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An Unlikely Guardian Angel: My Brother

A capsized kayaker is rescued from dangerous swells by the last person he’d have expected.

David and Daniel Friend

The kayaks were ready. Life jackets and oars—check. At our family’s cabin on the rugged Mendocino coast, my little brother, Daniel, and I spent most of our time on the water. Now I just had to wait for him to finish his morning therapy.

Daniel has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. CF causes the body to produce thick mucus that can keep the pancreas from breaking down food. It also interferes with breathing. Daniel’s lungs had only 40 percent of the breathing capacity of an ordinary teenage boy. 

Every morning, evening and night, my brother did a series of breathing treatments while strapped in a compression vest that shook him to help expel the mucus. “Almost done,” he said when I stuck my head in the door.

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“Take your time,” I said. “No big rush.”

Daniel was fourteen—only four years younger than me—but I made it my business to look out for him. Friends who were sneezing or coughing had to stay away until they were well. It would mean a trip to the hospital if Daniel caught a cold.

Daniel ended up there at least once a year nevertheless with an infection or another CF-related complication. Many people said I was overprotective, but I knew it was my responsibility to keep him healthy. I guess you could say I was like Daniel’s guardian angel, though he probably didn’t know it.

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“All done!” Daniel called, opening the door of the cabin. “Kayaks ready to go?”

“You bet.”

“I’m going tide pooling with David,” Daniel called to Mom and Dad. “Be back soon.”

We decided to go to a secluded cove on Salmon Point. It was our go-to spot for tide pooling. Kayaking can be very dangerous in rough or rocky water, something that the Mendocino coast is notorious for. It was easier to handle if you knew the terrain.

Daniel followed me down the path that led to the shore. Cliffs rose on either side of us, the water breaking against them. We secured our life vests and waded into the water with the kayaks past the breaking waves. I climbed into my seat and waited. Daniel needed to rest after a coughing fit.

When he was breathing steadily we paddled into the ocean. “Stay close and follow my exact path,” I told him. “I know just where we’re going.”

We made our way past the jagged cliffs that lined the shore. The ocean was rougher than the previous day, but it was no trouble for people with our experience. The oars cut easily through the water, Daniel rowing in perfect rhythm with me.

We marveled at the beauty of the postcard scene—clear blue sky and calm breeze. Before I knew it, we were nearing the rocks that guarded Salmon Point.

“Whoa,” Daniel said, looking up. In minutes the blue sky had become a windy and gray Pacific front. Waves pounded the shore, white water roared and our kayaks rose and dipped in the kelp patties. I looked back at Daniel to make sure he was okay. He gave me a thumbs up.

We kayaked past the kelp and into a clearing, the sharp rocks poking up out of the water all around us. Halfway through the pass, I got a bit too close to a rock on my left side.

I back paddled to keep my distance, but before I could move away a strong swell swept up my kayak and pushed me toward the very rock I was trying to avoid. I surfed atop the swell, back paddling frantically in a futile attempt to slow down and keep my balance. I was headed right for the rock!

Seconds before impact, an eddy swallowed the front of my kayak and pulled me under. My kayak was ripped from under me. I was sucked down—six? Ten feet? More? I couldn’t tell which way was up. Everything was white.

It felt like forever before my head broke the surface. I looked around in a daze. Frigid white water splashed my face. My kayak was nowhere to be seen. I gasped for air, trying to keep myself above water. Help me! Someone help me! But no one could hear my cries.

Kick! Kick! I told myself. I had to reach shore. But the current was too strong. I could barely move. It felt like a dream—no, a nightmare—where I was trying to run away from something but couldn’t because my legs were numb. The water pulled me and pushed me at its whim.

I could see my brother 30 yards away, bobbing in and out of view. He was just outside of the dangerous white water and rocks, still upright in his kayak. If he came closer, he’d capsize. He’d be stuck just like me, and wouldn’t have the strength to fight. I was on my own.

The water closed over my head again. I’ll drown, I thought. I’ll die. When I broke the surface again I was in a complete panic. “Daniel!” I yelled, thrashing to keep my head above water. “Help me!”

Daniel was already on his way, paddling as fast as he could. I grabbed the back of his kayak. “Don’t let go,” he ordered.

Breathing hard, Daniel pulled me toward the cove, about 50 yards away, maneuvering around the rock outcroppings and riding the cresting, frothy swells. He struggled and could barely breathe but kept paddling. He saved my life, I thought. Daniel saved my life.

Finally my feet touched the rocks and I waded to shore. I pulled his kayak up on the beach, we shared a quick embrace and we both collapsed on the shore.

It took Daniel a while to get his breath back. We were far from the path that led back to the cabin. “Think you can make it across the cliff to get home?” I asked. We’d have to wade through the ocean and scale the eroding cliffs.

Daniel nodded. He’d already proved he was capable of far more than I would ever have imagined.

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We left Daniel’s kayak on the beach. Shivering in our shorts and bare feet, we made our way back to our cabin, helping each other over the rocks.

When we got within sight of our cabin I was exhausted. I couldn’t imagine how Daniel felt. Mom and Dad rushed out to greet us. They’d heard about a lone kayak washing up on the shore.

“The water sucked David down,” Daniel said. “A second later his kayak came flying out of the water like it was shot out of a cannon.”

Mom wrapped us in her arms. “You are lucky to be alive!” said my dad. “You could have drowned, capsized out there.”

“I would have,” I said, looking over at Daniel. “But I had a guardian angel. I just didn’t know it.”

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