The day I learned to see

Over three decades ago on this date, I was pulled out of a lake, blue and not breathing. Forty feet below the surface, my ice dive had gone dreadfully wrong. I had panicked when the equipment malfunctioned, screamed through the gushing bubbles, tried to make it to the surface… And then peace overtook me. Profound, remarkable peace…

I recall the shock of seeing a crowd of faces against the ever-gray February sky peering down at me as I lay on the ice in a dripping wetsuit.

“I’m alive,” I blurted. “I’m alive!!”

But my diving partner and man I had hoped to marry was not. I had responded to resuscitatation; he hadn’t.

During those few minutes under the ice, my entire world had unraveled. My life plans were shattered, my future was irrevocably changed. As I lay in the Intensive Care Unit at a local hospital that night, I kept thinking, “This is like a bad movie. It can’t be happening to me.” The sound of the gushing bubbles from the frozen regulator haunted me that night and for many years to come.

The next day, I was wheeled into a regular hospital room with a view of the dismal winter landscape — an overcast sky and a few snow-covered hills dotted with barren trees exactly as they were the day before. But on this day, the sight struck me as the most beautiful I had ever seen. I had so completely accepted death under the water’s surface that I realized with a start that I had not expected to see the snow, the trees, or anything else on this earth.

I spent the next year rediscovering the world around me. I jumped tracks from pursuing a Ph.D. to exploring the world through my camera. I felt that the blinders with which I’d been rushing through life had been removed. I slowed down and spent my free time gazing at icicles and snow, wondering why no one else took the time to notice their delicate beauty.

In the spring, I rediscovered wildflowers and birdsongs.

In the summer, the sight of a grasshopper brought me to tears as childhood memories of catching grasshoppers with my dad flooded back. Once again I realized just how completely I’d accepted death under the water’s surface. I felt I was privy to a great secret: each moment on this earth is a special gift. It saddened me that most people rush through life and don’t appreciate this gift.

People became more important to me. I realized that belongings are temporary but memories are forever. The only thing I truly own is my time, and how I spend it reflects what I value. My greatest treasures aren’t the material things I’ve accumulated, but the people in my life.

Many years have passed since that time of rediscovery. I catch myself rushing through my days, fulfilling my roles of employee, wife, mother, pet caretaker, cook, driver, gardener… But once a year on February 12, I stop and remember…