Mysteries of life: How my boy was saved by the seals

By Anne Lamott

Published April 29, 1996 11:01AM (EDT)

i was wondering if maybe you were having a hard day, and might need a story
about the presence of alchemy in the world. Because I have one: So there we were, my boy and I, an hour from shore on the sea of
Cortez. We were on a snorkeling expedition to Seal Island, where we and
20 other people were going to get to swim with the seals. Sam was the
only kid, and there was only one child's wet suit, and it was a just a crummy
pretend wetsuit. First of all, it had no arms of legs, just a torso, and
second of all, it was very thin. Also, it was bright pink, which I told Sam
was considered an extremely manly color in Mexico. But when we anchored off
Seal Rock, and everyone else got in the water, and began bobbing along in
their thick intensely bouyant wet suits, I got a sinking sensation.

But I am old and tough, and I said a little prayer, and climbed off the
little tailgate of the cruise boat into the frigid water. By then almost
everyone else was already in the little cove where the seals were lounging
around on the rocks, barking like clownish guard dogs. Sam was more excited
than I can remember him being in a long time. He stood there on the boat in
his snorkeling mask and his manly bright pink wetsuit, with his skinny
little arms and legs, looking a little like a cross between Jacques Costeau
and Pee Wee Herman. And then he slid into the water beside me.

God, it was cold. And the current was stronger than I had imagined,
and I felt really afraid. But courage is fear that has said its prayers, and
so I prayed and we bobbed in place for a moment. He is a very strong
swimmer, for a six-year-old, and finally we began swimming to the cove. The
seals barked from the rocks, and we headed towards them, towards the other
people who were in the water right near them. But after we'd gotten 20
feet away from the boat, Sam cried out in despair that one of his flippers
had come off, and I peered through the bottomless water and could see it way
below us and I also had the sudden conviction that there were giant clams
down there, just like in the movies of my childhood, which would open up
their monstrous shells, grab your leg, and never let you go. It didn't make
sense to leave Sam at the surface, in his crappy pink non-bouyant wetsuit,
while I went after it, and so I watched the flipper sink.

We bobbed together for a moment, me and my boy, and the tide was pushing
us along, not towards shore but towards the sea, and by then I was hearing
the soundtrack of "Jaws" beginning to play, and I had to decide whether to
make a break for the cove, or to head back to the boat.

We headed back. And I hoped that someone would show up, a big manly
man type guy, who was so big and such a strong swimmer that he could
accompany Sam to the cove.

We got out of the water and sat at the tailgate of the cruise ship, and
pretty soon the snorkeling guide said he'd take Sam with him, in a moment
and that I could head off alone. So I did.

I went on ahead, to where everyone else was, and the seals swam up
quite close and barked and were properly silly, as they are paid to be, and
it was sort of goofy and sweet, and I bobbed along with the other people for
awhile, and then tried to locate Sam in the water. I scanned the sea,
looking for the bright pink wetsuit, but I couldn't find him anywhere.

To make a long story short, a story involving the zone that parents
find themselves in when their children are missing, I finally realized that
this tiny blue bundle back on the tailgate of the boat was my little boy.
And I knew it hadn't worked, that he hadn't been big enough.

I swam back and my mask got all fogged up. I climbed back on board and sat down beside him. He was wrapped in a
towel and someone had brought him a Coke and some tortilla chips, and it
turned out that he had started getting hypothermic less than a minute after
getting in the water. He was in fact grieviously disappointed, but was being
very brave and manly, in his little pink wet suit. I was desperate to fix
him, fix the situation, make everything happy again in my geisha-like way,
and then I remembered this basic religious priniciple that God isn't there to
take away our suffering or our pain, but to fill it with God's presence, and
so I figured that I could enter into Sam's disappointment and at least keep
him company in it; maybe have a little coke-and-chip communion.

And it was about one moment later that the seals started swimming up to
us. "Ahhh!" Sam cried, as a seal bobbed a few feet away, and this time it
was a cry of total amazement, and then another seal emerged a few feet away,
right next to the first one, and they bobbed near each other, looking right
at us. Sam started laughing. I shook my fist at them and called out,
"Hey -- what d'ya think you are; a couple a comedians?" Five or six of them
came up to us in the next 15 minutes. Then, after awhile, all the
adults swam back to the boat, from the cove, and the seals went under the
waves, and soon we were on our way back home.

When we were in our room, I said, "Honey, you need to write this down,
so that we never forget." He sat down and wrote for awhile. He is a very
slow writer, and he misspelled every other word -- "seals" was spelled "sels,"
and "came" was spelled "kam," but this is the story he wrote: "We went to
swim with the seals, but I could not make it to the shore. And so the seals
came to me and it was magic."

See what I mean? Alchemy: dross to gold.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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