currents, and sharp coral we thought better of our quest and headed back to shore. As we climbed out of the water, there was a swirl of activity. The rescue crew was swimming hard against the wind and waves as a helicopter hovered over the beach. Toweling off, we watched a jetski zoom from where it had been positioned near the rocky cliffs to the beach with two rescue swimmers in tow. As it pulled up onto the sand, there was a collective gasp from all of us beachgoers turned spectators.
The two swimmers quickly unlatched a pale unmoving body from a stretcher attached to the back of the jetski, flopped it out onto the beach and started administering CPR.
No one expects to see a dead body during a family outing to the beach. But being in law enforcement, I was accustomed to seeing dead bodies and very familiar with the arduous, chest-crunching, limb flailing, time-consuming task of CPR. And to be honest, my first reaction was annoyance. I was irritated that this person had drowned and caused me to have some discomfort on my sunny escape from Alaska’s winter. As soon as I realized how self-centered this thought was, I tried to suppress it.
At this point, my poor wife was trying to shield our kids from having to see the terrible sight that was literally splayed out in front of them on the beach. Then I had my second self-centered thought. Why try and shield them? This is a good learning experience for them. Both my eight-year-old and my five-year-old were craning their necks, earnestly trying to get a glimpse of what was happening. So as calmly as I could, I gave my wife the they-already-saw-the-dead-guy-might-as-well-make-it-educational look. It wasn’t a look we had ever shared before, but she understood. Then we both calmed down a bit and let them watch from a safe distance.
My eldest daughter, ever the practical thinker, asked questions about how someone could have died while swimming. She wanted to learn how to use the experience to be safer in the future. My middle daughter, being more experiential, was amazed that she might have just been snorkeling in the same water with a dead person. She even declared that she had seen him in the water (which was not true). My son, who is two, just kept running in circles, pausing every few minutes to look meaningfully into his mom’s teary eyes and say, “Mom, sorry there’s a dead man.” Then he would resume running in circles.
It was strange to see how they greeted the new experience. None of them were afraid or sad at first. They just accepted it for what it was. Because they had never been taught to fear their own mortality before.
Then from somewhere behind us, a golf cart came whizzing by, and a woman, at times hysterical and at other times in a blank haze of shock, stumbled onto the beach to watch her husband’s death.
Another collective gasp from the crowd.
For my eldest daughter, now, a realization of why death is scary sunk in. She had enough reason and empathy to imagine if it was her family member who had died, and how she might feel. And of course my poor wife was watching all of her worst nightmares play out before her eyes and sobbing hysterically.
As we sat on the beach, watching this strange woman’s life fall apart, something happened. Families who had been enjoying a day at the beach huddled together and embraced each other. Groups of people moved forward, slowly and gently extending their hands in blessings and prayers. The judgment that might come from others was now somehow irrelevant. All the selfishness that I had felt earlier melted away. Not because I had suppressed it, but because it simply did not belong. The moment in time had swelled bigger than all the pride, greed, and self-serving that comes with being on vacation and for the most part being human.
I imagine that from a distance, maybe reading a news article or seeing the scene in a passing car, a person might shake their head and curse the “senselessness of death” but to be so close to it, I realized that it was a powerful force of goodness.
In Richard Rohr’s daily meditations, he makes this statement:
Any journey of great love or great suffering makes us go deeper into our faith and eventually into what can only be called universal truth. Love and suffering are finally the same, because those who love deeply are committing themselves to eventual suffering, as we see in Jesus. And those who suffer often become the greatest lovers.Richard Rohr, daily meditations
The suffering and love that emanated from that moment in time was like a shockwave, shifting the paradigm of all of the people on the beach. It made me wonder why it is that we so ardently fear death. Why do we try and shield our children from it, replacing their dead goldfish while they are at school and creating stories about farms for dogs in the country? All we are really doing is depriving them of the beautiful suffering that leads into great love. Of course it is not an easy task. It is so much easier to give in to fear, but the results are worth the difficulty.
The rescue team worked for a full hour, trying to revive the man on the beach. But he had been under the water for at least an hour. Finally, they picked him up and took him away, leaving a still shocked wife all alone on the beach to pick up the pieces of her now shattered life. I cannot imagine the terrible grief that she experienced then and is still experiencing now and I do not intend to discount her grief at all.
And even though I do not know the name of the man who died on the beach that day. I find comfort in knowing that no matter how he chose to live his life, his death was a positive force for change in Napili Bay on February 4, 2021.
Just before he was taken away, a mother humpback whale and her baby drifted in close to the bay, blooming up out of the water and crashing back down again. They breached as if to honor the death of a fellow creature. And if we had been under the water, we would have also heard them singing.