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  • Gloria Walski

How a Near-Death Experience Taught Me to Appreciate What I Have

Updated: Apr 14

It's Thanksgiving this week, one of my favorite holidays! I love the food and getting to spend time with people who are important to me. And it's the beginning of the end of the year, a time when I can relax and wind down after a hectic year. Because yes, every year is hectic.

This is also a holiday when we reflect, count our blessings and give thanks for what we have. This year, I'm grateful to even be celebrating Thanksgiving. Yes, this is something we should always be grateful for. But I almost didn't make it past March 22, 2023.

Planning the Vacation of My Dreams

I started planning our family spring break vacation in the fall of 2022. I had never been to Hawaii before and had always wanted to visit. My husband prefers mountains to beaches, but we were already living in Colorado at the time. I figured a beach vacation would be a fun break from the mountains.

Appreciation for a vacation in Hawaii

I scoured all the websites for ideas. A lot of vacation bloggers suggested visiting just one island at a time to get the full experience and vibe of that island. That suggestion was duly noted and I inisted on visiting three islands: Kauai, Oahu and Hawaii (the Big Island).

Yes, I am very thankful to be in a position to plan a Hawaiian island hopping trip. I promise, the point of this blog post is not to brag about this trip.

I spent the six months leading up to March planning our vacation. I wanted to fully maximize our experience. I had an hour-by-hour itinerary and planned everything down to the gnat’s ass. This was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation and we were going to do all the things!

Postcard Perfect Day

The first full day of our vacation was spent on the island of Kauai. We spent the morning exploring Waimea Canyon State Park and met up for lunch with a friend, JW, who happened to be vacationing on the island with his wife, WT.

They were staying in a cottage at a secluded beach on the west side of the island. The water was just a short flight of wooden stairs from their back porch. The sky was a brilliant blue interrupted with just a few feathery clouds. The water was pristine and the view was the stuff of postcards.

Postcard perfect day

After lunch, we wandered south on the beach, enjoying the sunshine. I slathered on the sunscreen for our two boys and me, but my husband skipped it against my better judgement. He said he wasn't going to be out in the sun for that long.

The beige sand was warm beneath our feet. The waves crashed, foaming white before receding back to the ocean and revealing dark rocks hidden just below the surface of the water. Fish darted around the sharp edges and dark crevices of these rocks.

JW and WT led us to a less rocky area where the boys could play in the water without getting slammed into a rock by a wave. Still, we warned them to stay away from the rocks.

Before long, the boys decided they were finished with the water and started searching for seashells in the sand. WT stayed on the beach with them while JW, my husband and I decided to swim out a bit farther in the water.

I have friends who have participated in open water swim competitions, but that's not me. I can swim, and I've been lucky to have had the opportunity to swim in the ocean off the coast of Austrailia and in the Persian Gulf. I've played in the cold waters of California and the much warmer waters of Florida.

It was in Florida that my friends warned me to stay closer to shore in case of sharks. I felt like the risk was worth it. I’ve always loved the feel of being out in the ocean where I was unable to touch the bottom. It's hard to explain why I love that feeling. And when it was time to go back, I just rode the waves and let them bring me back to the beach.

I figured this would be no different. JW, my husband and I were out where my feet couldn't touch the bottom. I peered down into the water and spotted dark rocks beneath me.

My husband turned to me and said, "Does it feel like we're getting pulled out to sea?"

I nodded.

"Let's head back," he said.

The three of us began our return to the beach.

Hawaiian Ocean Currents are Strong

Unfortunately, I was probably 15 feet behind them when we decided to head back. I felt like I was in a swimmer's treadmill.

The distance between us grew with each passing second. It was as if a line existed where if you were in front of it, the current couldn’t get you. And I was behind that line and the current had a strong hold on me.

I focused on keeping my head above water, terrified that otherwise my head would get bashed on the rocks beneath me.

Waves crashing on rocks

My husband and JW were probably halfway back to shore when they realized I wasn’t with them.

“Are you okay?” my husband said. I could barely hear him above the sound of the waves.

My go-to instinct was to say yes. Isn't that weird how we always want to say we're fine? But I shook my head no.

My husband's face transformed from concern to worry. I watched him confer with JW and they turned around to swim toward me.

I kept swimming, but not advancing. I could see my children, just tiny specks, playing safely on the beach with WT. I didn’t want them to witness me drowning.

I thought to myself, Parallel. Swim parallel to the beach. That’s how you escape the current.

I looked north along the beach. I didn't want to deal with the gnarly rocks we had walked past. I looked south and wondered if it was just as rocky in that direction. And instead of swimming parallel, I continued to swim straight at the beach. Probably not the right choice, but at least I knew there were fewer rocks between me and the beach.

Finding the Motivation to Keep Going

My husband and JW finally reached me. My husband pushed me from behind while JW pulled on me toward the beach with each wave that came up behind us. Unfortunately, with each push, my husband pushed himself back, which meant he had to swim to me after each push.

You got this, I told myself. You completed two marathons and which took you over six hours each time. You have the endurance to do this for six more hours!

Six hours! Oh please no.

“Swim,” JW said as we struggled toward the shore. The swimming treadmill held me in place.

Someone make it stop. Someone turn off the waves, please!

