Ocean City Took My Breath Away

Terry Mulcahy

© Copyright 2023 by Terry Mulcahy

That's a photo of myself and my brother at a much younger age than the event in the story.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Stopped breathing. Just like that. The ocean had been cold. Much colder than I'd expected from a warm Spring day. It was early in the beach season. The winter had been harsh. Cold currents still flowed past the shore where my parents had dragged all of us kids. Normally, in Summer, they dragged us out of our comfortable beds early on a gray Baltimore morning, drove us across the Bay Bridge and down to Ocean City on Maryland's coast. I had no idea there was another Ocean City in New Jersey, and I have no memory of why we went there this time.
Me and my brother John had run into the waves, let them knock us over, felt the water churning and rolling over our heads. We never tried to swim in the crashing surf, just dived under the waves and tried to touch bottom. Felt the undertow trying to drag us out to sea. Tried to body surf our way back to the beach. That was our relationship with the ocean. The younger kids were still too young to play in the surf like that. They were walking along the sand, sticking their feet in the frigid water and running away from the incoming waves.

Me and John were the oldest. We did what we wanted, sometimes. We were always together: serving mass as altar boys, in the boy scouts, riding our bikes miles away from home, sledding down the steep city streets in winter, building a tree house, or carrying paper bags full of groceries home from the store down the road.

Sometimes, when fighting the wild bucking waves and swift undercurrent, I'd do my best to stay under water as long as possible. John and I were pretty good at holding our breath. I always hoped to see fish, crabs or starfish on the ocean bottom. I was always digging in it, hoping to find something.

I came up after a long dive and didn't see John anywhere. No big deal. He'd probably gone in. I was cold anyway. Even my frenetic play hadn't warmed me up all that much. I headed along the warm dry sand towards my father. I still didn't see John anywhere. I knew Dad would know where he was. As I got closer to him, I felt funny. My skin had instantly started to warm under the 75 degree sun, but I felt like I had a fever. My breath became ragged, uncertain. I called out to him, and sped up. I saw him turn his head towards me, and that was all.

I awoke on my back, but my hair was full of sand. A crowd encircled me. "What happened?" I heard a voice ask. I wanted to know that myself. Another disembodied voice in the crowd answered, "I think some old man drowned." Old man? At 14, I could hardly look old. My dad was there too, looking down at me. He picked me up. I could barely breathe. I tried to tell that to my dad, but the words got stuck on the way out. In a few minutes a beach jeep pulled up, and hands grabbed me, loaded me into the jeep. It flew along the sand, bouncing and twisting. Suddenly we were off the beach, on a street. An ambulance waited. I was lifted onto a gurney and hustled through its open doors. A mask was pushed onto my face. Oxygen poured into my nose and mouth. It felt good. I didn't notice anything else, but I wondered where John and my parents were. I was little scared, but it wasn’t my first trip in an ambulance. I felt sleepy.

Next thing I knew, the gurney was being rolled across the asphalt, through the sliding glass doors of a medical clinic, into a curtained-off room. "I'm cold," I remember saying. It was warm in the room; my parents were there in swimsuits. I shivered in all that heat. A thick wool blanket was dropped over me. I shook, trembling uncontrollably. I couldn't warm up. "I'm still cold," I said, when the oxygen mask was removed again. The thick air smelled of ocean, salty and fishy in my nose. Another heavy, dark green blanket was draped over me. My parents stared. The medical staff stared. I still shivered, amazed that I could be so cold, warm as the day was, and covered in heavy blankets. I felt like a freak. Well, I was, I guess. Someone looking like a doctor kept asking me how I felt. “Just cold,” was all I said. The oxygen, removed for that response, was replaced. The blankets were down, my chest examined with a stethoscope, my pulse taken.

The doctor spoke with my parents. I heard him ask questions about my health and my medical history. Lung problems? Pneumonia? Oh yeah, several times. I continued shaking. I looked at my parents. Their eyes held concern, but they were as mystified as I was. I enjoyed the oxygen. My shivering slowed down. I felt warmer inside. I think I was given a shot of something, possibly an antihistamine. As a younger child, I was always getting shots, so that felt normal. Suddenly I opened my eyes, unaware until then that I had closed them. The blankets were removed. The oxygen mask was gone. My parents handed my clothes to me. As soon as I pulled my pants and t-shirt on, we left. I heard my parents thanking the medical staff.

Turns out my rare allergy to cold had been my nemesis. In recent years, after playing for hours in the snow, as usual in winter, I would head into our warm house. But instead of slowly warming up, I had felt like I was sunburned, and developed swollen hands, fingers that wouldn't bend, and red swollen blotches on my face. But this was summer! Somehow, the cold ocean currents had swollen the muscles in my throat, which tightened around my windpipe, cutting off my air. I remember being surrounded by all the other kids in the station wagon, including John, next to me as always. Freaks need their families.

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