top of page

Serena at Sea

August 5, 2014






  As Dan pulled out of the hospital parking lot he glanced over at his daughter.


  “It’s so good to be taking you home baby, you nearly scared us to death.”


  “It’s good to be going home.”  Serena said with a slight smile. “The food in there is supposed to be healthy, but it sure didn’t taste healthy.”


  Dan laughed.  “Your mother and I have been talking and  we decided that if you aren’t ready to go back to school this week end we could take you next week.  I spoke to Dr. Johnstone and he said he didn’t think you would fall that far behind.”


  Serena furrowed her brow slightly and held her breath momentarily.  “Ah, yeah, let me think about that.”


  “Sure kid, we just don’t want you to go before you’re ready.  You've been through a lot.”


  A few days before Serena had been competing in her first ever triathlon.  She had trained for the past year, especially hard after school ended in the spring and felt she was more than ready.  Her older brother was only twenty and had already run in eight marathons.  Her parents encouraged them to be physically fit as well as academically 



  The weather the day of the race had been unseasonably cool and windy.  the organizers had contemplated calling it off but it was late August and the idea of a make up date seemed remote.  The participants seemed more than willing so the race began.


  As soon as Serena hit the water she wished she had  worn the full neoprene suit she had left at home, thinking it would be too warm for the biking and running legs.  The cold water stung her arms and legs and threw off her rhythm and breathing.  Then her left hamstring cramped.  Impossible, she thought. She was well hydrated and had eaten a light breakfast.  She tried to work though it but the muscle was constricting and the pain was unbearable.  She stopped swimming and attempted to straighten up in the water to work the cramp out.  Just then another swimmer came by and slammed Serena in the back of the head with his forearm as he was passing her.  She was dazed and her leg was useless...she took a mouthful of water and started going down.  A lifeguard dove in and pulled her back to the boat.  She wasn’t breathing.  The paramedic on hand for the race immediately began resuscitation.  Within ten minutes she was in an ambulance, breathing again but unconscious. 


  After a while Dan spoke again.  “Are you alright Serena?”


  She looked at her father.  “Yeah Dad, I’m OK......why do you ask?”


   “Well I know how competitive you are and wasn’t sure how this would be sitting with you.  You know things like this...”


  “Dad I’m fine.”  She interrupted, smiling serenely.  “It happened and that’s that.  Besides, everything happens for a reason.”


  Dan glanced over at this daughter to try to read her expression but she was looking out her window.  They rode the rest of the way home in silence.


  As they pulled in the driveway Serena saw the familiar Toyota Prius of her uncle Phil. 


  Dan said “I know you probably don’t feel like company but Uncle Phil and Aunt Sharon wanted to see you.”


  “No, that’s fine.” Serena replied.  “I’m glad they’re here.”


  The front door swung open as Serena reached the front step and her mother, Karen stepped out and hugged her tightly.


  “Oh sweetheart, I’m so glad your home.”


  “Me too Mom.” Serena replied returning her embrace.  “Is Josh home?”


  “Of course he is.  Believe it or not, your brother is in the kitchen helping with dinner.”  her mother pulled Serena through the foyer and took her coat off.  “Do you want to rest before we eat?”


  Serena smiled.  “No, I’m fine Mom, we can eat whenever dinner is ready.”


  “There she is!”  Serena turned around to see her father’s brother, Phil and his wife Sharon enter from the family room.  “You look pretty good for somebody who’s been through the wringer.”


  “Phil..”  Sharon said nudging him in the ribs.  “Don’t be an ass, this family has been through enough.”  She turned to Serena. “Are you all right dear?”


  “Actually Aunt Sharon I’ve never felt better.”  Serena replied.


  Her response seemed to catch everyone off guard, at least momentarily.  Even her Uncle Phil, who like her father was a Professor at the University and seldom at a loss for words.  The four adults seemed to be  trying to gauge her for some sign of what she meant.  Serena had always been competitive and surely the incident had to have been a blow to her psyche.


  Serena broke the silence.  “Something smells fantastic and I am starving.”  She took her mothers hand and moved towards the kitchen.


  As they entered the brightly lit kitchen Josh looked up  from the salad he was working on and broke out in a broad grin.  “Hey kid, it’s good to see you up and about.”  He put the knife he was using down on the cutting board, wiped his hands on a towel and came around the island to hug his sister.


  “Thanks Josh.”  She said  “I’m glad you’re here.”


  Serena went upstairs to get changed and wash her face and hands.   When she came down the family was just sitting down in the dining room.  


  “ I Made your favorite.” her mother said. “”Primavera with lots of cheese.” 


  “It looks fantastic.  Thanks mom.”  Serena said as she pulled out her chair.


  “Here, start with this tossed salad.”  Josh said picking up the bowl and offering it to her. “It’s the only thing mom would trust me to do in the kitchen besides wash dishes.”


  Josh stopped.  Serena didn’t take the bowl he held out to her. She had her head slightly bowed and her eyes closed.  When she opened them the whole family was looking at her.


