You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
Fracturing a rib in your back.
You never see this kind of thing coming.
It just happens.
It’s fast and unwanted like a cold sore at a kissing booth.
It begins innocently enough. It always does.
“What do you want to do today?”, I ask my oldest son.
He stares at me blankly. “I don’t care,” he says.
I’ve been down this road before. I don’t have time for 20 questions or Indecision.
I find a coin and hold it up. He stares at me with a quizzical look.
“OK, this is what we are going to do. I’m going to put this coin in my hand behind my back. You pick the hand and that dictates what we do. If you pick the left side, we go to Big Sur for a car ride. Pick the right side, we go kayaking in the Monterey Bay.”
Both are great options. How can you go wrong when your choice is Big Sur? It begins with an open air convertible ride down pristine Highway 1. The road hugs the mountains to the left, and the cliffs overlooking the Pacific to the right. The highway winds and twists, following the meandering coastline south of Carmel. Timeless waves swell and crash against the rugged rocks, a blue violence of liquid majesty smashing endlessly onto rocks cut into the Earth a millennium ago. A half hour later, your reward is a cold IPA at Nepenthe, a not so secret club house-like restaurant on a mountain overlooking the sea.
The other option? Kayaking in the Monterey Bay. This is more physically demanding, and provides more up close and personal interaction with marine life that is thick like the ice plant that doubles for lawns on the central coast.
For those unfamiliar, The Monterey Bay is a unique body of water. It is a complex ecosystem wedged between Santa Cruz and Monterey on California’s central coast. The bay consists of a two mile deep submarine canyon that funnels super chilled water into the region. This creates a special marine estuary where kelp forests grow from the sea floor like underwater redwood trees giving countless varieties of fish and sea creatures a place to thrive. This unique ecosystem is home to thousands of creatures that include killer whales, barking sea lions and cute and cuddly otters that let you watch them sunbathe on their backs while they crack abalone shells.
“Which hand?,” I say, putting my hands behind my back.
My son smiles and says, “right.”
I open my hand revealing the coin. “Monterey Bay Kayaking it is!”
Within the hour we arrive at the facility. It is a warm afternoon. The air is surprisingly still. There is hardly a cloud in the sky. We put on our life vests and carry our paddles across the street to the beach where we will launch.
A young attendant, perhaps in his early 20’s greets us. He seems full of himself as he relays the hand signals he will use to guide us on our voyage.
I listen, but I am unconcerned with hand signals. I’ve been ocean kayaking dozens of times, from Miami, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Caribbean. I’ve paddled the Monterey Bay at least 3 times prior to this.
The young man tells us we are next.
We watch him head into the water. He is assisting a woman to shore. The lady is in her 50’s and doesn’t appear to be a very confident kayaker.
He waves her forward between swells. Then he does something I have not seen. He grabs her kayak and pushes her backward. The kayak rises on the approaching wave and begins to get a little sideways. The woman is smiling the entire time. She doesn’t put a paddle in the water. She simply trusts this young man who has pushed her backward into the wave. I watch as the swell grows to 5 feet. The kayak, now on top of the growing wave, appears as if it could tip, rolling over the crest of the wave. The woman, still smiling, doesn’t move a muscle and waits. She is at the will of the wave. Thankfully the kayak rights itself, the wave passes under her, and the attendant grabs her and pulls her to shore. The woman gets out with a smile.
I shake my head. Is that normal procedure?
By this time, the young attendant launches my son, giving him a push between swells that ultimately crash onto this 50 yard beach nestled between concrete pillars and vacant buildings. My son makes it over the small wave and heads to the edge of the kelp field that begins 20 yards from the breakers. The water is flat, the wind almost nonexistent. A perfect day to kayak.
The young man pulls my kayak into position.
“OK, get in when I tell you to,” he says.
I internally chuckle. Who does this kid think he is. I’ve launched myself a hundred times through surf much bigger than this. The attendant is bossy, authoritative, like he wants to control what’s happening out here.
I don’t care that much. Just push me and get me out, I think to myself.
A wave passes and he commands me to get in the kayak.
In a few moments, he pushes me forward. I sense the ocean undulating, a swell growing, and I forcefully pull myself into the wave. The kayak easily rips through the moment, and within 30 seconds I am with my son 50 yards from shore.
We paddle South to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We encounter a sea lion along the way. He surfaces, his face grey, full of whiskers like an old man who needs a shave.
