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The Mazatlan Memoirs III

March 16, 2009

by Jen Bakken

While my family was on vacation in Mazatlan, the weather was 85 degrees and sunny every day.

My whole family (all 15 of us) were more than excited to leave the Minnesota cold and snow behind us.

Of course, much of our time was spent on the beach. Feeling the sand between our toes and listening to the ocean waves was the ultimate form of relaxation.

On one of these sunny beach days, things changed quickly from beautifully calm to utter chaos and sheer terror.

While my sister and sister- in-law lounged on the beach and the younger children played in the sand, my sons and I tried our hands at boogie boarding – something we have never done before.

My oldest son was too far out in the ocean for my liking, and I started yelling for him to come closer to shore. He didn’t answer me, and I assumed he just couldn’t hear me over the roar of the ocean.

The waves became bigger, the undertow stronger, and I began screaming his name. Initially, I didn’t know he was struggling out there, but then I heard him yell, “Mom, I’m stuck!”

What he meant by “stuck” was that he had gotten a leg cramp and kept getting swept out further into the ocean. Then a huge wave crashed over him and he lost his boogie board.

Now he was way out in the ocean, unable to swim, without anything to help him stay afloat and he isn’t a strong swimmer.

Though I had never seen a lifeguard during our other visits to the beach, I began screaming for help. While holding onto my boogie board, I began kicking and swimming with one arm as hard and fast as I could.

The waves would crash over Bradey, he’d disappear under water, and I’d lose sight of him for a bit but I never took my eyes off the area he was in and never looked back towards shore. At that moment nothing else mattered besides saving my son.

Knowing I wasn’t a great swimmer either, my thought was that if I could just get to him, we could both hold onto my board until help came.

I remember fighting so hard to get to my son, but it felt like I never got any closer to him. He never said anything again even though I kept crying out his name and screaming for help. How do you say help in Spanish, I wondered? (Ayuda – I later found out.)

It was the worst feeling in the world, to know my son needed help, but no matter how hard I tried I could not save him. I prayed, I cried, I ignored the salt water in my mouth and eyes, and continued to scream for what felt like a very long time.

Suddenly out of nowhere, there was a man swimming just a few feet from me. I noticed he had one of those red rescue cans (just like the one Pamela Anderson carried on the TV show Baywatch.)

I couldn’t see Bradey anymore, and pointed to where I last saw him. The whole time I was screaming and crying but don’t remember what I was saying. I’m guessing I begged, “Hurry, hurry, please save my son!”

The lifeguard told me to get back to shore, and I knew he was far more capable of saving Bradey than I was. When I turned back toward shore I realized how far out in the ocean I was.

It was awful that I couldn’t watch and make sure the lifeguard found and saved my son. It was also frightening to find myself so far from land, so far from anything except water. The people on the beach looked tiny and I began to panic.

One minute I’d be focused on fear for my son, and the next I was afraid I wouldn’t make it to shore. I kept trying to swim but then a huge wave would crash over me and pull me back out.

After all this time fighting to get to Bradey and then trying to get myself to shore – complete and total exhaustion set in. At one point I begged God to save my son and take me.

Admittedly I gave up fighting and stopped trying.

Holding onto that board, I sobbed uncontrollably. My brother-inlaw, Josè, was on shore, I could tell it was him and I may have yelled something to him but I don’t remember for sure.

I attempted to catch a glimpse of my son or the lifeguard, but couldn’t see anything. Then José was next to me, holding onto the board.

I don’t remember seeing him swim towards me – it was as if he just appeared next to me. While he worked to get us to shore, I kept asking if he could see Bradey or the lifeguard. He just kept telling me to swim.

“Okay, Jen, here comes another wave get ready,” he would warn me calmly as if we were just out for a leisurely swim. The wave would hit us, I’d gasp for air convinced the next one would take me away.

Thankfully, my brother-inlaw was in control and not in panic mode like me. We kept being pushed to a rocky area and someone on shore kept waving for us to get away from there.

I wanted to scream, “Do you think I want to be here?”

Fortunately, it was the rocks that helped us. He was able to dig his feet deep between them and hold us there so we weren’t taken out again. Then he used his feet to push off the rocks and get us closer to shore.

The next thing I recall is him saying, “Ok, Jen, they got Bradey to shore, I can see him, I think he’s alright – no more giving up, now you have to swim back to him!”

That was all it took to motivate me. When we were near shore, he was able to stand up, but my legs were like rubber and I kept falling down. With a lifeguard on one side and my brother-in-law on the other, I was carried and set down next to Bradey.

Immediately, I hugged my big boy as we both tried to catch our breath. The lifeguard took Bradey’s name and address to make a report while I cried and thanked him.

In Mexico, you are expected to tip for nearly everything, and I didn’t know if that included lifeguards. He saved my son’s life and I handed him a $20 bill. It was all I had in my purse and I still feel awful that I didn’t give him more.

My son seemed like he was in shock. He barely spoke and he has yet to talk about the near death experience much. When we left the beach, he walked far ahead of us and went to lay down in his room.

That night, I kept waking up feeling as though I was still in the water. When I closed my eyes I could see Bradey going under water and I kept hearing, “Mom, I’m stuck!” over and over.

Around 2 a.m., I got up to get a glass of water and noticed my brother-in-law was also awake. We talked a little about what happened, and that he even cut up the bottoms of his feet using the rocks to get us to shore. I thanked him for saving me, yet felt like I should have said more, but words really couldn’t express all of the emotions floating in my mind.

Thank you, José, I wouldn’t have made it to shore without your help – thank you to the lifeguard and to God for saving my son’s life.

Needless to say, we stayed out of the water for the rest of the vacation.

“Well,” Bradey announced. “I guess that’s the end of my boogie boarding career!”

Thankfully this very scary experience ended with not only a happy ending but a laugh.

To be continued . . .