The world reassembled as my eyes opened. I was looking up at a plain white ceiling, smooth with no cracks—not my bedroom ceiling. My gangly 14-year-old body was lying on a bed covered by a sheet and thin blanket, dressed in baggy blue-striped pajamas—definitely not my pajamas. The room had a faint disinfectant smell and it was empty except for the bed and a wooden bedside table. Like the room, my head was empty, a sort of peaceful blank—nothing there except stillness.
A thought popped into my mind: I’m in hospital. With it came a feeling of swimming up from the depths, gasping for an illusory breath as though I’d been far away. Another odd-shaped thought slipped into my mind: I’m still alive.
Like catching a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, I could sense that other place—restful, soft and inviting. A soothing sense of peacefulness, it reminded me of waking up on a summer’s day when I was very young, a sunny morning filled with bird song welcoming a day that stretched endlessly with no demands and no worries. So that’s what it’s like when you die. Somehow I knew it to be true. As I looked around the white room trying to fix on something familiar, the sense of it began to fade, falling away like a pebble dropped into a deep pond, sinking slowly out of sight. My mind turned over and memories began to trickle back.
I remembered the numb hands and the dreamlike warmth, the icy water stealing my life away, my mind contracting like the closing of a camera aperture and time distorting. The rocking of the waves lulled me with a rhythmic message: let go; don’t struggle. A dim animal instinct insisted I hold tight to life but it was fading, growing less and less persuasive. Fewer and fewer thoughts wormed their way into my brain, each more sluggish than the last. I’m dying. It feels OK—like going home. This world is hard; the other world is where I belong. As I let go and let go a little more, each moment slipped away into eternity.
Back in my hospital room, I tried to figure it out: How had I got here? Who had saved us? Another memory rose to the surface. That other place had been safe and comfortable and I was content to stay there. But something had tugged at me, dragging me back to a harsh gray world way up there on the surface. I tried to resist—but it was insistent, compelling me to pay attention. My younger brother Toody was screaming! Then I heard Dad’s deeper voice echoing Toody’s. Reluctantly, my salt-laden eyelids cracked open to a bleary image of a dark shape growing larger. It materialized into the hull of a massive ship.
Unconcerned, unmoved, like an uninvolved onlooker, I noticed my voice join theirs and my arms wave frantically. My body seemed to have a mind of its own, a desperate wish to survive, but I watched from that other distant place. It seemed silly to make a fuss.
The black iron cliff loomed above us; a head peered over the edge and called out something. Then a long rope ladder snaked down and hit the water with a splash. Toody thrashed over to it in his oversize lifejacket, grabbed hold and sped up the ladder like a monkey. He seemed to fly. The image shook me awake and roused me into action. I swam over to the ladder, clung tight to the rungs and pulled myself up, hand after hand, surprised at my own strength and agility. The ropes jerked as Dad came up after me. Hands reached over a metal rim and grabbed my life jacket by the collar pulling it up over my ears, dragging me onto a hard surface. The images fragmented into a mist of hazy impressions: a blanket across my shoulders, foreign voices in a metal room, hot tea with whiskey, then blank…
Someone must have taken us to hospital but I couldn’t find any images. I wondered where Dad and Toody were and what day it was. My thoughts were fuzzy and unfocussed as I tried to string together what had happened—then like a dam bursting, the memories of the sea voyage and shipwreck flooded back into my mind.
We had set out from Cardiff docks, that part of town filled with rusting warehouses and scary men in cloth caps. Toody, my 12-year-old younger brother and I were hopping out of our skins with excitement: it was our grand adventure with Dad —a sea journey from Cardiff down the Bristol Channel and along the coast to the town of Barry. This was a special trip, just the three of us.
