Baptism by Bathwater Lewis
The cross handle faucets gleamed up at me, chrome sweating in the humid bathroom air. I lifted a dripping foot out of the bathtub and wrapped my toes like a monkey around the hot water handle, carefully gauging the difference between steambath and lobster boil as I adjusted the mix.
Somewhere in between would do.
I’ve always liked my baths blistering. A man can’t be expected to relax in a tepid bath. As the water inched up, the fingers of my right hand drummed a staccato rhythm on the edge of the porcelain tub. The Novotel Hotel in Pau had French pipes, and while the French are fabulous cooks, their plumbing leaves something to be desired. Waiting for the water to climb past my knees, I took a drag off the Camel cigarette in my left hand, then rubbed my fingers across tired, gritty eyes. I’d gotten three hours of uninterrupted sleep the night before, and that was one hour more than usual.
Mentally urging the water to rise faster, I flicked ash into the soap dish. I was too hyped up.
I must have downed twenty cups of black coffee while leading the management training sessions today on an empty stomach—well, empty except for the five bars of Toblerone chocolate I’d found in the suite’s mini-fridge—and I was burning carbs like a high-strung racehorse.
I desperately needed to calm down, but I bloody well couldn’t do it in a bath that barely covered my bum.
I grimaced at the irony and shook my head. “That’s a fine thing, Lewis, when you can’t even unwind without stressing yourself out.”
It had been a monster of a day, and the rest of the week hadn’t gone well, either. I glanced at the cigarette dangling from my fingers.
The nodules on your throat concern me, Mr. Senior. I’d like to get them biopsied at the earliest opportunity. In the meantime, you need to stop smoking. That will only aggravate the condition more.
I took another drag, my fingers shaking.
I’ll stop tomorrow for certain.
I reached for my mobile phone and speed-dialed Dagfinn Tromborg, who was on another floor of the hotel. Most of Transocean’s Operational Safety Assistants were with me in Pau this week, attending the interminable meetings I’d scheduled. A 2001 merger had created the world’s largest multinational offshore drilling company, growing it from 1,400 to 18,000 employees almost overnight.
Transocean had given me, as their Health, Safety, and Environmental Worldwide Manager, the unenviable job of convincing 18,000 employees that the company’s “merger of equals” and subsequent acquisition plan would benefit them rather than create disorder and redundancies all around.
Now it was February 2002, and except for a few days after 9/11 when air traffic had come to a halt, I’d been flying non-stop across the international dateline for months, barely taking time to celebrate Christmas with my family before I was on the road again, preaching the gospel according to Transocean to anyone who would listen.
I was jet-lagged and exhausted, and I wasn’t done yet.
The phone rang and rang while I waited for Dagfinn to pick up. He was a friend, not just a business associate, and I liked to bounce ideas off him when I had the chance.
Finally, he answered. “Hello?” “
Look, Dagfinn, I need to talk to you about my presentation for tomorrow. I’ve got this idea I think is marvelous. Something Lindsay’s wife said earlier triggered a thought I’ve been playing with for a while. It was like a great key fitting into the last lock.”
“Lewis, take a breath,” he said, his Norwegian accent round and precise. “The day is over. Time to wind down.”
“I don’t have time to wind down. Seven people have died on the rigs since the mergers, Dagfinn. Seven. Do you know what it’s like to tell someone’s wife her husband is never coming home again? It’s got to stop. They made me the worldwide manager of Health, Safety, and Environment so I can make it stop.”
“My friend, when was the last time you slept?” he interrupted gently. “Ate a good meal? Made love to your wife?”
I clenched my teeth, trying not to be irritated at Dagfinn’s solicitous tone. “I don’t sleep. I can’t remember my last good meal. The rest is none of your blooming business. Can we talk about my idea? I’m just having a bath. I can be down in ten minutes.”
“No, Lewis. You will not come down, interrupting my evening with my wife, who is not back home but here, waiting for me to show her Pau. The work day is over,” he said. “There is nothing more either of us can do today. Stay in your bath and get some rest. You’ll fall over soon if you do not stop pushing yourself. You won’t be able to help anyone then.”
“The management team has expectations. You know, with this new president, I don’t know what to think. Dennis wasn’t just my boss, he was my friend.”
I nodded even though he couldn’t see me. “Yes, and with them pushing him out, who knows what will happen? We could be next. With the mergers, and so many new employees, the safety procedures have to be disseminated across the rigs quickly.
Never mind our jobs. We don’t want another Piper Alpha,” I said.
“I don’t expect that anyone thinks you can do it all single-handed and overnight, Lewis. There will be a transition period. Everyone knows this.”
