The fear of dying has a very sobering quality about it. In the words of one of my heroes, the late great Mr Steve Jobs, who said in one of his last ever speeches,
"Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death!" - Steve Jobs
Like I said, sobering 😔.
The foreboding reality of our future death reminds us of what we have to live for, who we have to live for, and how we choose to share the lives that we now live with those that make our lives worth living; 'hashtag' legacy (one of my favourite words).
Film is a huge part of my life, so almost killing myself during the process of making a film impacted my life incredibly, and as Mr Jobs said, death (its ominous and pending approach) helps me make the big choices in life.
The following is a personal tale about an experience that helped me make one of the biggest choices in my own life. This post will focus on the experience, I will share the big choice in a future post, so stay 'posted' (Lol, I can't help myself:)
I didn’t know what was more ironic, the fact that I was in Jamaica (one of my two 'heritage homelands') to attend a funeral or the fact that as a filmmaker who made a living capturing key moments of people's lives, that I almost recorded the final moments of my own!
My first-ever time in Jamaica to attend a funeral, almost became a trip to my own funeral.
I was born in South London, Camberwell Green, so I felt more like a South-Londoner than I ever did a ‘Jamaican’. “I talk the ‘cockney’, not the 'pat-wa”, was my childish sentiment. But as a Brit of Jamaican descent, the Caribbean held some of the secrets of my heritage, so I knew growing up that I’d be making a ‘Jamaican pilgrimage’ at some point in life. I longed to be reconnected to something I knew had been severed from me, kind of like an amputated part of my life, which I wanted back on the body of..... my life?
So in March 2005, when the time came for me to finally visit Jamaica for the first time, I was happy....ish.
‘Happy’, yes, because I was going to see the land of my parents, both of whom were from Jamaica's capital city, Kingston. I was also happy because I was going to meet some of the almost two dozen ‘newly discovered‘ brothers and sisters I didn’t even know I had, till literally only months before my trip.
So why the "ish" at the end of ‘happy’? - My Caribbean trip was extremely bitter-sweet because it was one of my nine sisters I was going to Jamaica to meet. A beautiful and lovable sister called Deborah Elaine Graham. I hadn't even met her in the flesh but grew to love her more and more every time we spoke over Skype (Remember 'Skype' Zoomsters? 😉).
I met my sister for the first time, as a lifeless corpse in an open coffin 😔. Sadly Deborah had died suddenly from an epileptic fit a few weeks earlier in February 2005. God rest her precious soul.
As a filmmaker and the Graham family’s personal documentary archivist, I took upon myself the honourable task of filming my journey, the funeral and capturing as much as I could of meeting the Jamaican side of my huge family for the first time.
Funeral programmes are interesting things. I've always questioned why we use the simile and metaphor of 'Sunrise' and 'Sunset' on the front of them. The Jamaican sunset was a glorious thing to behold. Being under it helped me appreciate why something as glorious as life itself would be granted the privilege of being compared to the majesty of the sun, how it rose, and how it set. Sunsets truly exemplified death in a deep and potent way. I would come to appreciate the irony of sunsets and dying in a way I never imagined only days after my sister's funeral.
While in Jamaica, I was hired by a hotel company to film a short documentary for a famous hotel on the coast of the island, in Montego Bay (the tourist area), right beside one of the island's three airports.
To plan a documentary, I needed to carry out what filmmakers call a 'recce' (short for reconnaissance), where I plan shots and gather location intel in advance of a big shoot. One specific shot I planned almost led to my relatives planning another family funeral; mine 😥.
We've all seen those lovely romantic-looking cinematic shots of two sunkissed lovers swimming in the ocean, beneath the vista of a glorious sunset, in which the sun is disappearing over a body of water, causing a path of light to stretch towards the distant horizon. If you haven't seen this, well, it was this scene that I was hoping to, in fact, show you :) So I set out to capture a test of this dynamic shot. I've been told I'm over-ambitious; maybe there's truth in this.
With five minutes to go before the sunset over the beautiful Caribbean sea and maybe less than five minutes of battery life on my camera, I decided to set my camera up on the dock and begin capturing the test shot looking over the ocean. Then I had what I thought was a 'better idea', rather than just film a test shot of the ocean, framed in the camera alone, "wouldn't it be nice if there was someone actually swimming in the sea within my shot?" I thought, "but who could I get to swim out to sea just to appear in the path of light that was stretching towards the descending sun? "I know..", I said zealously, "I can swim, I'll do it!"
What is it about hubris and machismo that makes us believe accidents will only happen to people who aren't us? Almost as though we have this secret contract with death, and/or God, for them to not come knocking on the door of our life, to take it away, until we're old and grey and 'ready to die? 🤷🏽♂️ - (If you know the answer to this, please do leave a comment below)
DYING FOR THE LOVE OF ART
Without a second to waste, I checked that the camera and tripod were safely secure on the dock. I angled it looking out over the sea, tilted 'perfectly' (I thought), so the camera would capture me splashing in the water once I swam out into this amazing test shot. Then I flung off my clothes and dived into the warm Caribbean sea. I was later told that I dived in the water as confident as "an Olympic swimmer" - like I said, 'machismo'. Some people run into the arms of death, but I chose blindly to swim towards its cold embrace.
I left the camera with my client, a suited and booted thirty-something ambitious entrepreneur who was delighted to see my dedication for his documentary. I was willing to risk my life for the piece of art I was creating for him. Besides, my client was our friendly cabby; a good man.
