Not my day to die.

Our trip to the Caribbean seemed to be cursed from the onset. I wanted to surprise my wife, Keri, with something she’d never done before and a friend recommended a Caribbean cruise.  So that December I gave her the 12 days of Christmas, each day with a new tile letter from a Scrabble game, spelling out her surprise. Each letter was accompanied with a gift. She didn’t figure out where we were going until the last day when she got a tile with a pirate’s eye patch.  She was excited to go and we prepared for our trip. Then, just six hours before our flight, I received a phone call from my brother. My father, who had been sick, was dying.  Our trip was cancelled.

The next Christmas I again gave Keri Scrabble letters.  This time the tiles spelled out l-e-t-s-t-r-y-a-g-a-i-n. Again, Keri was thrilled and three weeks later we flew from SLC to Atlanta to the island of St. Martin where we boarded the Windspirit, a small cruise ship with only 128 passengers.  We sailed to St. Kitts, Tortola, Virgin Gorda and, on our last day, our favorite of the islands, St. Barths–a french colony.  Some friends we’d made on the cruise, Sharon and Rob, invited us to join them on a beautiful, white sand beach called Flamand. We spent the day sunning and swimming in the picturesque, Windex blue waters.  After lunch, I swam out to body surf. Keri decided the waves were too big so she stayed on the beach to read.

It was nearly time to go when I decided to catch one last wave.  That’s when things went bad.  Really bad.  I was sucked down under the large wave’s crest and, pushed by tons of water, tumbled along like a sock in a dryer. Then I hit something.  My stop was as abrupt as a head-on collision. I heard a loud SNAP and searing pain shot through my body.  I knew I was in serious trouble, I just didn’t know what kind. It’s amazing how quickly our thoughts process during an accident. My first thought was that I had broken my neck and I began thinking of what it would be like to be paralyzed. Or was this the end of my life? If I was paralyzed surely I would drown. My most peculiar thought was, At least it’s a beautiful place to die.

I was still underwater as the water began rolling me again, this time toward the shore.  I was suddenly above the water and I desperately gasped for air, which was not only excruciatingly painful but nearly impossible.  (I learned later that I had difficulty breathing because I had broken nearly all of my ribs.) Then another wave hit and began pulling me back out to sea.

At that moment I had an experience I’ll never forget. A very clear voice said to me, “Fight for your life or you will die today.” At that moment I dug my knees and elbows into the sand and began dragging myself onto the beach. Everything was dreamlike.  In the distance I heard Sharon say, “I think Richard’s hurt…” to which Rob replied, “Nah, he’s just playing around.”  I couldn’t call for help. I couldn’t even speak, I still hadn’t taken a full breath.  Then I heard Sharon say, “He’s not okay.” That’s when I blacked out.

When I woke, Sharon and Rob were sitting in the sand next to me.  “Something broke,” I said.

“We know,” Rob said.

“Am I paralyzed?” I blacked out again.

The next thing I remember was a young French woman kneeling over me wiping sand off my body.  I asked, “Who are you?” She replied in broken English, “Ai-li-hee.” I blacked out again.

When I woke Keri was at my side.  She asked if I knew what was wrong.  I told her I had heard something snap. Then the paramedics arrived.  Oddly, they told me to stand.  I couldn’t, so they lifted me to my feet and I walked to the ambulance where I was strapped into a cot. A British man stuck his head in the back of the ambulance and asked if he could be of service.  I thanked him but said ‘no’.

The hospital in St. Barths was little more than a medical clinic. The nurse spoke some English, the doctor none.  They gave me a Tramadol, then took X-rays.  The radiologist slammed my wheelchair into a doorframe which elicited a stifled scream from me.  A few minutes later the doctor came to me with a dictionary which he had opened to the word ‘SCAPULA’. “Broke,” he said. “Broke.” He gave me an Advil for the pain and Keri stopped at a pharmacy in town for a splint for my shoulder. Then Keri and I waited at the pier for our ship’s tender to arrive.  I was helped onto the boat and taken to the ship’s doctor who gave me some morphine for pain.

That night I dreamt over and over of being tumbled in the waves and Keri got up several times to take care of me.  The next day we disembarked in St. Martin. I should be clear that I’m not a fan of St. Martin. I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone Keri and I encountered, from those at the airline counter to the storeowners, were not just unhelpful but downright hostile. This was particularly bad since we had to wait at the airport for an excruciating eight hours.  The morphine I was on wore off and started to make me itch. I was in severe pain and not sure if I could endure the cramped flight to Atlanta. I said a silent prayer for help than tried to upgrade to first class, which the woman at the airline rudely denied. Adding insult to injury, she told me that because I was hurt I needed to be moved out of the exit row. I asked if there were any rows on the plane that weren’t full and she said “no, the plane is completely sold out. Every seat.” To make matters even worse, if that were possible, our flight was delayed and we were told that we might miss our connection, meaning we would have to spend the night in Atlanta. I was frustrated that not only had my prayers gone unanswered, it seemed that the world was conspiring to increase my suffering.

Fortunately our flight arrived sooner than expected and Keri and I filed onto the crowded plane with the other passengers.  Then, with a seat still open between us, the flight attendants closed the airplane door.  Unbelievably, Keri and I had the row to ourselves.  After takeoff I lay back with my head in Keri’s lap and slept nearly the whole flight.  God had been watching over me after all.

We flew through Atlanta to Salt Lake City arriving home past midnight.  We drove directly to the ER where they put me through a much more advanced series of X-rays. When the doctor came in he said, “Richard, you do things big, don’t you? That’s the worst break I’ve ever seen on anyone living. Where did this happen?” When I told him that we had just flown in from the Caribbean he replied, “If this had happened locally, you would have been in our trauma unit. I can’t believe you survived that flight home.”

As he showed me my X-rays I noted an uneven white line crossing through my ribs. “What’s that?” I asked.

“You broke all of your ribs,” he said. “You’re extremely lucky that you didn’t puncture your lungs. You wouldn’t be here if you had.” The next day a CT scan showed that the force of impact had driven my humerus bone through my socket, fracturing the socket and snapping the scapula in half.  There were more than a dozen other breaks in the scapula as well.  The doctor was vexed. “I’m afraid that if I open up your shoulder, it will just crumble,” he said. “As it is it’s being held in place by muscle. I believe that if we keep it splinted it will heal correctly on its own.”

As I look back on the experience I can’t help but believe that I was divinely protected that day.  Had I hit just slightly different my neck would have snapped.

A week later I was given a blessing by my religious leader. What he said in the blessing astonished me. “Your life was spared so that you might finish your mission on earth. You have no idea how much pain was taken from you when you were told to fight for your life.” I had not told my bishop about hearing that voice under the waves. Nor had I considered the impossibility of using a completely shattered shoulder to pull myself onto the beach. The pain should have been unbearable but I hadn’t felt a thing. Had I blacked out just seconds earlier than I did I likely would have drowned. A few months later a friend of my agent drowned in the very same sea. My agent said, “It makes me sick every time I think about how close I came to losing you.” But she didn’t.  I was protected in the waves that day and I have a heart full of gratitude for God, angels and the angels on the beach who delivered me home alive.  I should have died under the waves. It just wasn’t my time.

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Richard Paul Evans is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 27 novels. If you’re new to Richard’s books we recommend the New York Times bestselling The Walk series, the story of a man who, upon losing his wife, home and business, decides to walk across America. Or his latest novel, a love story, The Mistletoe Promise, available in all formats. 

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