Even Jon, who sees everything, wasn’t expecting to see the drowned man rolling in the waves. We were sweetly exhausted from sun and saltwater on the first day of our vacation when Jon took me by the elbow. “Look there,” he said. “Is that a person?” Jon’s uncanny tendency to see everything used to stun me. Right in the middle of some urgent conversation about, say, losing his job, he’d grab me and say, with genuine awe, “Look, in the mud. It’s the first crocus!” I’m ashamed of how little those crocuses mattered to me then. It took me a long time to learn to care about the things Jon sees. But this, this couldn’t possibly be what Jon thought.
We were on Flamenco Beach on Isla Culebra. This tiny island lies eighteen miles off the coast of Puerto Rico and is loved for its undeveloped raw beauty, especially the pristine coral reefs and empty beaches. We and our five kids had arrived by way of a twin-engine plane the size of a Volvo. Later, after we’d survived being buffeted about in the wind between the slopes of two small mountains while more or less nose-diving toward the runway, we learned that Culebra is considered one of the trickiest landings in the Caribbean. But at the time it was more exhilarating than scary. After all, isn’t this why we leave home at all: to jolt ourselves back to our senses, to lose our breath so that we can find it again?
Our cabin was one of twelve situated on a nature preserve along Tamarindo, one of the island’s most beautiful reefs. We’d been traveling more than twenty-four hours by the time we arrived, and it was all Jon and I could do to navigate the “road” back to town for food and supplies before darkness fell. We soon sank helplessly into the sort of sleep so heavy it cannot be disturbed by children breathing in your face or sudden loud noises or bright lights or even by the damp, tropical chill that creeps into a cabin in the middle of the night. Sleep so deep that you might awake in the blackness before dawn and have no idea where you are.
That next morning we went to Flamenco Beach, a quintessentially perfect horseshoe of white sugar sand and surreal turquoise water, nestled between rounded mountains. What it lacks in terms of shell-seeking opportunities, it more than makes up for in honest-to-God, paradisiacal loveliness. But the waves were rough that day. Twelve-foot swells had stirred up in the Atlantic, and even normally gentle beaches like Flamenco were seeing strong surf and currents. After a good hour of watery pummeling, we were winded and tired.
And that’s when Jon saw him. He was a larger man, middle-aged and barrel-chested, wearing a white T-shirt and a snorkel mask. Jon was already running into the water, and I ran the other way, calling to another man for help. Together, they dragged him in and tried their best to save him. Jon’s thirteen-year-old son stood solemnly on the periphery. Clearly, he was seeing the responsibilities of his own future as his father bent over the limp body, struggling to push water out, to push air in, to bring color back, to bring life back.
A gray-haired woman drifted away from the small crowd, crying. She was the drowned man’s wife, seemingly alone in her terror, so Jon’s sixteen-year-old daughter took her into her arms, and the other children and I sat with her and listened. Alternating between Spanish and English, she told us why her husband may have had a heart attack, why he could not die. “He already had four heart surgeries,” she told us. “He will see his grandson on Saturday! Forty-four years we are married! What will I do without my husband?” She was afraid that her husband was already dead. “Please, send up your prayers to Jesus,” she begged. Finally, the ambulance arrived, and the man, whose color was returning but who would not survive, was lifted onto a stretcher.
Bystanders tried to hustle the drowned man’s wife into the waiting ambulance. But she could not leave the beach without her shells. She had collected a small pile—white clams and broken bits of conch and sea glass—on the corner of her towel; they scattered when someone had tried to help by gathering her belongings. She dropped to her knees, protesting through her tears, and we all scrambled to pick her tiny seashells out of the sand and press them safely into her hands. Then she hurried onto the path, away from the beach and through the stand of fig trees toward her husband.