A week before, we’d launched the Magog for the first time but the tide had gone out so fast we had to drag the craft to shore over knee-deep chocolate-colored mud. The Magog was our sailing canoe named after the mythological Welsh giant, Gogmagog. Dad had built it at a local woodworking class over the previous winter: a narrow three-seated kayak-canoe with two masts and three sails. The odd-looking boat was made of canvas over a wood frame—dusky red above, slate gray below—with wooden leeboards hanging down each side to keep it stable when the sails filled with wind. We each had double paddles to help push it along and there was a tiller and rudder at the rear. The long thin craft—a hybrid canoe, kayak and sailing boat—was oddly beautiful and quite unstable.
“Time to get aboard—you first Toody,” Dad said, stretching out his hand.
Once Toody was settled, it was my turn. I caught Dad’s knobby fingers in mine, feeling his surprisingly strong arm. The Magog wobbled alarmingly and for a moment I was afraid it might upset. Dad kept it stable while I snuggled down into the middle seat. He handed each of us a set of paddles, clambered into the back seat, pushed off and the craft glided away from the jetty.
We started to row in a ragged rhythm, pulling the Magog out into the bay. I tried to follow Toody’s somewhat erratic pace as he maneuvered his paddles side to side, short arms hampered by the lifejacket. Away from the shore, the wind had strengthened and was gusting across the sullen water, whipping up white sea-foam.
I could feel Dad behind me, intent. Like a wild sea bird with his prominent beaked nose above a trim white beard, he peered out over the water, graying hair blown every which way by the wind. Unlike his normal diffident self, out here on the water he was in his element—relaxed and confident, directing our actions and answering our questions.
With the tide sweeping us out of the estuary and the winds blowing against us, it felt like we were moving down a massive river that emptied out into the Irish Sea. We set the sails, lowered the leeboards to prevent the boat from capsizing and pulled the mainsail up the forward mast. I helped Toody raise the narrow jib in front while Dad raised the mizzen sail at the rear. He pushed the tiller, the boom swung over, the sails filled and we began to pick up speed, cutting through each wave, driving splashes of seawater over the bow. I felt a surge of exhilaration and Toody turned and beamed a wide smile. This was what we’d been waiting for.
“We don’t want to get too far out in the channel. That’s where the big ships go. Get ready to tack back in. Mind your heads when the boom swings over.” Dad shifted the rudder and we inelegantly turned the craft towards the shore.
The stiff breeze gusted strongly under a sky that had turned gunmetal gray. Even with the cold wind and seawater spray, we stayed relatively warm, swaddled in our woolen sweaters and life jackets. Toody was excitedly gabbling away, Dad was quietly concentrating as we rounded a point of land and a semicircular bay of pebbles and rocks unfolded on our right-hand-side. It looked calm and empty, a good place to spend time exploring, looking in tide pools for shells, crabs and small fishes.
Just then, Toody gestured at something and yelled, “What’s that thing, Dad?” He was pointing at an odd line of white that had appeared beyond the far headland of the bay.
I turned and saw Dad peering hard out into the distance. He was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure—it could be a tide race.” He cleared his throat, a sign that he was on edge. “We’d better head into shore.”
We paddled as hard as we could but the powerful tide was insistent, sweeping us around the bay away from land and safety. Now we could clearly see a wall of huge white-topped waves stretching out into the main channel.
Dad’s voice was tense. “Moey, we’re not going to make it at this rate. We’d better head out into the bay—see if we can get around it.” Dad had to yell at the top of his voice. It was hard to hear him over a deep roaring sound that was getting louder with every minute. We urgently turned the craft.
The sails billowing, the wind behind us, waves breaking white over the bow we shared an illusion of great speed. The left leeboard was forced clean out of the water and between paddle strokes I pushed it back down with freezing hands. Toody breathed heavily doing his best to keep up the paddle rhythm. Dad called out commands from behind, his words garbled by the wind and roaring waves.
Slowly, inexorably, we were sucked backward into the maw of a monstrous watery beast. Turning around, I saw a massive wave towering high over the masts that struck like a fist, engulfing us, tossing our boat like a plaything.
