I’m sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with my husband and two oldest sons. “I’m so happy,” I say. “The only thing that could make me happier would be to have Sullivan (our youngest) here with us.” The sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the emerald waves are breaking. It’s late October on the Florida panhandle and it feels like heaven.
Two little boys walk toward the Gulf of Mexico, their snorkels and masks strapped to their heads. They wear matching swimsuits; the bigger boy looks ten-years-old, the smaller one seven. They enter the water on a snorkeling mission, ready to see the underwater sights. But they have no idea what they are stepping into. They have no idea the red flag is flying, the undertow is strong, and the riptides are deadly.
The mother walks fast toward her boys, yelling, waving her arms, motioning them back to shore. The crashing waves are all white caps and foam and her voice goes unheard. My husband and I look at each other, concerned. The ten-year-old sees his mom and heads back in, battling the pull of the gulf, but the seven-year-old is in trouble. He’s in way over his literal and figurative head, and all we see is his tiny face, the snorkel still pointing toward the sky.
“Should I go help them?” my husband asks.
“Yes.” I nod vigorously. I’m both confident and afraid of my answer. I lean forward in my chair; my concern turns to worry. I watch my husband jog toward the water and then I look at my middle son, Drake, who is also watching the scene unfold. My oldest son has his earphones in, is dozing, and like half the people on the beach, remains unaware of what is taking place.
“Is he going to help them?” Drake asks.
“Yes,” I say. Without hesitation, my 24-year-old son springs from his chair and runs toward the water. Now I’m scared. My chest tightens. The little boy is halfway to the sandbar and, except for the snorkel, barely visible. The waves are rolling in from every direction like mini tidal waves, colliding, and spraying ten feet into the air. I don’t know what to do or what to think. The lady sitting next to me sees what is happening and looks my way.
“That’s my husband and son, going to help the little boy.” My voice trembles and the tears start to flow. I walk toward the water and I can’t help but think about people I’ve heard over time that have drowned in the gulf—a great uncle I never knew, a high school friend’s father, my husband’s fraternity brother.
I’m well aware that usually, the person attempting the rescue becomes the victim. Everything is moving so fast and my brain is jumbled, but I begin to grasp the enormity of what is happening, what might happen. I watch the water, my hands covering my mouth, and the lady appears by my side and wraps her arm around me.
I see my son swim fast into the deep water. My husband and several others are pummeled and trapped by the breaking waves.
“God protect them. God save them,” the lady says. And she keeps repeating, “Please, God save them…” A crowd is gathering on shore and in the water, no one knows what to do or how to help. There are no lifeguards, no flotation devices, no answers. And so we wait. And watch. And beg God for their precious lives.
Drake reaches the little boy who is close to losing the fight and tells him to climb on his back. With the boy holding tight, he attempts to swim toward shore. But he can’t. The little boy’s arms are wrapped around his shoulders, and Drake is not able to make any forward progress. The little boy is too heavy, Drake is too tired, and the waves are too high. The riptide owns them.
Drake gives up trying to swim and begins to tread water, just hoping to keep himself and the boy afloat. He determines to keep the little guy on his back, but he’s quickly running out of steam, and time. His arms and legs grow heavy. Critical seconds pass and pass and pass, and together they sink low in the vicious water. He begins to grasp the reality of what might happen, what is happening. And in that moment, Drake makes a decision: he will go first.
He will die before he lets the boy.
But suddenly, the mom and her friend appear. Exhausted, Drake pulls the little boy off his back and passes him over. Now the two women have him, allowing Drake some relief. Miraculously, the riptide releases the mom, her friend, and her young son, and they are able to swim toward shore. But Drake is still caught in the rip. My husband yells for him to ride the waves, but with every attempt, he’s sucked farther out. He reaches for the little strength he has left and continues fighting, and finally, after several more tries, he’s able to make his way back in.
Someone yells, “Stand up, you can touch here.” He doesn’t even realize it. He can’t think. He’s spent. He has no idea that the crowd on the beach is applauding for him. His head pounds, his face and back are bright red, and he’s numb. But the little boy is alive.
And so is Drake.
That night we were discussing what had happened. Drake is not one to talk about spiritual matters; he keeps those religious cards close to his chest. But when describing the details of what took place, he said something that surprised me. He explained that as he was swimming toward the boy, someone was swimming beside and a little behind him. He’d assumed it was my husband. But it was not. It was no one.
I was watching and NO ONE was swimming anywhere near him. I’m not sure how these things work, and I won’t attempt to explain it, but I acknowledge and am eternally grateful for the spiritual realm that is beyond human comprehension.
We hear a lot about heroes these days. But sometimes I wonder what, or who is an actual hero? A hero is defined as, “A person who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery, or strength, often sacrificing their own personal concerns for a greater good.”
People who fit this definition don’t usually know they are heroes, they think they are simply doing what they’re supposed to do. Drake will never, ever admit it, but as a mom who watched her son offer his life for someone else, I’ll go ahead and say it.
Drake Shelton is a hero.
This article originally appeared on GrownandFlown.com.