It’s been a year since I almost died

An extraordinary day, bracketed by exhilaration and loss, made more surreal by the awesome backdrop that is Iceland.

Overlooking the Black Sand Beach near Vik, Iceland on Monday, February 16, 2015, around 4:30 pm. Photos throughout © Carla Held, 2015 unless otherwise noted.

Iceland in February.

People said we were nuts. Maybe. But I hadn’t felt this thrill, this promise of adventure, in years. When Charlotte and Punna invited me, Sheri, Lisa and Carla to go, I was the first to raise my hand. I was intensely curious about Iceland in general, and seeing the Northern Lights was at the very top of my bucket list. Just six hours from DC? Count me in.

Note: it was colder in DC than Iceland the week we were there.

I read all kinds of blogs. Asked friends for recommendations. Listened to Icelandic musicians and learned about the deeply rooted arts culture. I bought layers, great winter boots, and I trained to make sure I was strong. I had battled with health issues for over a year and was finally on the upside of recovering from major abdominal surgery. I was ready to get my life back. I wanted the experience, I wanted to push myself. I planned.

Those who know me know that much of this is quite uncharacteristic. (Planner? Adventurer? Um, NO.)

But I was all in.

The flight was uneventful and the first day in Reykjavik, a Sunday, was spent wandering during the early hours, then heading to our lovely guest house north east of the city. This day’s biggest adventure was the local bath house, which really deserves its own story (spoiler: you see a whole new side of your friends when bathing in Iceland).

We set out Monday with words of warning from our friendly host, Gudrun, about the impassable roads that we were originally planning to take. Armed with her iPad, she called up the impressive road conditions site, shaking her head and looking worried. We were inclined to ignore her (come on — impassable? Really?) but we ultimately decided it was best not to push our luck on our first real day out. So, we adjusted our route so we could still see things, even if not via the Golden Circle.

More challenging than impassable roads were impossible maps and road signs (case in point, below), traveling through a town before we were finished pronouncing its name. Lisa’s usually impeccable navigational skills were even put to the test as we convoyed in two compact SUVs, complete with studded tires.

The Cheshire Cat would be proud (left). Seljalandfoss from the parking lot (right) — the dots in the mid-ground are people. In case you were wondering.

That being said, moods were good, fun was had, snacks were plentiful (if a little random) and we were enjoying the scenic ride through stark landscape peppered with small towns. Very small towns. On the surface, Iceland is a stern pioneer mother — austere, demanding, beautifully weathered — but inside she has a warm, pulsing heart that nurtures life among her sharp edges (which sometimes also happen to explode with hot, molten lava).

We stopped at Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s main waterfalls, where you can walk behind the falls or up a suspect wooden staircase parallel to the falls. But unlike such scenic spots in the U.S., where CAUTION signage abounds and rangers keep an eye out for knuckleheads, Iceland landmarks are just…there. In their glory. Mostly unmarked and untouched, at least in comparison to our way of marking such sites (Keep off the grass! Don’t feed wildlife! Stay on the path! Park closes at dusk!)

I guess Icelanders just trust people to not be idiots.

When we walked up to the falls, I saw one of those opportunities I had been waiting for, a chance to put fear aside and DO something. So I did — I walked up those icy-as-shit, somewhat-on-the-scary-side stairs and trusted my strong legs to hold me. I trusted my strong arms to brace me with the railing. I went all the way up, dammit. And then back down. Without falling, twisting, or contorting much of anything.

Taken by Charlotte with a zoom lens from way far below!

I was so proud of myself, clambering over snow mounds to see the nearby blue ice. This was the exhilaration I was seeking, the connection to the earth, the experience I was looking for. Being the brave girl. Letting fear go and trusting myself.

It. Was. Awesome.

Still feeling like a badass a couple of hours later, we arrived near Vik, on the southern coast. We were about to look in earnest for the hotel when it just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on the route we were taking to see the Black Sand beach before sunset. We popped into the Volcano Hotel and briefly met Johann, the proprietor, to let him know we would be back soon after taking some pictures of the coastline.

We headed to Dyrhólaey first, and stopped at a rocky overlook with one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. Rock formations, roiling ocean, dramatic storm clouds breaking up…the sea spray, chill and winds were absolutely electrifying and made me feel so damn alive. We climbed around the cliff carefully, amazed at the black sand and rock, and then headed east to the other part of the Black Sand Beach, Reynisfjara.

Wow doesn’t even begin to describe it.