We pass seabirds who stand on the thick kelp floating on top of the water. These birds are perfecting Darwinism as they conserve energy while hunting for a shimmering snack.
We paddle through a family of cute and cuddly sea otters. They watch us carefully, never allowing us to get too close.
We paddle half a mile to the getty. Hundreds of lazy sea lions bask on the warm rocks. They belch and bark and slide off the rocks into the icy water.
After a splendid 90 minutes we head back. The goal is to switch gears, head back to the house, grill some burgers and hotdogs and watch college football.
I get to the launch point. I see the attendant enter the water and wave me forward. I paddle toward him. Then he throws up his hands to stop me. He instructs me to paddle backward.
This is all very unusual for me. Every time I have ever returned to shore, I have timed the wave and rode it to the beach. It’s not brain surgery. You time your wave pattern, and then make your move. I’ve done it countless times.
Suddenly, I have this attendant directing me in, giving me wild hand motions. He looks like the aquatic version of a tarmac marshaller directing a jet into the gate.
He motions for me to move in. OK, I think to myself. Let’s get some speed and get to the beach ahead of this next swell.
I begin paddling furiously forward. I have a good clip of speed and I am confident I will get to the shallow water and sand well ahead of the next wave.
Suddenly, the attendant physically grabs my kayak and stops it mid paddle.
“What the hell are you doing?,” I sputter, feeling the kayak come to a stop and the unmistakable tug of a wave forming under the heavy plastic hull.
He pushes me backward into the approaching wave.
I look over my shoulder and realize this is a very bad situation.
The kayak begins sliding up the face of the curling wave, which has grown to approximately 8 feet.
In seconds, I realize the kayak doesn’t have the energy to launch through or over this cresting wave.
The kayak gets perpendicular to the wave which now forms a shadow over the top of me.
I feel the kayak lurching forward in the powerful wave. Suddenly I am launched from the seat that has happily conformed to my body for the last 2 hours.
I am now falling, 8 feet, into an absence of water, that is flowing outward to fuel this renegade wave.
I tumble like a lead anchor into approximately 18″ of water. I crash into the hard ground, composed of sand and brittle shells.
I am stunned. I am wet. I am hurt.
Before I can scream “What the F are you doing” to the attendant, I am pummeled by my own kayak. The hard plastic point of the 200 pound vessel is also falling into the void created by the 8 foot wave. Like a nautical spear, it collides with my lower back delivering a devastating body blow, worthy of a Mike Tyson right hook.
I am knocked almost senseless as an explosion of pain burns through my back.
I am wet and cold and covered in sand. I am dazed and confused and gasping for oxygen.
Above me, in a dream like apparition, the attendant stupidly says, “Are you ok, sir?”
If this was a pirate movie, I’d have pulled out my knife and slit his throat. That should answer his question. But unfortunately, this is real life and in the blink of an eye, his irrational actions have changed my life.
I am dazed, but my body knows it is hurt, and hurt badly. I sense water flowing over my face. I am burning in pain, and struggling to move, but I know that I have to get to dry ground.
I pull myself on my stomach, and crawl like a baby marine through the surf. I cannot draw oxygen into my lungs. I am hurt. I know it. I’ve fallen before. I know this is not good.
I get to the hard wet sand and roll over on my back. I am gasping. My back is burning.
“Are you ok sir?,” the attendant fatuously says again pulling the empty kayak onto the beach.
“No,” I sputter. “I’m hurt. You hurt me!,” I gasp.
My words are harsh. At that moment, I am accusing him of hurting me..
The young attendant pulls the kayak onto the beach and avoids me.
I stumble to the concrete column and lean against it, trying to collect my faculties.
I am hoping that my breath will return. I am hoping the pain will subside.
I can’t stand up straight. I can’t find a spot that is less painful.
I look at the young man. He won’t approach me. He is readying the next group about to launch.
I am stunned and in pain, but I am also now angry. I am very very angry.
This stupid kid hurt me. He stopped my trek to the beach, a return voyage I have made many times before. He physically stopped my momentum, and then in a move that still boggles my mind, he pushed my kayak backward into a rapidly forming wave that the kayak could not conquer.
In that moment, physics and gravity come together in a concussion of energy. I am quickly catapulted out of the safe confines of my water craft, launched through 8 feet of air into hard sand. Because of the attendant’s tremendous miscalculation, my own vessel becomes a weapon, smashing into my back, incapacitating me.
