I wrote this letter to my sisters and a few friends on March 5, 2013.
I’m writing to you in the middle of the night on my 47th birthday to let you know how grateful I am to be alive and to have you in my life.
In case you didn’t know, I’ve been in Hawaii for the last week. I’ve been staying in a house overlooking a beautiful waterfall in Kilauea, Kauai. Yesterday, I had a near-drowning experience and today, I know it’s a miracle that I’m alive. I’m having a hard time sleeping tonight, so at the moment it’s a terrifying miracle; but it’s a miracle nonetheless. I’m looking forward to when that victorious, “Thank you, God” sets in.
This week, my good friend JP Allen and I have been leading a Hawaiian Harmonica retreat. Despite some lingering TMJ/jaw issues, it’s been quite wonderful. Coming from a locked jaw winter in Ohio, this retreat is just what I needed.
Yesterday JP, myself and two of our friends from the retreat were strolling along the hills of black lava overlooking the ocean near Kalihiwai Point. We hiked down a steep and hidden path behind Ben Stiller’s mansion to get to this other worldly place of black lava. In the last couple days, there had been significant improvement in my jaw pain of the last 6 weeks, so I was feeling a sense of relief and release.
At one point, the four of us stopped on a natural bridge of lava that overlooked a 15 foot round pool of turbulent water. Kauai’s winter ocean waves would travel down a wide canal, crash under this rocky bridge and then would explode up through the round pool like a dragon. JP referred to this spot as the Dragon Spout. Apparently on calm days, JP enjoys wading in the pool with seals. But on this 70 degree wintery windy day, it was very excited to watch, but in no way was it calm.
None of us sensed that we were in any danger. We were standing on dry lava. I was taking pictures with my iPhone thinking about what I might title the photo on my next Facebook post. Looking back to the ocean, we saw some very large swells coming our way and we stood there on that bridge awaiting the firework display of water crashing up from the dragon’s mouth
Very suddenly and unexpectedly, a huge wall of water came over the wide bridge and struck two of us full on. Within a split second I was thrown into the turbulent pool, submerged in ocean water and I was being slurped under the bridge by the current. For an extended dream time, everything turned white and blue and I had no idea when or if my next breath would be happening. At some point in this unbelievable reality, my head hit a rock and I thought, “Oh yeah.. this is what happens when you’re being pummled by waves and riptide. This is what it feels like to be drowning. This is what happens before you die in the ocean.” When I found the surface and struggled for air, I was quickly struck again. I gasped for oxygen and sucked in water a couple more times as I could feel myself being pulled out into the ocean. It turns out that waves retreat just as powerfully as they strike and I remember thinking this tide has no concern that I’m Hal Walker, my dad’s Harold Walker and I have 3 sisters and a daughter that can’t wait for me to get home. For a few minutes there, I was in the belly of the dragon being sucked out into the ocean.
Finally there was a calming of the big waves and I could see JP running toward me on the rocks. I was screaming a locked jaw, TMJ kind of scream… the kind of scream that says, “What are you gonna do about this JP!!” He was calling for me to stay calm, to take off my shoes and pants and start swimming toward him. To ease the complete exhaustion that I felt, I floated on my back for a moment. With the current moving in a way that assured me that my swimming would make no difference, the 30 yards between JP and myself seemed unnavigable.
At this point, I was awakening to the reality that I was going to die and that Hallie was going to have to face this, her ultimate fear. I was realizing how exhausted I felt and I wondered how long it would be before I would have to give up and go under. I sensed that it wasn’t going to be a peaceful letting go like you hear about in the movies. This would be a terrified, “Please! No!” kind of going.
Then I started swimming. Like a little weak boy struck with courage for a moment… facing the odds that his swimming would actually make a difference… Miraculously, just at the right moment, a wave pushed me in the right direction. Within a few strokes, I found myself hanging on to the side of a rock lava wall for my dear life — digging my fingertips into the rocks. Crying that locked jaw cry, “JP- save me.” Fortunately, our friend Greg had been carrying a big strong walking stick. JP held the stick out to me and me I was able to grab it. But to save his own he let go and I went under again grasping the stick that was my only hope for survival.
JP and I were able to connect again and he dragged me about 15 feet to the only entry spot back to dry land. Incredibly, another wave pushed me onshore at the right moment and I found myself crashed on black lava with JP hovering over me… “Keep moving! You’re not safe yet… there are more waves coming! You gotta move 20 more feet!” I was plastered to the rocks with lungs choked of salt water, utterly and completely spent from shock. I didn’t have a single ounce of energy to move, but with JP’s help, we dragged and scraped my body over those rocks to what seemed like safety. Greg had called 911. JP was whispering in my ear, “Brother, you performed a miracle today. You did it. You survived.”
It seemed like the rescue helicopter arrived fairly quickly. When they showed up, I learned that the other guy, my new friend Ash, had not made it. JP had seen him floating out into the ocean face down. Our sense is that Ash was struck in the head and was made unconscious on the fall into the water hole. Ash was a wonderful and lively 61 year old man from Singapore. He was a smoking cessation counselor and had dreams of using the harmonica to inspire people to quit smoking. That morning, he had given me a lessons in using a rebounder/ small trampoline to improve my health.
I laid there in my underwear unable to move but sensing that I had survived. I was panting in relief “Oh my God, Oh my God.” I soon become very cold and was shivering and panting for air. At one point as another huge wave approached, four big strong rescue guys gathered around to hold me down. As the wave struck, I screamed once again in terror and it moved all four of us all several feet over the rocks.
After several windy approaches, the helicopter was directly overhead, these guys hooked me into a metal crate and I was lifted up over the cliffs. As I was flying through the air, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a spectacular view.
Pretty soon the ambulance guys confirmed that all my vitals looked good. I was panting for air and they were encouraging me to take deeper breaths to clear out the salt water and to avoid pneumonia.
In the hospital, I was shivering and in shock. I remember a very kind hawaiian nurse saying to me in a very soothing voice, “you’re very lucky.” They took x-rays to see the water in my lungs. After several hours, the doctors felt like it was ok for me to be released. After having had a long interview with detectives about Ash’s death, JP and Greg and JP’s partner, Karu arrived . I was so glad to see them. I burst into tears when they arrived. We’ve been talking non-stop about the miracle that I made it and we’ve been grieving in disbelief that Ash is gone.
I was quite beat up by the rocks… my whole body is covered in minor cuts and abrasions. I am depleted beyond comfort. I lost my glasses and my iphone in the water, but I am in one piece. When we got back to JP’s house, we could see that the helicopter’s were still looking for Ash.
I am left with some very frightening images that keep playing over and over in my head. I’m sure these will subside before too long. We got home and JP spent a couple hours cleaning my wounds with hydrogen peroxide, tea tree oil and Noni fruit. I’m sure hoping that my lungs and adrenal glands know how to come back from something like this.
So that’s the story, friend. I travelled through the dragon’s belly and it was terrifying.
I’m heading home to Ohio soon. I hope all is well with you. I’d love to catch up soon.