The True Parable of the Three Girls and the Tsunami

When I was around twelve, I was swimming at Zuma Beach. Zuma Beach is just north of Malibu and is known for having unruly and large surf. On this day, my friends Martha, Barbara, and I were far out from shore, diving under the waves. I recall watching as big waves with foamy indigo crests and turquoise white-veined faces rolled toward us, and then the excitement of picking the perfect moment to dive underneath the powerful surging sea.

This late summer day wasn’t much different than many others … until it changed. We had been enjoying our exhilarating sport when suddenly there was a change in the sea. No waves for a brief period, and then a wall of water hurtling toward us. It was so shocking that Martha and I did not even try to dive underneath it.

If you have spent any time enjoying the sea, you know that it can suddenly be a treacherous place, and you no doubt have experienced being tossed around by the waves. But this was a whole new experience. When the wave hit me, I was forced deep down under the water, somersaulting and spinning until I did not know my way to the surface. I recall thinking that I might die and tried to say a prayer, and then I noticed bubbles in the aqua water above me and started swimming to the surface.

When I emerged into the air, I took a big breath and looked around for my friends, only to see another gigantic wave bearing down and again being pushed and tossed around—but not as deeply. This time when I surfaced, I saw my friend Martha about ten feet from me. She was wearing a white rubber bathing cap with a chin strap. The cap was filled with water that was pulling the chin strap tight, choking her. Her eyes were wild as she looked at me. I remember screeching, “Take off your cap!” and saw her rip it from her head, releasing her sodden, long black hair.

And then there was another huge wave. This time when I popped out of the water, I realized I was being propelled toward the beach. Martha was farther away this time, but we locked eyes, and she started swimming toward me. I knew if she reached me, we would both drown—she would weigh us down.

Another wave intervened. That time when I came up for air, I was closer to shore, as was Martha. By then another wave slammed against us, but this last time when we both surfaced we swam as fast as we could before the receding seawater pulled us back into another wave. 

Staggering out of the water, we turned and collapsed onto the sand. Our first words spoken over each other were, “Did you see Barbara?” By then a lifeguard had reached us and, rather than comforting two exhausted young girls, berated us for not getting out of the water when the tsunami warning was given. A warning we never heard.

Ignoring his scolding, we frantically interrupted, asking about our friend. “She’s being rescued by Joe, and here they come. She was pulled out by the undertow.” And there was Barbara, just reaching the shallows alongside her rescuer …

For some reason this vivid memory surfaced recently. And I started thinking about how the waves of adversity that we have all experienced in the past several months continue to push us down again just as we reach the surface. Against all odds, my friends and I survived giant waves generated by an earthquake a thousand miles away. For us, there was a pathway out of an angry sea. 

And I believe there is a pathway for each of us—a path that will lead us to a place of peace and joy. Even now in a year of death, disease, and loss, of social unrest, of rampant wildfires, and vitriolic political rhetoric, there is a way forward. I would just add: don’t forget your friends, and don’t forget to heed the tsunami warning.

In memory of Barbara, the most loyal of friends, and Martha, who always made us laugh. I know you are in a place of peace and joy. Save a piece of saltwater taffy for me.

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