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On the Rocks
by Jane Hughes Gignoux
It was the summer of 1973. I was vacationing in Rhode Island where I had spent my childhood summers. About a dozen of us were gathered one sunny afternoon at "The Rocks" for a swim. The Rocks is our name for an unusually fine horseshoe shaped swimming area. On this particular afternoon, however, the ocean swells were pounding onto the Rocks with unusual force. After half an hour of sunning and talking to friends, I announced I was going for a swim and asked if anybody wanted to join me. Paul got to his feet, followed by Gladys, whom I had just met. We made our way to the spot where nature has provided a natural set of steps into the water.
Someone called out a warning to be careful of the surf and undertow. "Don't worry," I shot back over my shoulder, "I have my life-saving certificate with me." The huge waves subsided for a moment and Paul, Gladys and I managed to launch ourselves into the water.
After a few moments, I glanced over at Gladys and saw her dark eyes registering panic. "Are you all right?" I asked. She managed to shake her head to indicate, "No!"
Swimming towards her, I called out, "Take it easy, I'll give you a hand."
When I reached her, Gladys grabbed me, pushing me under as she tried to climb on top, demonstrating the classic behavior of the drowning swimmer. All of the instruction and practice from my life saving course came flooding back as I struggled to the surface. I maneuvered into position behind Gladys and tried to calm her. "Just relax, lie on your back, I'll get you out of the water." My arm went across her chest in a firm grip and I started kicking with my feet, heading for the edge of the rocks, only a few feet away.
Just as we reached the natural steps, a huge wave struck us. We were washed high up on the rocks, then swept back towards the ocean by the undertow. Gladys clutched me around the neck. I countered by offering more words of reassurance, tightening my cross-chest grip. Again I attempted to land. Once more we were knocked down by a wave. I tried a third time with no success.
Paul also tried to assist Gladys, only to find himself plunging under water. One glance at his face told me he, too, was experiencing panic. I kept trying to help Gladys. How long could I keep this up?
Suddenly a calm, clear voice in my head stated, "You're going to have to let go of her." WHAT? Let go of her! For an instant I was stunned. Then, summoning every last ounce of strength, I swam back to the rocks, thrust Gladys as high as I could above the water line, and called out, "Hold on!"
This time she was able to hold on to the rocks and crawl up the forty-five degree incline. My body, free of its burden at last, clawed at the seaweed and barnacle-covered rocks. Seaweed is as slippery as butter and barnacles have razor sharp edges. With fingers, knees and toes I clung to the minutest of crevices. Inch by inch, I crept up the rocks and then made my way to where my friends were lying, unaware of what had just occurred.
Before collapsing I looked over to see how Gladys was doing. She was lying on a rock near Paul, who had managed to rescue himself. It would be over a dozen years before I would see or speak to Gladys again.
As I lay in the sun recovering, my mind focused on two questions. What was the source of, "You're going to have to let go of her," and how could I have run out of energy and strength so quickly? It took me several years to realize the full meaning of the first question, but the matter of my physical stamina I resolved to tackle at once.
I like to think of myself as capable and strong, but my experience in trying to rescue Gladys forced me to admit I was far from the super woman of my fantasies. When I returned home I started running. Taking up running was the first in a series of many life choices that I have made in the direction of being more responsible for my wellbeing. During the next few years, I gave up smoking, changed my diet, and seriously began to tackle the tough emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues that were poisoning and sapping my energy.
The moment when I came to understand the full meaning of, "You're going to have to let go of her," is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps I got an inkling when, three years later, I made a move to extract myself from my marriage. I had been aware that the relationship with my husband was unhealthy but I had told myself I must continue to pretend all was well for the sake of the children. Then I found myself stretched to the limit. No longer could I continue to put other people first. It was time to pay attention to my own condition.
It was two more years, however, after I had taken several personal growth workshops and engaged in intensive spiritual study, before I came to realize the incredible gift in, "You're going to have to let go of her." It meant, simply, that I couldn't rescue someone else if I were depleted and spent myself.
As it turned out, I had to let go of everyone and everything I was trying to save in order to take care of myself. I had been neglecting, and denying my own needs at my peril. It took me a while to get the message, even though it seems crystal clear in hindsight: living an unhealthy spiritual life has catastrophic consequences. My experience with Gladys at the Rocks signaled the path that the rest of my life was to take.
Years later, I saw Gladys at the opening of one of Paul's art shows. We were reintroduced and Gladys said, "Oh, you're the woman who saved my life!" "No Gladys," I replied, "It was you who saved my life!" The fact is we were both right.
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