Aware of the limited time I had to get into the shot, I swam out to sea as fast as I could. In my mind, I considered something the cabby told me the day before. He said, "On the coast, the water is shallow, so you could walk out to sea for about a mile before the water came up to your head", (spoken in reassuring Jamaican pat-wa; why would I question this?). For some reason, I believed him. My mum always said I was too trusting 🤦🏽♂️. I began to tire about 20 metres out at sea and so paused and began treading water, turning back to the friendly cabby to ask him, "Am I in"; meaning, could he see me in the camera viewfinder. Shouting to him tired me more, but my adrenaline fueled my water-treading, so I continued oblivious. Then came those infamous words, from the friendly cabby, which is seared into my memory. The words could have been some of the last I would ever hear. Looking in the camera's viewfinder on the dock, he shouted at me, "I don't see you", gesturing for me to go out further to sea, so I foolishly did.
I swam out another few metres, as fast as my tiring arms could take me, before turning around again and calling to the friendly-cabby, "Am I in" hoping he could see me in the camera now, but again. "I don't see you". I began to swim out further before stopping. A curious thought finally dawned on me, "maybe I should try and see if I could stand up in the water, to rest my legs"; going on what I'd been told about the water being shallow, I should be able to. Attempting to touch the bottom of the sea bed with my feet was when the horror began for me. Reaching my foot down I went under; completely submerged, I took in my first mouthful of water. Although I could touch the sea bed quite easily with my foot, I could not do so without my head and face being submerged; the water was about two metres deep, "that's deep enough to drown in", I remember thinking. So much for walking out to sea for a mile, hey?
Trying not to panic, I attempted to swim back to shore as quickly as I could, but the horrors continued to happen. My body decided to disobey anything my brain told it, to and it simply began shutting down. Adrenaline decided to betray me into the hands of exhaustion, and my body went limp.
A man shouldn’t be able to explain the cursed sensation of what saltwater feels like coursing down his throat, burning the inside of his filling lungs. Humans were not meant to feel such terror, but I felt it nonetheless.
I had never needed to cry out for someone to help save my life before this moment, but the more I felt I shouldn't ask for help, (pride), the louder I became. Bellowing "help" is a humbling experience that does more than words can ever explain to reveal the truth, so many men try to avoid; that truth is this;
We need each other. We cannot live alone and survive in this world without each other. We need one another now more than ever. Believe it or not, this is the truth!
I was terrified as my body began to spasm whilst choking on the seawater. I felt as though I had barbells strapped to my limp arms and legs. I was out of control, out of 'the control' I thought I had over my own body. I was tossed by ripples and waves that were gentle but were gently drowning me, pulling me down, pulling me under.
I remember thinking, "I'm about to die in Jamaica" - Why I highlighted Jamaica, I'm not sure. Being about to die anywhere is a bad thing, but in Jamaica it was.
Under one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d seen, my life was about to experience its own sunset. 2005 would be on the front cover of my funeral programme. I was about to die, exemplifying irony.
I'm not sure where my refusal to give in came from, but despite the water I was taking in and the exhaustion I felt, I kept pushing on until I was close enough for one of the two men on the dock, my client and the friendly cabby; neither of whom could swim, to jump in the water and haul me in, as I had somehow made it close enough to the dock.
Taking hold of the rocks and feeling the friendly cabby's hands grab me was like feeling the warmth of life again after being in the cold clutches of death, for longer than I appreciated.
Thank you to my client and the friendly cabby. Without you, I'm not sure how this event would have ended. I salute you both.
Below is a never seen before short traumatic clip of the footage my camera captured from the dock. I've trimmed the end part off so as not to expose my client and the friendly cabby, who helped get me back to shore. Please be warned, this footage contains distressing images and sounds, which might distress anyone viewing. I share it to give context to the event I've just shared.
Life is a grace-filled 'gift'; gift-wrapped in a wrapping called time.
It’s a gift that we 'spend' all the time, all the time of our lives. Our living is our 'spending'.
How we, therefore, spend our 'gift' and who we spend it with shows how much value we place on the gift of our lives.
Our benefactor, who we've come to call "God", gives us a portion of time (a priceless commodity), like a downpayment of money, for each of us to spend, invest or even waste; we get to choose as a part of this gift of life. Rather than coins, we are gifted with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. Our hearts beat in rhythm with the portions of time we are given. It's like our lives play a melody on the chords of time itself.
A caveat is given, by our benefactor, in the terms and conditions of our gift. We aren't ever told how much time we have been given, so our spending requires wisdom because we might run out of time at any point 'in time', which brings me full circle back to death.
Like Mr 'Think Differently', Steve Jobs said, "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life". My dirty dance with death in Jamaica helped me make some huge choices in the life I am beyond grateful to still be living.
I will share in future SHABOOM blog posts what I have gone on to do with my near-death experience in Jamaica. It pushed me to be a better filmmaker, writer and eventually a tech entrepreneur for an app that will help people share their amazing gift of life with the people who make their life worth living. I look forward to sharing more about my tech startup and platform soon.
Final ShaBoom Take-Aways:
- Please learn to swim!
- Please teach your children to swim!
- Look out for your own hubris; it's dangerous and could lead to the premature death of you.
I am Shabazz, and these are my thoughts.
Stay safe 🙏