My husband kept pushing me. JW kept pulling me. Both yelled at me to swim. I kept moving even though the beach wasn't getting any closer.

The kids can't be witness to this. Keep going. You’re not going to let them lose their mother like this.

Keep swimming

And then my husband was no longer pushing me. I looked back. Somehow he was several feet behind us. "Don't worry about me," he said. "I'll be fine. Just keep going."

He came back to save you. You can't leave him behind!

"Come on," said JW.

We made it to a rock, but the water was still up to my neck. I thought I could catch my breath, but within seconds the swells were pulling me off the rock back to where we had just come from.

We came back to the rock, this time scratching my legs as the water pushed me down. I struggled to stand back up but the sea tugged relentlessly at me. We pushed off the rock at the next wave and made it to another rock, earning another deep scratch, this time on the bottom of my foot.

And we repeated this dance, over and over again, until finally there was just sand benath us and our limbs were a bloody mess.

At some point, JW and I made it past the line of demarcation. My husband was now treading that horrible current.

Just Keep Swimming

JW continued to pull me toward the beach. “Keep swimming,” he demanded. I was getting tired.

Dig deep. You got this. Keep going.

My kids were no longer just specks on the beach. They had stopped searching for seashells and were watching us now, curiosity on their beautiful faces.

JW said to me, “Keep going. I’m going to be right back,” and swam back to the beach. He said something to his wife as he emerged from the water. WT pulled out her phone. JW ran to a life buoy hanging off a pole on the beach and rushed back into the water.

I have never appreciated a life buoy more than I did that day!

He brought that buoy to me and together we made it onto the beach. I laid in the sand, trying to catch my breath. I had never been so grateful to be on land like that.

A minute later, the water grabbed at my ankles. No, not again! I mustered up the energy to crawl away from the water.

My kids joined me and I embraced them like I hadn't seen them in months.

My husband!

I scanned the water for him. He somehow made it past the current line. JW returned to the water with the buoy but my husband waved him off.

My husband thought for sure he was going to have tread water until he was rescued by the Coast Guard. But he found a rock and hung on to it, then pushed himself off when a wave came in. And he grabbed onto the next rock with all his might while the water tried to pull him back, and pushed off with the next wave. His arms got scratched up but it got him back to this side of the current.

He emerged from the water just as the first responder sirens filled the air. Within seconds I was surrounded by firefighters and EMTs.

Aside the scratches all over our legs, JW and I were otherwise alright. My husband's toe was an interesting shade of purple, which contrasted nicely with his bright pink sunburn from having been out in the water for over 45 minutes.

Appreciating the Ordeal

Five lessons learned from my near-death experience.

I am normally an even-keeled person, but even I am a bit surprised at how calm I remained throughout the entire ordeal. I was terrified my kids were going to lose both their parents and that was the worst feeling in the world.

I am so grateful it didn’t happen. The teamwork between JW and my husband was fantastic and their actions nothing short of heroic.

Admittedly, it wasn’t an auspicious start to the vacation, but it really put things into perspective. It made me slow down and appreciate every moment I have with my family. I didn’t exactly throw out the itinerary, mostly because the activities, lodging and flights to the other islands were already booked. But I didn’t lose my mind over not sticking to the plan either. And never once was I tempted to check my work email.

Here is what I learned from this experience:

  1. Know when to ask for help: I am so glad I didn't automatically say everything was fine. Yet, we tend to say everything is okay. We don't want to burden others, we don't want to appear weak or we don't want to admit we're not okay. But it's okay to ask for help.

  2. Trust your knowledge: I knew I was supposed to swim parallel to the beach, yet I didn't. If I had, maybe I could have gotten out of that current sooner with less effort. Sometimes we make poor choices even though we know better. You can't beat yourself up over it, but at least you can learn from it and you won't make the same mistake next time. I just never hope to have to swim parallel to a beach to get out of a current.

  3. The importance of teamwork and motivation: If my husband and JW hadn't worked together to motivate me, I don't know if I would have made it back alive. Sometimes it takes a team to accomplish a task and when that task is difficult, a little motivation can go a long way.

  4. Live in the moment: I was proud of the fun-filled very-packed itinerary I had planned. I hate to admit this, but I relish the planning more than the actual activities themselves. And during the activities, I'm usually focused on the next thing: how we're going to get there, what time we need to be there and making sure everyone is enjoying themselves. If you don't live in the moment to share memories with the people you love, life will pass you by. After this near-death experience, I forced myself to slow down and enjoy each moment with my family. I told myself to quit preparing for the next thing. Old habits die hard, but it's something I continue to work on.

  5. Appreciate the people you love: Every once in a while, something happens to remind us not to take our loved ones for granted. On this day I was terrified my kids were going to lose both their parents. Make sure you appreciate what you have. Even on days they drive you nuts!

Fortunately the rest of the trip was not nearly as eventful. And in case you're wondering, yes, I constantly have conversations with myself in my head.

I am thankful to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving this year with my family. What are you thankful for this year?

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Hello, my name is Gloria. Welcome to my blog! I have over 20 years of experience as an Air Force officer and health care administrator. I've successfully held positions of leadership at many different levels and I am passionate about leadership development. I enjoy coaching people and helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.

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