“You hurt me!,” I scream from the cement column. “What the hell were you thinking?”
There are at least 20 other people on the beach. They stare at me like I am the crazy wet homeless man of the sea.
“Don’t look at the frothing salty crazy man,” I imagine a woman telling her children near the stairs. “He’s having a bad day.”
If I was a wild dog, she would warn her children not to pet me.
By this time, my son has also returned to the shore.
“Are you ok, dad?” he says with concern.
“No. No. I am not OK. That guy hurt me. I cannot breathe. I can’t breathe.”
The attendant moves away from me. I am no longer his concern. I am alive and on the beach and the kayak returned undamaged.
I struggle to put on my sandals. The ground is suddenly too far away. I can’t bend at the waist. I can’t put on my shoes.
My son grabs the shoes, and we slowly move up the stairs to the street.
I feel the piercing stair of the other patrons. Am I crazy? or Am I harbinger of what’s to come for them?
“He hurt me,” I shout again, in case my message to this point has been anything less than clear.
I walk across Cannery Row in my bare feet. I feel the shells on the bottom of my feet pinch my skin on the hard asphalt.
We get to the office, which is outside in a rear courtyard, due to the Covid scare.
People are everywhere, trying on vests, renting bicycles.
The owner approaches me. She has a look of surprised concern on her face.
Before she can ask a question I loudly blurt out; “Your guy hurt me. He pushed me backward into a wave. He hurt me.”
She is shocked. She senses the apprehension of the other customers, many of whom are signing the same waiver I signed 2 hours earlier.
“Can I get you some water?,” she asks.
“I can’t breathe,” I say. “Yes, water. yes, please.”
She leaves and I take a knee like a protesting Colin Kaepernick before the Star Spangled Banner.
I try to inhale. I feel a lava flow of pain enter my lungs where oxygen once went.
“Dad, if you can’t breathe, we need to go to the ER,” my son sagaciously says.
“I don’t know, boy. I can’t breathe. Maybe I just had the wind knocked out of me,” I respond, trying to stand and find a position that will allow more oxygen into my body.
By this time the woman comes back and hands me a $5 dollar water.
I take a big sip. The water is cool and helps extinguish the burn.
“How are you sir?,” she asks.
“I can’t breathe,” is the only thing I can say.
Like the kayak attendant, my response makes her uncomfortable. She moves away from me subtly to assist other potential victims.
“I think my ribs are broken,” I say aloud.
My son grabs my shoulder.
“Dad. Let’s go to the hospital.”
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” I instinctively respond.
Even as I am saying it, I am reconsidering my position.
I cannot breathe. Maybe I am more hurt than I know. Thoughts of broken bones, even a collapsing lung fill my thoughts.
“They’ll take an xray. At least you’ll know,” he responds.
I try to stand straight. My body is filled with nuclear powered pain.
I wince, perhaps even cry.
“How far is it?,” he says.
“2 miles,” I respond, gasping for air.
“Let’s go,” he demands.
OK, I nod.
The owner hands me a piece of paper with her contact info. “Please call me and let me know how you are doing,” she says.
I begin to climb into the SUV, but everything has changed, becoming more complex. Thoughts of how to get into the car fill my mind. My left side is burning. My left arm is numb. I am soaking wet. I am concerned about my comfort, but also my dad’s leather seats.
My son puts down a towel and I manage to climb in. The simple effort of sitting is exhausting. It’s like a physical chess match trying to match my hips and my back and my shoulders with the seat and the frame of the car. There is height to compensate for, and depth to adjust to, and a possibly broken back or punctured lung to consider. I huff and puff trying to fill my lungs, but I cannot.
My son punches in the GPS to the Monterey Peninsula Hospital and we begin driving.
In five minutes, we are at the ER entrance. Because of Covid, it is stationed in the underground garage, like some kind of Mad Max asphyxiating triage center.
Thankfully nobody is bleeding from the neck, or vomiting technicolor mystery goop, and the men at the makeshift check-in station come right to the car.
I am put in a wheelchair and rolled over speed bumps into the E.R.
I am put in a room and the curtain drawn.
“someone will be right with you,” the attendant says.
I am drenched. I am covered with sand. There is sand in my hair. There is a tiny beach in my ears. I am shivering. I don’t know if I am going into shock from the accident, or just cold from the air conditioning blowing down from the ceiling.
Within half an hour I am greeted by an army of nurses and clerical people who all want to know my birthday and ask me where it hurts.
