The Kindness of Strangers

I am a little overwhelmed. I don’t work especially hard at my job anymore, due to depression and burnout. But even so, the little details of life tend to elude me. There are leaves that need raking, plaster and drywall that need patching, an oven in need of repair, a tree in need of an arbor, there’s that light that hasn’t worked right for years, shoes that need to go back to the store, laundry and dishes and bills piling up, the dog’s tick treatment, issues with the title on the house, email to my mom’s doctor, that prescription waiting for me at the wrong pharmacy, and on and on and on.

I write this list in the passive voice deliberately, because the grammatically potent, active-voice truth often feels too lonely to bear: All of these tasks–and many others of far greater consequence–fall to me. There is no one to help. On the great sea of life, I am the only person keeping me afloat.

And yet.

Every now and then, someone does a kindness that takes off just a little weight. It happened today, the smallest thing, but when I realized it, it felt like I had been saved from drowning.

I know of what I speak, because I almost drowned. Let me tell you a story.

Senator John McCain and I have precisely one thing in common: We both have been plucked from the water by kindly Vietnamese people, though thankfully I was not subsequently incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton for five years.

I was on a three-week tour of Vietnam with my parents, who were in their late sixties at the time. Escorting two senior citizens–even seniors as chill and capable as my parents were back then–through a developing
world country–even one as gorgeous and hospitable as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a little stressful. Ok, more than stressful. After about ten days, I was ready to either defect or kill them both.

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Fan boats in Ha Long Bay.

At just that point in the trip, we took an overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude, a replica of a 19th-century French paddleboat, in majestic Ha Long Bay. It was a luxurious experience, complete with free mini mai tais upon boarding, which both of my parents declined. Not being one to leave money on the table, and desperately needing to relieve some stress, I drank all three.

Nicely toasted, I enjoyed the balmy breezes as we set sail for our first stop, a small island that featured a swimming beach, a mountain, and a pagoda atop a winding flight of some 400 stairs. We decided to try it, my father with his bad heart, my mother with her bad knees, and me with my mai tai-impaired judgement. My father petered out part way up and sat heavily on a bench to catch his breath. (He would have four stents put in his coronary arteries about six weeks later, so my great fear that I was going to have to find a coffin in Vietnam for a 6’4″ man was not totally unfounded.) Mom and I made it to the top in good time, but then, as we climbed down, her pace slowed dramatically.

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The island.

In concern for both parents, mindful of the departing pontoon boat, and desperate to keep moving after 10 sedentary days, I kept climbing down to my dad, then back up to my mom, then down again, perhaps doubling or tripling the number of stairs in the journey. By the time we all reached the bottom, I was tired and ready to scream. I needed some me-time, and I remembered this talk-show anecdote Drew Barrymore once told about feeling pent up on a cruise, and how she dove off the boat and swam to a nearby island. I could do that in reverse, right?

It didn’t look that far.

I’ll add here that I grew up in the midwest, and we are not “boat people,” so while I was a strong swimmer who had completed advanced lifeguard training in high school, I had little experience with the sea. Apparently, people like that–like me–tend to be very bad at judging distance over open water. I learned that pearl of wisdom from a fellow passenger, a boating instructor in Sydney Harbor, after I became known on the Emeraude as “the girl who nearly drowned.”

I gave my parents my ID, room key, and sandals and told them I was going to skip the pontoon boat and swim back to the Emeraude by myself. Uncharacteristically, they didn’t really say much except “Ok! See ya later!”

Which makes me think they were sick of me too.

I walked into the water wearing nothing but some black shorts, a sports bra, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and the tipsy confidence of a would-be manic pixie dreamgirl. The water was warm and lovely! I paddled capably through the swimming area and made it to the floating ball that demarcated the edge. It was slow going! I was breathing HARD and clung to the buoy while I caught my breath. I had lost track of time and was starting to worry that the pontoon boat might beat me back to the big boat, my parents would think I was somewhere aboard, and the Emeraude would leave without me. I needed to press on.

Plus, it didn’t look that far.

While I was weighing my options, a young Vietnamese man stopped to check on me. He lived on the island and had swum out to the Emeraude to see friends who worked on the ship. There was a little swimming platform on the back of the boat where guests and off-duty crew were enjoying the water. I saw him waive goodbye to his friends, jump in the surf, and swim towards me, passing by as I was clinging to the buoy and heaving for breath.

“You…ok?’ he asked in halting English but with obvious concern.

“I’m fine! Fine!” I cheerfully waived him off. Then, as if to prove it, I set out once again. Freestyle, sidestroke, breast, other sidestroke–I kept switching it up as my muscles would start to fatigue.