By now, it was nearing 5:30 pm and we were going to be losing daylight soon. We walked out onto the beach and stood in more awe up close to the North Atlantic on this so-very-alien-looking beach.

It occurs to me now, a year later, why this felt so alien. There is very little evidence of life from the sea. No shells. No barnacles. Just sharp rocks, worn black pebbles and sand, and the roar of the ceaseless sea.

A frisky wave made me run…I didn’t want to get my boots wet!

Still in explorer mode, I decided to go around the basalt outcropping to get closer to the rock formations in the distance, drawn to them, compelled.

On the other side of the rock wall, Charlotte and Punna were taking pictures, while Carla had gone back to the car, shivering from the cold gusts of wind off of the water. Lisa and Sheri remained on the main part of beach, and I was wrapped up in the moment, trying to memorialize the drama on my new iPhone 6, used for my photos throughout the trip to record this epic journey.

I was standing around the corner on the left, at the entrance of the next cave… Photo © Charlotte Hayes, 2015.

I was snapping away when my phone dinged, telling me I had a text.

Um, what? I shouldn’t even have SERVICE at the end of the earth… but of course I had to look.

MESSAGE FROM AT&T: You have exceeded $100 in data overage charges. Click here for more…

BOOM.

Without warning, I was tossed onto my back, submerged in the icy water from a large wave that I hadn’t seen coming, violently pushed toward the cave. No sand below me, no foothold. Just…captured, in motion and under water. Utter disbelief.

“Oh my God, do I really die here?”

As quickly as the wave caught me and pushed me into the cave, its undertow yanked me out towards the sea — and then a resurgent wave sent me immediately back in toward the cave. A deep part of me knew that if I panicked, I would be lost.

“Don’t panic, don’t panic,” I kept thinking to myself, even as I aspirated saltwater. I curled in the water, bringing my arms up around my head to protect it from the rocks.

The wave pulled back out to sea again, me still with it, as I was thinking about my partner, Sheri. How would she know? What would she do if I just disappeared? Would they ever find me or would I just be lost in the sea forever? What about my family?

I may have started panicking a little then, as I realized I needed to breathe. Literally.

Suddenly, I could feel the ground beneath me. The water receded enough that my fight or flight system kicked in:

“RUN!”

I took a deep breath, dug in my feet and twisted to get up — thank God for that core and upper body training — and ran as fast as I could back up the beach, sputtering from bronchitis and seawater, lungs burning, nose filled, weighted down by freezing wetness but buoyed by the need to survive. With my iPhone 6 still clutched in hand.

I heard someone calling for me. Charlotte and Punna. I thought they had seen the whole thing, were witnesses to my shame. I kept stumbling up the beach, waving them off, coughing, afraid of the water, ashamed of my carelessness, embarrassed about my failure to be a “normal” adventurer, humiliated by my clumsiness, by my very place in the world.

I continued the march up the beach, not able to get away from the breakers quickly enough, panicked still that another wave would sneak its tentacles around my feet and drag me back.

They caught up with me and I only saw then that Charlotte had also taken a punch from the sea. What I didn’t comprehend is that they, too, had been caught by this rogue wave. Charlotte kept asking if I was ok but I was in such shock I could only nod. I couldn’t even process that she had gone under, too.

(I learned later that Charlotte had seen it coming and had called out to warn us; I hadn’t heard her call out over the crashing of water. Punna was able to run up the beach out of harm’s way minus a soaking up to her knees, but with the after-effects of witnessing her partner and me disappearing in the water. Charlotte was farther into the cave than I was and was able to hold her $1500 camera up before the wave hit her).

Lisa and Sheri hadn’t seen what had happened from around the corner, and approached with puzzled frowns on their faces as Charlotte and I tried to make our way to the closed tourist cafe nearby, the shivering starting in earnest. Punna filled them in, as the staff inside unlocked the door, shaking their heads at us and rolling their eyes (apparently we weren’t the first dumb tourists). We made our way to the restroom, dripping everywhere, and used the sink to warm up our hands with hot water, realizing quickly that this was a bigger problem than the small restroom could accommodate and we really needed to get the hell back to the hotel.

At the Volcano Hotel, Johann — looking confused but kind — took our dripping coats and our top layers to dry in the back of the hotel. He also got us into our rooms in record time so we could get under hot showers.

Sheri started the hot water as I began to peel off additional wet layers, layers having been part of my planning strategy, remember. My body was wracked with deep shivering, the kind you feel like you’ll never feel warm again. I think part of it was reaction to the stress as much as from the frosty water.

Sheri left the bathroom to take away some more of my stuff to Johann while I peeled off my underclothes in the shower stall.

