The first time I almost died, I was too young to remember.
The second time I almost died was also the first time I went into the water. I barged into the lake and kept ploughing ahead until I fell in. It wasn’t a deep drop, but I was tiny. I remember the pleasant coolness pressing against me, the slowing of all my movements, the light shimmering on the surface—a world I have never seen before. I was so mesmerised by the bluish tones of the water, the sandy bottom of the lake glowing and rippling with golden sunshine, the stillness surrounding me, the unwavering, thrumming silence, I forgot to blink or breathe, paralysed by awe.
My mother dragged me out, terrified at first, then surprised by my absolute calmness. I didn’t cry. She said my eyes were huge and filled with wonder.
The third time I almost died there was liquid in my lungs, the cough so bad my rib snapped with a flash of sharp pain. There were whispers above my head and shuffling in the kitchen. Then came the cold touch of a stethoscope, and later the needles, which would have scared me once, but somehow didn’t feel scary at all. Nothing did, not even the doctor’s voice saying that I was almost gone, a harsh tone as if he blamed me for it. I didn’t mind his rudeness. I was comfortable in my drowsy indifference, the hot haze of a drifting consciousness. All I could feel was the throbbing in my head, the dryness in my throat, the ebbing of nausea, and that dizzying sensation like I was under water again, somehow.
The fourth time I almost died, it was a sunny, suffocating day at the beach. The air was thick with the smell of sunscreen, vibrating with screams of joy and excitement, water splashing all around me, skin covered in a slippery mix of cream and sweat. There were tall, wooden poles sticking out of the sea. The sand around them eroded and created deep ditches, but I didn’t know that back then. As I lost my footing, I let out a yelp, soon muffled by the water closing over my head. I would hit the bottom and jump, hear the screams and the commotion again, then fall into cool silence.
Somehow I forgot to be scared. All I could think of was how stupid it was, to drown amongst a crowd of people who were having such a blast. Every time I jumped up and caught a breath, I would also catch a glimpse of a distant laughing face, of colourful beach balls inflated almost to their bursting point, parents throwing their kids into the water, dogs barking as they ran into the waves—loud, quiet, loud, quiet again.
Nobody saw me, until one stranger did.
The fifth time I almost died, I was almost thirteen, a serious age, I thought. The waves were washing over me, and the water was mixing with the changing tide—almost lukewarm in places, and then, mere seconds later, teeth-chattering cold. I’d let the flow carry me as I stretched out on the fluctuating surface below the vast, cloudless sky. I was warned many times, but I didn’t feel the current pulling me out.
At first my mother disappeared to search for someone who could help, then the shore. It was weird, I thought. I’ve never been so far out on the sea, never far enough to lose sight of all the sand, for the trees to grow so distant they turn into a dark, indistinguishable line before vanishing. There was nothing but the waves. And everything was quiet and tranquil. Not a single human there but me, not a single bird.
But I could swim now, so everything had to be fine. I wasn’t scared because as long as I knew how, I could keep going, even tired, even though all I was capable of was a pathetic dog paddle my friends used to mock me for. Even as it was getting colder and my muscles were beginning to hurt, I was safe. I knew I was, not a single doubt in my mind, no matter how long it took, no matter how hard it was.
Two tourists my mum managed to find on a nearly empty beach swam out to me and dragged me out of the water like a heavy log. I was so close to breaking through the current, almost there. It was arrogant of them to think I wouldn’t have made it on my own. It was stupid of them to look so concerned. My skin warmed with simmering fury.
Only when I got home, it hit me what a close call that was, and I cried.
We went back to the beach that evening. Mum said that if I don’t go back in the same day, I’ll always be scared of drowning. So I swam again. The anxiety was there, buzzing under my skin, but then evaporated as if the water sucked it out of me. And the waves were calm and clear. The sky turned soft pink and baby blue as the sun dropped into the distant waves. There was sand underneath my feet wherever I reached down. Everything was fine, it had to be.
From then on, I was careful, learnt to stay away when the currents were strong, always made sure there was a shallow separating me from the depths of the sea. I moved on from the awkward dog paddle to a smooth, confident breaststroke, and then, finally, mastered freestyle to cut through the water with borderline professional effortlessness.
The sixth time, it wasn’t almost.