The doctor listens to my breath sounds and touches my back. “I can almost guarantee you have broken ribs,” he says. “I have ordered a series of x rays.”
The doctor seems most concerned about my inability to draw a breath. He spends a lot of time listening to my lungs through my back.
“I am afraid you might have a collapsed lung, It could require surgery,” he says nonchalantly. “But the xray will tell us more.”
The word surgery makes me scared. I quietly agree that I have a broken bone in my back. I can feel something crunchy back there.
But surgery? I don’t want any part of that.
I am soon on a gurney being rolled to the x ray department.
I have to get out of bed and stand. Like getting into the SUV, this is a chess match of what to do first and in what sequence.
When you are not hurt, you don’t think about how you do simple things. But now, standing in this hospital on the verge of possible surgery, I am considering whether I should move my legs or my hips first. How do I get my feet on the ground? Will it strain my already severely injured back? What do I hold on to?
Standing in the xray room is difficult. I am barefoot, cold, wet and covered with sand.
“What happened?”, the x ray tech asks between pictures.
I tell my story. I recount how I am a skilled kayaker, how the assistant pushed me into a rogue wave backward and my life and well being were suddenly hijacked by his stupid carelessness.
“Wow,” he says with a feigned concern while taking the last xray.
He wheels me back to the room.
While waiting for the doctor, I am now assaulted by clerical staff pushing a computer on a rolling table. They ask me about my insurance information and where I live and whether I am employed. Initially my concerns were all medical. But suddenly, my thoughts turn to the specifics of my medical plan. Am I covered? How much of my co-pay have I satisfied if any.
My head is swimming with thoughts of dollars lost and unknown amounts of recuperation to come.
I also feel badly for my son who is in the parking garage. I have been texting him updates and from the car and he has been updating various family members.
Finally, the doctor comes in and tells me I don’t have a punctured lung and I don’t need surgery. He tells me that I have a fracture of my 9th rib in the back. He tells me that it is displaced and it will take 6 weeks to heal. He tells me that I need to take deep breaths, despite the pain, to fill my lungs and ward off bacterial infection.
During the discharge process, the nurse takes my blood pressure for the umpteenth time. But this time, the administration official is also in the room. While the nurse takes my blood pressure, the administrator tells me how much my 3 hour visit is going to cost. And then she tells me how much of that bill is my responsibility.
“How would you like to pay for that?,” she asks with the compassion of a tuna fish broiling on the hot deck of a fishing boat.
The nurse takes off the air pressure cuff and says, “Your blood pressure is a little high.”
I laugh causing myself even more pain. “Maybe if she wasn’t telling me how many thousands of dollars this visit costs at this precise moment, my blood pressure would be more stable.”
The nurse looks at the administrator and scoffs at her. I can tell this clash of medical versus financial must happen all the time here. I can tell that this is not a part of the procedure the nurse likes.
“Let her finish telling you about your hospital bill, and then let’s try it again, ok?,” the nurse says with an obviously disgusted look.
I hand the administrator my credit card and think about the $1,300 dollar kayak adventure I just took.
I pass my blood pressure test and I am discharged. I put on my soiled, wet shorts and shirt. I can feel the crusty cold sand against my skin. This is as miserable as the pain is intense. I limp slowly through the ER to the parking garage.
My son picks me up. He is saddened by the news, but also relieved we are finally leaving. As bad as it was for me, I suspect that 3 hours in a dark parking garage is not the day he had imagined when he chose this adventure.
I take a hot shower and put on some clean clothes. I sit in an easy chair and find the note the kayak woman placed in my hand.
I text her that I have a fractured rib in my back. I mention I have a hefty hospital bill as well.
I don’t hear back from her. I’m not surprised. She is afraid I might sue. I have never sued anyone. But the thought does cross my mind because this is a calamity not of my own making.
“He hurt me,” I will say over and over that night. “I wish I had just trusted my own instincts and paddled into the beach,” I will say over and over.
Woulda shoulda coulda.
Now I am looking at 6 weeks of recovery. I am tasked with taking deep painful breaths multiple times per hour to make sure I don’t get pneumonia. I can’t work out, and can barely put on my own shoes.
There are many lessons to be learned here.
Trust yourself and your own instincts. But also never forget that anything can happen to any of us without warning at any given time.
Be grateful for what you have and appreciative of the good that surrounds all of us.
And next time? Pick the other hand and take the convertible ride down to Big Sur!
Life’s Crazy ™