Plink, plink. Plink, plink, plink.

As my underwear and bra came off, so did the sediment from my crevices and parts, musically hitting the black shower stall floor, little black pebbles and sand everywhere. I started giggling. And then laughing. Coughing. And laughing HARD.

“Oh my God. I’m HERE. I SURVIVED,” I thought, as I stood there bent over, shivering in my cold skin as the shower heated up.

I was probably hysterical, but I was filled with such joy that I had fought and I WON.

I fucking LIVED!

I wasn’t a victim.

And I laughed and laughed. Sheri stuck her head through the door, worried that I was breaking down in tears, mistaking the coughing for sobbing. “No, I’m ok!” I tried to tell her but I was in serious giggles still.

“I need a baggie,” I called out to her as I collected the pebbles from the shower floor.

“WHAT?”

“No, really… you have to see this. I’ve had black rock and sand in some very interesting places,” and showed her some of my haul. Shaking her head, she left while I finished warming up under the hot stream of Icelandic water, so very different from its angry sea.

The trophy I made commemorating my epic achievement with pebbles and (some) sand collected from my parts.

By the time we had warmed up and gotten dressed, it was nearly 8:30 pm and the town of Vik was closing up for the evening. Johann and his wife, Margret, offered to make the six of us dinner as long as we didn’t mind whatever was at hand (which, by the way, included amazing freshly baked bread and wild Arctic char). We hung out in the common room with some of the other guests of the 7-room hotel, talking about our adventures and the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights that evening given that the forecast wasn’t favorable with the cloud cover.

Johann gave us a brief history of the local area including its settlement by Vikings and Celtic/Irish slaves, along with descriptions of the landscapes carved by volcanic activity that we would see in the morning on our way to Jökulsárlón. He gently told us that Icelanders live together with nature, they don’t try to control it. They respect the land and the weather, and as a seasoned extreme tour guide, he would know. I suddenly thought differently about things like the lack of signage and Gudrun’s concern about our driving, with Johann’s perspective fresh in my ears.

Surviving meant vigilance. Respect, not carelessness born of ignorance or arrogance.


We went to bed soon after. I hoped to get some rest, exhausted as I was from the day’s events. But I’m not a good sleeper and I tossed and turned as I kept re-living being buffeted in the waves, feeling powerless and breathless, overwhelmed.

I got up several times to use the bathroom. At 2 am, I looked out the window above me and saw a sliver of a very subtle glow.

OH MY GOD. I was convinced it was the Northern Lights.

“Sheri… Sheri! I see the Northern Lights out of the bathroom window!”

“Huh? Honey, go back to bed. It’s not the Northern Lights, it’s too cloudy.”

“No, really — I can see them, it’s faint and in the distance but I know what I saw. I’m going out there.”

Silence.

“Well, I’ll go outside and check. I’ll come back in and get you if they’re out.”

I went to my suitcase and threw on two heavy sweatshirts over my fleece pajamas and an extra pair of leggings. My winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves were still in the back of the hotel but I had an extra set of everything except the coat (yay for planning). My iPhone was still in my possession but was unresponsive, a casualty of the afternoon’s adventure in the sea (which had gotten past the waterproof case that housed it, sadly) and my backup camera needed a charge. Oh well.

I headed out the front door of the hotel.

I was so excited and overloaded. And maybe freezing because the Arctic winds were whipping around and it WAS 2 in the morning after all…

Which is what caused the clouds to break up overhead, to reveal a sky full of undulating green lights.

Charlotte’s camera couldn’t capture the full glory, but she got this at least.

I stood there, completely alone, just me and the sky and the lightshow.

No one in the hotel was up. No other buildings were around for miles.

I just soaked it in. I could have been completely alone on the earth, for all that I knew in that moment. I was so mesmerized I didn’t even care about the cold. This was the dream, this was what I needed to heal. This beauty. This exhilaration. This reconnection to the world and its mystery, on fire above me. I can never truly express how deeply this moment affected me. I will never forget it (and this is why I’m still obsessed with going back to Iceland, to chase this kind of majestic mystery again).

About ten minutes later, I knew I had to wake my friends up, along with one of the other couples in the hotel. But I kept this gift to myself inside, this moment that only I had. I went inside and knocked on doors, and in a few minutes, we were all outside breathing in the wonder and magic.


We went in around 4 am, and I was still too keyed up to go right to sleep. So, I jumped on Facebook to record the moment (which Facebook kindly reminded me of today, in fact).