  “Sweetie are you sure you are alright?”  Her mother asked.


   “Yeah mom, I was just thinking about something.  Let’s eat.”


   They made small talk for a while.  Uncle Phil asked Josh how his fellowship application was coming and Dan was commenting on a few of the new faculty members, after a while though, almost inevitably the conversation turned to Serena.


  “We were so sorry that the race went badly Serena.”  Uncle Phil said. “We know it meant a lot to you.”


   Serena noticed her mother tense slightly.  “It happens.” She said with a slight smile. “Maybe even for a reason.”


  “What do you mean by that, darling.”  Said her father, a fork full of pasta halfway between plate and mouth.


  “I don’t know..”  she began, “it’s pretty incredible.”


  “What’s that?” Uncle Phil said grinning.  “It almost sounds like you found God or something.”


  “I think I did.”


  Silence now covered the table.  Everyone had stopped eating and was looking at her.


  Finally, Serena’s mother said  “Sweetheart you had a very traumatic experience...”


  “It’s not unusual for people to imagine things when they go through what you did.”  Her father added.  


  Serena looked down at her plate and felt herself blush.  She knew this was going to be difficult.


  “Your brain had been deprived of oxygen kid.”  Josh said.


  She had expected this reaction.  Serena and her brother had been raised as atheists.  Her parents weren’t the kind of people who protested for atheist rights or tried to shove their views down peoples throats but at the same time there was no uncertainty about the lack of a supreme being or an afterlife in their home.  They were scientists and academics, everything had an explanation.  Their morality and work ethic came from the ideal that it was simply the right thing to do to better the world around them, not the key to an eternal afterlife.  The only one who had ever spoke of religion was her maternal grandmother and only on the rare occasion when her parents were out of earshot.  


  “I considered all that.”  Serena said.  “But I can’t shake the thought that what I saw and felt was very real.”  She looked around the table, a little defiant,  more sure of herself now.


  “What was real?”  Her father said.


  “At first when I went under I was dazed from the shot I took to the head.  I think the only thing that kept me somewhat conscious was the pain in my leg.”  She paused, collecting herself before going on.  “Then the strangest thing happened.” She glanced around the table and settled on her father.  “The pain was gone and I wasn’t frightened at all.  As a matter of fact I felt peaceful, calmer than I have ever felt.”


  Her father returned her gaze, seemingly being careful how to proceed with his obviously traumatized daughter.  “I’ve read that’s not uncommon for people who are drowning.”


  Uncle Phil added “Yep, same here.  They say that’s the way to go.”  Aunt Sharon scowled at him.


  Serena turned to her mother.  “That’s not all. I heard Grandma...”


  Her mother looked alarmed.  “Sweetie, your grandmother died two years ago.”


  “Sis, I don’t want to say you are the victim of the power of suggestion,”  Josh said “But this sounds like one of those stories about “Heading to the light.’”


  Serena turned to her brother and smiled.  “I know it sounds pretty hokey.  But there is something about this that just seemed so real.”


  “Did they run a cat scan or EKG on her?”  Uncle Phil was addressing her father.


  “Both.”  Dan replied.  “She came back clean.”


  “Hey!  I’m sitting right here.”  Serena blurted out louder than she intended.  “Look I’m not asking anybody to believe this.   I know you probably never will but it happened and in my heart I I know, it was real.”


  Serena’s mother was gripping her napkin and looked to be near tears.  “Look, mom, it’s not like I am going to be handling snakes and speaking in tongues but things are different now.  I see things differently and I am not asking anybody to agree with me but I hope you can respect it the way you would want to be respected if you were in the middle of some bible belt church picnic.”


  “What is that supposed to mean?”  her father said.


  “You’ve always taught us that there is an explanation for everything.”  She said returning her fathers look.  “And I’m not disagreeing with that.  I’m just saying there are a lot of things we don’t understand and maybe we never will.”


  Dan sat back in his chair.  “Serena, honey, you had a very traumatic experience.  You almost died.”  He raised his hands for effect.  “Maybe you should talk to somebody.”


  “I already did.”


  “There was a psychologist at the hospital?”  Uncle Phil said.  “He shouldn’t have spoken to you without your parents consent.”


  Serena looked first at her uncle and then past him towards nothing in particular.  

  “Actually it was  Reverend James, the hospital chaplain.”


  “What?”  her father said abruptly.  “They have no right sending some one in to evangelize when a person is in a vulnerable state.”


  “Dad, I would hardly call what he did evangelizing.”


  “Well what would you call it?”  Her father seemed to be losing his patience. 


   “He was visiting the person in the bed next to mine and as he was about to leave he asked me how I was doing.  I told him I was fine and looking forward to going home.

He said he had read about me in the paper and said he was glad I wasn’t hurt badly.”

Serena stopped and contemplated for a moment, seemingly trying to recollect the encounter.


“That’s it?”  Her mother asked.