The Magog flipped onto its side, held horizontal for a few moments by the sails. Toody screamed. Dad called out something half heard as I struggled to get out of my seat. The sails waterlogged, pulling the craft over and I went under. It was cold and silent down there; the icy salt water filled my mouth and eyes as I scrabbled with my hands and dragged my legs out from under. I finally surfaced, shocked and spluttering. When I looked around, the others were out and clutching onto the Magog’s sides. My life jacket kept me afloat as I locked my fingers tight onto a slippery ledge of the craft.
The waves danced and heaved around us but in a few moments we’d sped beyond the tide race and the sea settled once more into a normal swell. The terrible wall of water receded and that safe little bay disappeared. Water chilled my back and the life jacket chafed at my neck. My face and hands were quickly becoming numb.
Toody was crying, tears mixed with seawater. “What’s going to happen, Daddy? Are we going to be rescued? I’m cold.” He looked small and helpless, a little boy needing comfort.
Dad’s voice was strained but strangely calm, his training as a World War II pilot coming to the fore. “There’s no chance of getting the boat upright. We’ll just have to wait until we get rescued. The main thing is to stay with the boat and hold on tight. I’ll set off the smoke signal as soon as we see a ship. They’ll see it and come for us. We’ll be fine.”
Dad’s composure settled me but Toody looked dazed, in a world of his own. He started to softly whimper, “What are we going to do? We’ll never get to Barry now.”
Time passed. A chilled silence settled over us. We began to rise and fall with the long slow waves of the open ocean. On the top of one swell we saw a long black shape far away, a drift of smoke rising from its stack. Toody screamed out for help and lapsed into jumbled sounds. Dad reached under his lifejacket for the emergency rescue canister. He pulled the tab and a long cloud of red smoke spread out behind us—our last hope.
We waited endlessly, hoping that someone had seen the smoke signal. The solid world drifted far away while all around the sullen gray water heaved and flowed. We stopped speaking, submerged in our own shrinking worlds, clinging tight to the slippery underside of our boat. The only sound was the splash of seawater against canvas; all around, the gray tides of the Bristol Channel swept us swiftly out into the Irish Sea. We were lost in a wasteland of endless waves.
I drifted, body half forgotten, strange images sliding at the edge of awareness. The rhythm of wave and water lulled me, inviting me to let go. As the sea drew the heat from my body, warmth seeped into my bones and into my mind. Something opened up inside, a wider sense of things: everything was OK, nothing to be feared. Just one painful thought remained: What about my sisters? I saw an image of Dilly, Jeffie and Veronica standing around our three graves with sorrowful ashen faces. They’ll be left behind, filled with sadness. A new thought came to me: We are the lucky ones. They are the ones who suffer.
I was struggling to put it all together when a sharp knock startled me, sending a shock through my body. A door at the other side of the room opened and in strode a blonde nurse, all brisk manner and starched white uniform consulting something on a clipboard. For a moment I was confused; I’d forgotten other people existed.
“Owen Evans, isn’t it?” she asked in a singsong Welsh accent. That was even more puzzling. Owen? That must be me. No one calls me Owen; everyone calls me Moey. I pulled myself together and mumbled something vaguely affirmative.
She looked up at me. “Your father and brother are fine. You’ll get to see them in a little while. Now I just need a little sample. I’ll be back in a while to collect it.”
She placed an odd-shaped bottle on the bedside table, turned on the heel of her sensible shoes and left as abruptly as she entered.
It took me a moment to get my bearings. The strange glass container was baffling: it crouched on its side like a distorted animal looking at me with a long mouth-like spout. What is it? What am I supposed to do? Then something clicked. She wants me to pee into it. I struggled to my knees surprised at how weak I felt, opened the flap in the blue-striped pajamas bottoms and put my penis into the neck of the bottle.
After a moment’s pause something let go in my body—and kept letting go, more and more. The floodgates opened and I could not stop the surge, even as the bottle threatened to overflow with yellow liquid. Finally, gritting my teeth, I clenched my bladder shut just as a few drops of pee splattered onto the sheet.
