The moment we are born, we start dying.
My father taught me this when I was three years old. I remember sitting on a white sand beach in Samoa on a very calm, breezy morning as my father slipped blue inflatable swim rings around my thin sun-browned arms. He bent forward to breathe air into the rings, his longish red hair brushing my nose as the ocean breezes swept along the waves that rushed up to tickle our toes before retreating quickly with a swish. It was high tide and my dad was preparing to take me out past where the ocean breaks itself on the reef barrier of the tiny island of Samoa.
“Jenny,” he said, “Did you know, we start dying the moment we are born?” his brows raised with his question. I nodded. I knew what death was, even at that young age.
Death was the thing that caused the fish stop flopping about. It made the wings of butterflies fall off and turned coconut trees brown and withered. I also understood, that it would cause me to lay still one day, too.
“Follow my instructions, okay?” he said. I knew that what he meant to say that if I didn’t follow his instructions, I could die.
“Okay,” I replied.
“These,” he said, referring to the inflatable rings, “will keep you afloat.” Then he pulled on a snorkeling mask, but situated it on top of his head while he fitted another, smaller snorkeling mask over my face, fitting the end of the breathing tube in my mouth.
His sky-blue eyes twinkled like the sunlight dancing across the slow undulating surface of the ocean as he demonstrated how to take slow even breaths through the tube. I practiced for a bit breathing in and out until he was satisfied. Then, he stood me up and led me into the water until we were deep enough to put on our flippers. He showed me how to move my legs and position my feet to propel me through the water smoothly. It was an awkward feeling trying to remember to breath through the tube evenly without panicking when the water covered my face and move my legs in a steady fashion so as to move through the water easily. I practiced swimming circles around my dad as he kept a steady hand on my back to guide me. Soon after, he showed me how to blow the water from my breathing tube if ever a wave over swept me, or if I wanted to dive below the surface and my tube filled with water.
After about half an hour of practice, he slung me across his back and swam out past the breakers. I was not strong enough to swim against the ocean to go past the breakers, or to even tread water for very long without the aid of the inflatable arm rings, but he wanted to show me what it was like past the safety of our small island. I glanced back toward shore. It seemed like we were miles away.
Once past the breakers, he gently pulled me from his back as he tread water. He pointed downward, above the water level.
“I’m going down to look for octopus,” he told me. “You stay here and watch.”
“Okay,” I said in a voice small and fearful. He sensed my fear. “If you get scared, just call for me.” I nodded. He smiled at me, then pulled his mask down over his face, stuck the snorkel in his mouth and dove. The last I saw of him was his flippers splashing the water a few feet from me. I stuck my face mask in the water to watch him descend in a cloud of bubbles. I could see the edge of the reef fall away into darker water. My father swam close to the reef’s edge, using it to propel him quickly towards the ocean’s murky depths.
When I could no longer see him, I lifted my face out of the water. I realized how very alone I was then, floating so far was from shore and so close to the open ocean. I could imagine myself being sucked out to ocean during the transition to low tide if we stayed too long, or a giant whale coming by and swallowing me whole like Jonah in the bible. I looked again at the shore and I could see my house, like a tiny dot on the expanse of white sand. If something happened to my dad and he didn’t come back, could I make it back to shore without him?
As soon as I thought that, I felt/heard a small voice assure me that I could and I believed.
Forty years later, in fact, just a couple of months ago, as I was going about the mundane task of cleaning my home, that same small voice whispered to me, “You’re dying.” My immediate response was, “Of course I am,” as the distant memory of floating alone in the ocean returned to me. I hadn’t thought of that event in years and it left an odd feeling of foreboding in my heart. I quickly shook it off and thought no more of it.
Little did I know that within 4 weeks I would be taken to the emergency room with critically low levels of hemoglobin, so low that my odds of dying from heart failure were nearly 100%. And the only reason, the ONLY reason I even survived was because of the diligent and persistent care of a man named John, who was I was barely acquainted with. John hardly knew me, as we had just met a couple of weeks before, yet his unselfish and loving nature compelled him to see to my well being as he practically carried me to the ER after troubling symptoms had slowly incapacitated me over the course of just a few weeks. I think I was the most surprised to learn that my condition warranted an emergency blood transfusion to bring me out of critical status, when I would have just stayed in bed to wait out my symptoms, hoping that I would feel better in the morning. Thankfully, John’s instincts and insistence that he take me to get medical help convinced me otherwise.
The doctor’s commented that they didn’t know how I could have survived so long with such low levels of hemoglobin and iron. “Sheer will power,” said one Doctor, shaking his head. I am very stubborn and determined when I need to be, and as a single mom, I had no choice. I had to keep going day in and day out for the sake of my kids, no matter how weak and tired I was. I had to keep going.
I was a single parent for a long time and it was a thankless job; a lonely job; the hardest job ever. And, if you’re not careful, it can kill you – emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. Single parents learn to survive day by day because they have to for the sake of their children. Becoming single is like being cast adrift in an ocean of turbulent waters as you struggle to figure out how to survive on your own with the burden of children and bills, and conflict with the ex, not to mention the dating world which is filled with tumultuous and unstable people also trying to navigate the unknown waters of being single again.
Interestingly, my brush with death only served to galvanize my determination to fight for the well-being of single parent families. Two and a half years ago, I started a magazine called SOLO: Strengthening the Single Parent Family – it’s mission clearly expressed in its title.
I started SOLO to become the voice of the single parent family and to be the platform of change by bringing awareness of their struggles and challenges to business and community leaders and members alike as well as church and government officials who probably don’t understand that there are nearly 12 million single parents of which 80% of them are single mothers with 1 in 4 children under the age of 18 being raised without fathers in America today. That’s a lot of families struggling to stay afloat.
I married John just 3 weeks ago. Something about becoming acutely aware of how close to death I had come and having just met a man who had demonstrated true charity changed my perspective on life that I’m still coming to terms with. John has been an incredible source of strength and security for me ever since; plucking me from the rough waters of single parent life – literally, my own personal lifesaver. I love him dearly and feel a deep sense of gratitude for him.
As a three-year old floating alone in the wide and scary ocean, with my father gone too long, I became scared. I was alone and feeling anxious for his return. I called out for him. I have no idea how he even heard me so far below the waves, but in an instant he was there. He soothed my fears and took me safely back to shore.