The water had been calm when my husband, Jon, and I arrived, by rickety old boat, at the remote, rustic three-room hotel on a tiny island in the Rosario archipelago, off the Colombian coast. But days later, as we hopped aboard the same boat for the hour-long trip back to the mainland, things had changed. I soon spotted whitecaps in the near distance. When we reached them, the boat began to repeatedly rise and sharply drop. The drops were so violent, they lifted me inches off my seat. I felt my brain rattling in my skull. It was like riding an unbroken horse.

Jon offered his hand. "Squeeze as hard as you want," he whispered, as a wave crashed over the bow and onto me.

I scare as much as the next person—but only for the fraction of a second it takes to realize it's just thunder, a movie, a mouse, my imagination. Now, though, swell by sickening swell, I felt the visceral, sustained fear that I might die. I could see myself being thrown from the boat or the whole thing capsizing. I imagined myself panicking in the water, suddenly unable to swim.

The water is warm, I told myself. We're not far from shore. I'm wearing a life jacket. Jon won't let me drown. Other boats will pick us up. We'll go to the American consulate. They'll give us new passports.

I looked at Jon, seawater spraying his face. He didn't look scared. He's just being strong for me, I thought. I watched a crew member, utterly tranquil, texting. I glanced back at the captain; he, too, had the nonchalant expression of a man going about an ordinary day. This must be normal, I thought. This must be okay.

No matter how long I stared at their serene faces, it did nothing to alleviate my fear—the fear wired into my brain by millions of years of evolution, the mechanism that had saved my ancestors from wild animals, fires, barbarians at the gate. I owe my existence to this fear. We all do.

Now it tortured me, repeating its refrain: You're going to die. You're going to die. You're going to die.

I am not going to die, I told myself.

That's not true, the fear said. You are going to die—maybe not today, in the Caribbean Sea, but definitely someday.

Then, a moment of clarity: But I'm alive right now.

Somehow I forced this new idea to eclipse my fear, and I began to focus on exactly that—my aliveness. What did I see? The deep blue water. The words use chaleco salvavida painted on the bow of the boat. What did I hear? Waves crashing. Birds cawing. The engine growling. What did I taste? Salt. The metallic bile of panic. What did I smell? Sea air. Sunscreen. What did I feel? My body bracing. Jon's hand. And, finally, the sea calming.

I opened my eyes. Cartagena's skyscrapers were bathed in sunlight. They looked different—everything did. I saw Jon's reassuring smile, his hand red and dented from my grip, and thought, Here we are, right now, two people in love, during the blink of an eye we get to spend on earth. What a gorgeous gift.


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