Facebook — 4:18 am local time

Wow. A day of amazing experiences — which included just seeing the Northern Lights for the first time in my life. Humbling, invigorating, joyful, and stunning. I will never forget this trip…(well, I hope i won’t). True wonder.

I began getting notifications right away, since it was only 10 pm Eastern time, and I clicked on them.

“911. Call as soon as possible.” Three messages, from two nieces and Sheri’s sister, Shelli.

Oh, God. My stomach sank. Sheri’s mom had been in ill health for several months and was recuperating from a major surgery before we left. I was terrified something had happened to her.

“Sheri, we have to call home. I’ve gotten these messages on Facebook, look.”

Our plan with the family had been for them to call my phone in case of emergency. Well, clearly the North Atlantic had different plans. The family couldn’t reach us on that, obviously, and Sheri’s phone didn’t have service here. We finally figured out we could use Facetime on the hotel wireless and called Shelli.

“What’s going on, Shell?” Sheri asked.

“Dad died tonight,” she said.

We sat there, shocked. We didn’t see that one coming. Then again, you never do, even if it’s “expected.”

We were on the phone til 5 am discussing plans, Mom’s condition, next steps… until finally, exhaustion from the day took over and we went back to bed.


Sometimes, you don’t see the wave that’s going to knock your world on its axis. Sometimes it’s hard to surface, to breathe in, to grasp what it all means.

How do you absorb the fragility of your own mortality? Especially when it’s juxtaposed on the very same day with the loss of someone dear to you, in this case, Jim, my father-in-law of 20 years? Totally apart from anything familiar, in a completely strange landscape, no less?

As it turned out, this strange day in Iceland was just the beginning of what was a very difficult year for our family, losing Jim and then Staci, Sheri’s other sister, in June. Even our beloved 17-year-old cat, Tigger, left us in April. These are stories for another time but they are an intricate part of wrapping my head around what happened to me in Iceland.

You see, I wanted to make this accident “mean something,” to make sense somehow, so I could distance myself from the randomness of how quickly life can change when you least expect it.

If I made this mean something — like it was a sign from God that I was supposed to have an a-ha! moment where I came back home to, I don’t know, start a charitable foundation, lose 100 pounds, adopt 67 needy kittens, or whatever good work I was supposed to do — then I wouldn’t feel so vulnerable because, let’s face it, accidents just happen. But if there was a REASON for it? If it helped me find my purpose in the world — literally splashed in ice-cold water on my face — it would insulate me from the fear of things being taken from me in the blink of an eye. It would mean that this “accident” had a purpose guided from above and wasn’t just RANDOM.

But that’s not what happened. What happened was, that in a very real, intense way, Sheri and her family needed me, and I didn’t have the time or energy to follow whatever path that may have been. The family needed help in navigating the emotional terrain of loss, someone to pitch in with them to do the tasks that are a by-product of death, to help those who needed more help than I did. It’s what you do. You pull together and close ranks against any other potential threats to life as you know it.

The “wave story” has been a standard at parties, in social settings, for all of us. It’s been told with humor, with self-deprecation, with “holy shit, have I got a story for you.” That helps takes some of the power and intensity away, sure. It was NOT told to my mother right away, though (yikes, hope she doesn’t read this! OH, hi, Mom!)

Gallows humor. I do it well.

But the nightmares return deep in the night.

Something is still unresolved for me. I’ve layered the experience on top of others I’ve survived but taking the time to sit with this now, to share this story, is a part of helping that layer settle more comfortably around me.

If you’ve ever had a moment when you’ve truly believed deep in your soul that “This is it. I’m going to die,” something changes in you. I’m still discovering what that change is because it’s still a scratchy, uncomfortable feeling, especially since turning 50 is lurking around the corner. But I’m working on it, trying now to feel the feels in the light, not just the dark.

Someday, I’ll go back to Iceland. I’ll chase those Northern Lights again. It was a beyond-amazing trip with people I treasure, and a trip that I’ll never forget. But I WILL remember the advice below when I do return.

If you ever go, I suggest you do, too.

You can find this magnet and other awesome things here at www.idontspeakicelandic.com

PS: Thanks to Charlotte and Carla for letting me use their pictures since many of mine were lost in the North Atlantic before uploading to the cloud, apparently. And thanks to my amazing friends, family, and partner-in-life for putting up with me as I’ve grappled with this experience, even if they didn’t know I was.

PPS: The soundtrack to this Iceland experience is music that we heard at the Volcano Hotel, by Ásgeir Trausti, and artists on Acoustic Iceland.

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