Almost there! It didn’t look that far.

In my midwestern ignorance of open water, I hadn’t considered the current. Of course! The buoys marked the borders of a “safe” swimming area that was unaffected by current. Once outside it, the water’s calm surface hid a secret power, pushing pushing pushing pushing me away from my destination.

More swimming, different strokes, but my strength was failing. I knew I was in trouble, but I still had perhaps 20 yards to go. It might as well have been a mile. (And yet, it didn’t look that far!)

I was struggling, and my limbs felt like lead. Due to my lifeguard training, I knew that the most important thing was to remain calm. I did. I paused, vertical in the water and barely able to keep my head above its gentle waves. I called out to the Vietnamese men on the swimming platform.

“I need some help!” They ignored me.

I saw a white woman standing at the railing nearby. “Would you tell them I need some help?” She stared at me blankly, like a cow waiting to be fed. Then she walked away.

Shit.

Or should I say, “Merde.” I learned later that she was French, and neither she nor the Vietnamese men lounging on the deck understood English. My calm demeanor belied my desperation.

I kept going, advancing against the current in a mighty effort. I had two worries. The most pressing was that I was going to die. A close second was that I was going to be nude from the waist down when it happened. You see, my shorts were not actually board shorts. They got all stretchy in the water, and they kept slipping down below my hips, causing me to expend energy I couldn’t afford pulling them back up. Oh, did I mention I wasn’t wearing any panties? I pictured my mother’s embarrassment when they pulled my lifeless, pants-less body from the water.

And still, I forced myself to remain calm. I had a plan. I estimated that there was enough life in my limbs to swim for another 30 seconds. At that point, I was going to shift to a “dead man’s float” to conserve energy. I would let the current carry me out to sea and hope that someone would notice and come to my aid. Basically, I was going to surrender my life to chance, beyond any further control of mine, having expended the last of my reserves to save it.

I was now perhaps 30 or 40 feet from the Emeraude’s swimming deck, where the Vietnamese men were chatting happily in complete indifference to the life-or-death struggle unfolding just yards away. I called out to them once more.

“I need some help!” This time, the brittle edge to my voice caused them to stop talking. They looked at me, but no one moved.

I was exhausted, spent, perhaps ten seconds away from the dead-man plan. “Remain calm” was so ingrained in me that I failed to realize: Now is the time to go insane, to scream, to disrupt the calm of those around you, to demand, “HELP ME SAVE MY FUCKING LIFE!”

Instead, I was silent. Time to float away.

And then something miraculous happened!

The young man, the one who had asked if I was ok when I was clinging to the buoy–I didn’t know it, but he had been following me, in anticipation of the great danger I was now facing.

At just that moment, when all my strength was gone, he swam up behind me and gently took my hand, as though he were assisting a lady as she stepped across a puddle. It was nothing, just the barest gesture of assistance, and yet it was everything–literally everything. With him taking off the slightest amount of weight, I found my strength again, and my head rocketed above the water. He called out in Vietnamese to the men on the boat, and they realized in horror what was happening. Lots of scurrying, shouting–I remember thinking, “Maybe y’all shouldn’t keep the life preserver in the closet.”

They threw it to me. I am a person who has literally had a donut-shaped life-preserver thrown to her. It landed a few feet to my front, my rescuer helped me reach for it, a guy on the boat jumped in and frantically thrashed towards us, and in the commotion I found the strength to kick my way to safety. I still had to climb the ladder, however. I slipped, badly scraping my shins, but I made it up and onto the deck…where I promptly fell down, because there was nothing left in my legs. I sat there in tremendous embarrassment while kind Vietnamese people fussed over me.

“Thank you. Cám ơn. Cám ơn. Thank you.” There was nothing else to say.

Today, I was finishing some errands on a miserable late-fall day. I returned to my car in haste, trying not to linger in the cold rain. My electronic key worked instantly, I hopped in, and drove away. Later, I realized…the key was supposed to be broken.

For weeks, that key has been a source of constant irritation, as its battery slowly died. And yet, I could never remember to add it to the list of mundane, yet overwhelming tasks that need attention. Today I took my car in for service. The guy who did the intake would have noticed that the key wasn’t working. He must have changed the battery for me. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and started crying when I realized that sometimes there is help beyond what my tired body can do.

I’m sure if I called to thank him, he would say that it was nothing, just the barest gesture of assistance. And yet it was everything–literally everything. Because removing even the slightest amount of weight is sometimes all you have to do to save a stranger from drowning.

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I took this picture of the Emeraude (right) from atop the pagoda. You can’t even see the beach from whence I began my swim down below. Turns out, it was really fucking far!

 

 

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