Updated: Nov 8
On a radiant Christmas Day, awash with the brilliance of Australian midsummer, our extended family convened at my sister Joan's inviting home tucked away in Forrestfield. My wife, Ita, our daughter Jessica and I revelled in the warmth of family camaraderie. Around noon, my brother-in-law Sam, with an infectious Irish twinkle in his eyes, invited Ita, Jessica and I to accompany him to nearby Hartfield Park's shimmering lake. He wanted to show off his new toy, a motorised, remote-control model tugboat, “Dickie”, he’d built over the previous few months, which was the star of the afternoon.
Seated on the lake's verdant edge, we watched Sam's boat slice through the placid water, a spouting fountain performing its ballet in the centre. Suddenly, the jovial atmosphere succumbed to tension as Sam confessed a predicament. The boat's batteries were betraying him; the miniature vessel was now an uncontrollable drifter, heading towards the watery abyss.
Sam, in a desperate bid to reclaim his prized toy, resolved to venture into the deceptive waters. The shutter of my Canon clicked, capturing the scene frame by frame. The boat, it seemed, was playing an unattainable game of chase, floating tantalisingly beyond Sam's reach. The water darkened and deepened around him, forcing him to abandon his footing for desperate strokes.
What felt like an eternity but was truly a matter of mere minutes, Sam, now near the heart of the lake, yelled a desperate plea. I was haunted by my past aquatic ordeal, years earlier, where at Scarborough Beach I’d almost drowned, caught in a rip, and felt a profound anger at the lack of choices I was confronted with. Yet my fear was overpowered by the urgency to rescue Sam from his perilous predicament. How could I possibly return home without him? This couldn’t be his last Christmas.
A rush of adrenaline propelled me around the lake's circumference, my heart pounding louder with each passing second. Discarding my outer clothes and shoes, I plunged into the murky depths, frantically swimming towards Sam.
Just when it felt like my reserves of strength were running on fumes, Sam disappeared below the water's surface. My heart sank; I feared the worst. In a desperate plunge, my hand searched beneath the water to find Sam's grasp. Miraculously, our fingers interlocked, and instinct alone drove me to haul him back to the realm of air and light. It was then that my training kicked in.
With a swift manoeuvre, I rolled Sam onto his back and realised he was a complete dead weight. Sapped of strength and racked with cramps, he couldn't offer even the faintest assistance. It was all on me. One hand securely tucked under his chin, I began to execute a modified, one-handed backwards breaststroke—a technique taught to me during those old school swimming lessons in the 1960s. My legs kicked out in a frog-like motion, each kick burdened by not just my own exhaustion, but the added weight of Sam's incapacitated body.
Pain gnawed at my every muscle, each stroke feeling like I was swimming through jelly rather than water. But there was no room for failure. With sheer willpower, I persevered, guiding us both unsteadily, yet inexorably, towards the sanctuary of the shore.
Finally, we reached shallower waters, like shipwrecked sailors who'd narrowly escaped Davy Jones' Locker. Still behind him, we sat upright in the muddy shallows, speechless, breathless, and utterly drained. Our bodies trembled, not just from the cold, but from the sheer relief and overwhelming fatigue that wrapped around us like a shroud.
The moment seemed to stretch on for an eternity. A couple walking their dog passed by, seemingly oblivious to the life-and-death drama that had just unfolded. Their lack of reaction felt surreal; surely, two grown men in an awkward embrace in the mud must have seemed at least a little odd?
An ironic twist of fate saw Sam's runaway tugboat “Dickie” gently bob towards us. It was a mute spectator to our ordeal, a symbol of an unnecessary dance with death.
We returned home, a sense of gravity replacing the usual jovial chatter that typically filled the air. Sam wordlessly navigated through the family, his face a mask of exhaustion and relief, heading straight for the sanctuary of a warm shower. As for me, I collapsed in a heap, the adrenaline that had been my lifeline now abandoning me, leaving a hollow emptiness in its wake. Struggling to maintain composure, I broke the silence and shared the day's harrowing ordeal with the family.
Since that fateful day, Sam and I haven't exchanged a single word about the harrowing ordeal. Yet, a quiet transformation has settled into our relationship—like the subtle shift in atmosphere that comes after a storm has passed. That afternoon, I felt a haunting quiet as I contemplated the fragile boundary between life and death, pondering whether my life's purpose had been crystallised in that single, desperate rescue.
No words are needed to articulate the depth of our newfound bond; it's as if the experience has sewn an invisible thread between us, weaving through the fabric of our lives. It's a connection felt in simple gestures—a knowing look, a nod, a moment where our eyes meet and quickly look away, both of us aware but unwilling to break the silence.
We've become closer than ever before, not through shared stories or nostalgic reminiscences about that day, but through something far more profound. It's a tacit understanding that life is fragile, that it can hinge on a single moment, and we've both seen just how fine that line can be. This unspoken experience has become our own silent language, far more eloquent than any words could ever be, a living testament to the gravity of that day and the questions it raised about life's purpose.