I got myself decent. When the nurse returned after what seemed like a long time, she found me kneeling on the bed, carefully holding the bottle upright, filled to the brim with urine. She wrapped it in a cloth and took it without a word. A familiar surge of embarrassment swept through me, flamed my face and jolted me into my painful adolescent self. I was back here, in this world—and a part of me wished I wasn’t.
We should have died. A tiny speck in a vast heaving sea, there was next to no chance of being found. The rescue was a fluke, a long shot, one of those silly endings you see in corny disaster movies. But we were rescued and that brings up the question, why—what was the point? I decided there must be a point. Because I survived, there had to be a reason and I suppose the rest of my life has been a quest to discover that reason. A subtle sense of meaning and purpose has been with me ever since, buried deep at the core of my being. Near-death experiences tend to do that; they cast a long shadow.
That tiny glimpse behind the veil of mortality shook something deep inside me. Death became less frightening and in some strange way, life became less enticing, less captivating. Something at the center of my personality, the instinct meant to keep me clinging to the last breath, had been maimed. Fear of death became a foreign feeling, so I have to remind myself that most others feel a reflexive terror at the thought of their own demise. I can’t fully empathize.
Instead, I harbor a subtle attraction to my own death—though I don’t look forward to dying. Death is possibly the most real thing we can experience; there is no hiding, no bargaining and no self-deception. For that reason I am drawn more to funerals than weddings. That may sound morbid but when someone I know dies, underneath my sense of loss I find a flickering flame of joy. If that person goes to where I went, then they will be fine. At my age, as my own death looms closer, I look forward to it with curiosity and interest. I believe that if we experience Heaven (whatever that means) while in this body, we will know how to find it when we die.
Of course, since reading books on near-death, I feel somewhat gipped. Where were the bright lights, the heavenly choir, the deceased relatives in waiting? All I got was a safe place of comfort and peace: nice but not terribly enthralling. Many years later, my Grandmother talked to her dead husband and sister when she was dying. She wanted to go with them but told us she could feel the prayers of her friends drawing her back into life. Eighteen months later, she died a beautiful, graceful death in her own bed and asked that we have a party to celebrate her reunion with her loved ones. Only my uncle Derek put on a miserable face, probably because he thought it was expected. The rest of the family had fun.
Dad, Toody and I were slowly dying of hypothermia in the water and Toody probably got the worst of it—he was so slight and vulnerable. Nowadays in the West, both of us would be offered counseling to work through the trauma. But we weren’t and so we had to struggle on the best we could—like the vast majority of traumatized children. Was that a terrible thing? Depends how you look at it. If I had not nearly died, had not had to struggle, would I be the person I am today? Erase the experience and who do I become? A better question: could it have been made easier? Of course! All we needed was love and understanding—not available. Our emotional support was a missing mother and a clueless father.
That cluelessness is what got us into trouble in the first place. Dad was foolhardy, irresponsible and bloody stupid but I never found out what he thought about the whole thing; it quickly disappeared as a topic of conversation. He knew the risks, knew the Bristol Channel had the second-most powerful tide in the world (it drops 50 feet in six hours), even talked about the spectacular Severn Bore wave that travels up river at high tides. Yet he took his boys out onto treacherous waters in an untried, unstable, eccentric boat. Careful fathers don’t do that—put their sons in harm’s way. What was he thinking?
Was this some oblivious remnant from the War? He’d been a decorated pilot, flew nonstop terrifying bombing missions over Germany, had his planes shot to pieces, crash-landed multiple times: excitement, exhilaration, terror! Now here he was in Cardiff, leading the most boring mundane life imaginable—deadly dull office work and the endless demands of children. Did he miss the danger, the adrenaline high; did he crave risk and challenge to add spice to an insipid diet? He certainly stayed calm and in control during the time we were in the water—completely in his element. Had he unconsciously set up the situation to test his mettle, to restore his lost heroic identity? I should have asked him before he died.