I wanted him to take me. He is Mr. Death and I was ready to offer myself up, to get out of the infinite misery of what I had become in the course of one week in a hospital. A breathing dead man.
My daughter looked at me, and I spoke, my voice small, distant, empty. I said, “Goodbye, Jade. I’m leaving this world.” With death waiting, a warm, welcoming presence, ready to take me out of my broken body and on to another place, unknown but undeniably better than the one I lived in at that moment, how could I not want to get out? There was nothing to fear from that man waiting there. He was not grim. He was no horned devil. He was a man of peace, Mr. Death.
Jade looked at me, and shook her head. She didn’t believe me. I don’t remember what she said, only that it was not “Goodbye.” Nor do I know what she did or how it happened but she reeled me back. Back to the living world.
In retrospect that brief moment passing through the waiting room and seeing Jade and speaking to her has taken on a mythic character in my memory. At that moment my life hung in the balance, and the choice was mine. Simply by virtue of her presence, exhausted, confused, and yet like any teenager certain that her world as constituted included her dad, she made the choice for me. I couldn’t leave her and Donna.
Soon thereafter I then found myself in an airport in the midst of sand dunes near the sea. I watched the Superbowl on a giant television, and the game was real—Seahawks crushing Broncos—but that particular airport in the dunes was not of the living world. Then I arrived by ambulance at the real Puerto Vallarta airport, and was wheeled onto a plane. The airport in the dunes was the airport that would have lifted me out of this world forever.
Instead, this flight: the medivac airplane, and the ten thousand dollar twenty-minute leap from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara. Plane rattling and shuddering. My wife at my side, terrified I would die en route. Friends in Seattle had raised funds during the Superbowl to pay for the flight, denied on a technicality by our insurance company, since we did not have the cash or credit on hand. That technicality could have killed me. Eventually they gave in and we got our friends’ money back to them, but it took a whole year of haggling.
While Seattle won that big game, I nearly died. The first doctor at the hospital to see me, one of the crew checking me in, took at look at me and said to Donna, “Senora, he has a ten percent chance of survival.” And then they put me under. Underwater.
Fortunately, another doctor, or doctora, in this case, a brilliant infectologist or infectious disease specialist called Norma Hernandez, took Donna aside and told her this after looking me over: “I can see that he is in good shape and he has a good diet, so he is going to survive.”
I rise up out of the ocean’s depths two years earlier, and find myself sitting on my beautiful green longboard at La Lancha, in morning sun on a perfect day with big waves. I draw in a breath of air, shake off the water, and look around. The waves surged in their rhythmic fashion, the ocean sparkled and shimmied, Terry and Nick sat waiting for the next set. The air was full of the sound of waves breaking, gulls crying, surfers calling out. “Did you see that barrel?” I said to Terry. “I got buried!”
He nodded, “yeah, yeah,” not wanting to demonstrate that he was impressed. I get a lot of waves out there and my friends get a little annoyed at my hustling harder than them at times. But not often. Mostly, we are blissed out together, riding waves, in love with the moments we’re sharing. Surfing without crowds works that way. Terry lunged onto his belly and went after one. I got in position and did the same, not wanting the wave wasted if he failed to catch it.
He did miss that one, and I grabbed it, got another long ride, and then paddled back out, feeling guilty at having bagged another one. Fortunately, goofyfoot Terry went flying by on the next one, carved a huge longboard cutback in my face and blasted me with a spray job that washed away my make-believe guilt. Yes, make believe! I am not guilty! If these dudes aren’t going to go after every wave, I am. I’m sixty-two and like another Sayulita friend, Patrick Hasburgh, a year or three older than me, said, “Justin, our wave countdown is looming.” And so it is.
La Lancha brought me to Mexico. Sitting around in my Seattle house running out of money sometime in 2008–everybody was running out of money in those days, thanks to Bush 2 and his gang of crony capitalists and warmongers–I took a Facebook look at a 45-second video posted by Mitch Roman, a friend of mine from San Francisco who had moved down to Sayulita not long before. We had met Mitch and his wife Lina a couple of years earlier, while vacationing in Sayulita, and Donna and I shared with them the fantasy of moving down permanently, or at least for a while.
The video showed Terry Orr and Nick Sherman, two other gringos who had moved with their families to Sayulita in the previous year or so, pushing barbed wire aside and heading down a muddy road with scrubby jungle pushing up against it on both sides. At the end the muddy road opened onto a beach, a hundred yards of white sand framed between rocky headlands. Out in the ocean, small shapely waves broke and half a dozen surfers took turns. There were a few video snippets of Terry and Nick surfing, and then it ended.
I showed it to Donna and she said, “You want to be there, don’t you?”
“More than anything.” Seattle was cold and dark and wet and we were going broke. And so, yes, I wanted to be there more than anywhere else in the world.