  “No he was about to leave and I asked him if he had ever talked to anyone who had gone through what I had and he said no and asked why.  All of a sudden I felt the urge to tell him everything.  I hadn’t told anyone, not event you two.”  She looked from her father to her mother.  “And then he basically agreed with you.”


  “Wait a minute.”  Her father raised his hand to chime in.  “Your saying that a man of the cloth told you that this was all in your head?”


  “Well, sort of.”  Serena said.  “He told that while I was telling my story he glanced down at my chart and saw that my religious affiliation was listed  as ‘Atheist’ and his job at the hospital wasn’t to recruit for the church, but to offer any comfort that he could.  he said he had also read what you had about drowning.”


  “I hear a but coming.”  Uncle Phil said.


  “Well,”  Serena paused and cocked her head to one side.  “He said that even if it was all in my head to consider what it might mean.”


  “What what might mean?”  Dan said.


   “What I felt, what I heard.”


  “I knew it!”  Her father said. “I am going to call the hospital and complain about this..this brainwashing.”


  “Daddy don’t.  It couldn’t have been more innocent.  He left it up to me to consider.”


  “You don’t know what you’re saying dear.”  Her mother said, having regained some of her composure.  She was speaking softly as if trying to calm the situation.  “Maybe we could get and appointment with Dr. Lutz.”  Dr. Lutz was her mother’s analyst, whom her mother had sought out around the time of her own mother’s passing.


  “I’d rather have her see somebody from the Psychology department at school.”  her father said.  “I always found Dr. Lutz’s methods to be a little too unconventional.”  As a matter of fact once Serena had overheard her father, in a heated moment refer to him as “Dr. Nutz.”  


  Serena stood up.  “Mom, Dad,  I will talk to anybody you want me too...but I’m telling you that something happened when I was underwater.  I haven’t quite figured it out myself and maybe I never will, but I am going to need some time to process this.”  She laid her napkin down at her place and pushed her chair in.  “I am so glad I am home and I love you all very much.  But all of a sudden I’m exhausted.  Hospitals aren’t the best places to get a good night’s sleep so if you’ll excuse me I am going to head upstairs.  That is if it’s okay if I skip out on the dishes just for tonight?”  She said as she turned to her brother.  “Can you pick up the slack for just one more night?”


  Her father started to say something but her mother cut him off.  “Of course darling, we have this under control.  You go on upstairs and I will check in on you in a little while.


  “Good night Serena.”  Aunt Sharon said cheerfully. “We’ll see you in a couple of days.”


  As Serena made her way up the stairs she heard no voices from the dining room behind her.  She thought that they would wait until she was in her room before speaking in hushed tones about what was wrong with her.  She had expected little else.


  A half hour later she heard a knock at her door.  


  “Come in.”  She said, putting her laptop down next to her on the bed.  


  To her surprise her brother Josh entered.  She had half expected to see her mother in to fret over her with an ice pack and aspirin.


  “Hey.”  he said.  “How are you doing?”


  “Fine thanks.”  She replied.  “How ugly did it get after I left?”


  Josh smiled.  “Not as bad as I thought it was going to.  They probably aren’t going to have you committed right away.”


  “Funny.”  She said smiling back.  “The thing is, I don’t think I’m crazy.”


  Josh thought for a moment.  “If it was anybody else I would have to wonder about that, but you are one of the most grounded people I know.”  He hesitated. “But, you didn’t get a chance to tell the whole story.”  Again he paused. “You saw Grandma?”


  Serena laid back on her pillow as her brother pulled the chair away from her desk and sat down.  She looked up at the ceiling thinking how to put it in words.


  “Okay, as weird as it sounds,  I didn’t exactly see her.  It was more like I sensed her,or knew she was there.”


  “Did you hear her?”


  “No,  not that I can remember. But I’m sure it was her just the same.  There was no

white light, no angels singing.  Just the most peaceful, serene feeling I have ever had.  And then I felt her there Josh.  I couldn’t see her or hear her but yet I knew she was there and she let me know.”


  “Let you know what?”


  Serena looked at him now.  “It wasn’t my time.”


  “Not your time?”


  “That was it.”


  “Holy crap.”  Josh said as he sat back. “And you are sure it was Grandma?’




  “Look, Serena,  I am not doubting what you say at all but you may want to take some time on this.  And I don’t know if you want to share it with mom and dad just yet.”


  “If they ask I have to.”  She replied.  “But don’t worry.  Reverend James said that faith is one of the hardest things to explain because it’s just that; faith.  Nothing concrete, nothing tangible, just the knowing that there is an explanation for the unexplainable.”


  “Ha,”  Josh said smiling again. “even after a blow to the head and almost drowning you are still the most grounded person I know.”


  “Thanks Josh.  It means a lot that you aren’t ready to help them sign the papers on me just yet.”  She thought for a moment.  “Now how do you suppose I can tell mom and dad I want to take this semester off and think about a new major?”


  “You should probably sleep on that one.”  He said laughing.  “One crisis at a time is their limit, I think.”


bottom of page