Me? A lifesaver at seventy! I can’t believe it’s true! (Actually it isn’t. I’m still 68 and as much as I hate defining myself by age, my writer-self likes the sound of ‘A Lifesaver at Seventy’ so I’m lying a little. All writers do.)
This is a photograph of me with my new lifesaving friends, Fiona and Donna. Behind is Steve, next to him is Nick, our instructor, and John is on our right.
After two months of training, we’ve just passed our Bronze Medallion and Certificate II in Public Safety (Aquatic Rescue) which makes us bottom-rung Lifesavers on our local beach.
We know about spilling waves and plunging waves and every type of rip currents. We can rescue, resuscitate and defibrillate. We know how to soothe sunburn and jellyfish stings; we know what to do with a stroke, sprain or spinal injury. We know how to administer CPR to the count of 30/2 and the rhythm of the Bee Gees…stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive.
Yet I can’t look at this happy snap without thinking how much photographs lie. (A little like writers.)
Because, truthfully, my experience of becoming a lifesaver hasn’t all been altruism and smiles. And like many things in life, it happened by the sheerest chance.
Twelve months ago, my local Council built a fancy entrance that effectively blocked the path I used to get my kayak onto the beach. After months of grumbling and no kayaking, I asked the Lifesaving Club if I could store my kayak in their clubrooms.
‘Yes,’ said the head lifesaver, ‘but you’ll have to join the Club and become a lifesaver too.’
‘Aren’t I too old?’
‘No,’ said the head lifesaver, who was encouragingly not-so-young himself. ‘You’ll find it a breeze.’
I didn’t. He lied.
After the first training session I almost died. I had to run 100 metres and swim 200 metres and learn to paddle a surfboard on my stomach and knees. I had to swim out to rescue drowning people, conscious and pretend unconscious, lug their bodies onto my surfboard or swim back to shore dragging a dead weight behind. (Though, secretly, we helped each other with a little surreptitious kicking and hand paddling.)
And dare I admit it? My brain didn’t seem to retain the signals and flag waving, the radio commands; whether to put hot or cold water onto a wound; and how differently did I treat a blue octopus bite to a blue bottle sting? I didn’t know what CPR stood for. I’d never heard of a defibrillator; I couldn’t even pronounce the word!
I’m too old! I told myself, my husband, the dog. But somehow I kept on. And in doing so, I re-learned one of life’s big lessons.
Life is full of doors. They open a chink and with no idea of where they might lead, we can choose to walk through them. Or not. It’s the same as the old fork in the road analogy: we take one path and our lives change forever. Or not. Or we can choose to jump off a cliff into a terrifying unknown and a parachute opens and rewards us for our bravery. Or not.
‘How amazing!’ we say to ourselves and others. ‘If I hadn’t done this or that, or gone here or there, or met this person or that, how different my life might have been.’
When my lifesaving door opened a chink, sure I chose to walk through. But once on the other side, I found something both unexpected and humbling.
I’ve always been a bit of a loner. (Isn’t every writer?) And I’ve often felt quite alone. (With two damaged parents, I learned early to rely on myself.) But in walking through my lifesaving door, I learned something universal.
A lifesaver is someone who not only saves a person’s life; they also provide help when it is badly needed. Sure I became a lifesaver at (almost) seventy but I was only able to do it because I was hugely helped along the way.
By Paul who encouraged me when I wanted to drop out. By Nick, our young instructor, who helped me believe I could do it. By Donna who kept me laughing, and believing–and feeling twenty years younger–when we heaved each other on and off boards. By Fiona who saw my distress in our final exam and waited for me at the buoy, even though it endangered her chance of completing the test within the set time. (Yeah! We did it!) By Steve, whose determination made me determined too. And by John who struggled against different odds, and inspired me to continue.
We helped each other through. It’s what people do. A word, an example, a phone call, a helping hand. When we work together, we are all lifesavers in each other’s lives. And isn’t that the truth.
None of this is visible in the photograph of Steve, Nick, John, Fiona, Donna and me.
Then again, when I look closely, perhaps it is.