I stubbed the cigarette out in the soap dish, the bathwater sloshing with my impatient movements. “They expect results. I’m going to give them some. No one else gets hurt on my watch. No one.” I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. My head really was spinning. Probably all the stimulants. I rubbed a fist over the center of my chest, which had begun to feel tight. The steam was making it harder to breathe. “Can I come down or not?” “Not,” Dagfinn said firmly. “If my choice is to spend the evening talking business with you, or to spend the evening wining and dining my wife, I choose my wife.
And you know, Lewis, you have a choice, too. You don’t have to do this hard work. You don’t have to do it this way. You can always say no.” I didn’t bother to point out that Dagfinn would have plenty of time to romance his wife if he lost his job. I’d already stopped listening. “I’ll call someone else. I’ve got to get this idea out of my head where I can look at it.” “You will not call anyone else. You will sit in your bath and be a good boy. Order room service while you are at it. Man does not live by bread alone. Isn’t that what Steve is always saying?”
“I guess.” Steve Carlisle, another Transocean employee, was a devout Southern Baptist. He’d been my flat mate whenever I stayed in Houston where Transocean headquarters was based. We’d lived together off and on for the past three years, ever since my family had cut short their disastrous move to Houston and returned to Spain to await my infrequent trips home. Steve was staying at the Novotel, too.
“So,” Dagfinn said, “I will see you in the morning. Goodnight.” He hung up the phone, just like that. I stared at the blank screen on my mobile, resisting the urge to fling the thing across the room. Instead, I set the phone down carefully and forced myself to follow Dagfinn’s orders.
“I drew this bath to relax, and I’m going to do it,” I muttered to myself. My mind was buzzing; my very skin felt alive, crawling and tightening with each breath I took. I pressed the heel of my hand to my chest. I really was beginning to feel uncomfortable.
The water finally rose past my waist. I turned off the tap and made myself lie back, determined to get some rest. I allowed my eyes to drift shut, letting the hot water seep into my pores, and sank almost unaware into a fitful doze. I dreamed of the Piper Alpha again. It was a recurring nightmare. I wasn’t on Occidental’s platform offshore Aberdeen, Scotland, when it blew up on July 6, 1988. I was on a rig further south called the Interocean II, but in most every dream I had, I was trapped inside one of the two fire accommodation modules as a fireball engulfed the platform. I would huddle in a corner, the intense heat burning the tears from my eyes, acrid fumes from the blazing hydrocarbons infiltrating my lungs while I waited for a rescue that never came. I’d slowly suffocate as the accommodation module separated from the main platform and dropped into the North Sea, carrying my body and those of eighty- seven of my comrades to our watery tomb.
Or I’d be one of the seventy-eight men who, faced with a choice between burning alive or jumping to his death, decided to take his chances with the sea. I’d plunge into its icy depths from two hundred feet up, striking the water hard enough to crack bones but not hard enough to kill me. I’d still be conscious when the saltwater quickly replaced the oxygen in my lungs, engorging them as I gagged and struggled in a futile attempt to reach the rescue boats.
I wrenched awake.
I can’t breathe.
I waited for the dream to release me, but the crushing weight on my chest didn’t ease. I clutched at it, trying to draw a breath and failing, opening my eyes wide, seeing… seeing …
A white light heading straight for me.
Harsh and bright like a knife’s edge reflecting the sun, the light raced toward me with the speed of a Japanese bullet train. And I knew, as certain as I knew my own name, I was about to die. Turns out your life really does flash before your eyes. That instant seemed to hang suspended before me like a diamond on a chain, and I saw scenes of my life in each isolated, crystallized facet of the gem. My childhood in the Fifties in Yorkshire, England. My loving but disappointed father. My supportive, generous mum. My first post as a novice roustabout on an oil rig. My marriage to my practical, ever-patient Spanish wife, Isabel. The birth of our beautiful baby girl, Laura, and then, three and a half years later, our cheerfully gurgling son, David.
I saw them as they were now, too. Laura a headstrong sixteen-year-old, David an accommodating, placid almost-man, both waiting for a father who would never come home again.
I saw every important moment of my life, each a link in a long chain of events leading to this very instant. Flashing colors played across the scenes, touching the faces of the people I loved, the friends I knew, the men with whom I’d worked. Red, yellow, green, blue, over and over again, in predictable, repeating patterns that began to make sense: red with the doers, yellow with the socializers, blue with the relaters, green with the thinkers. Somehow, the colors were connected to everything. Like a prophetic Morse code, there was a message hidden in them, and I could almost make it out.
Steve was in my vision, as well. I could see him telling me how everything happens for a reason, everything is connected, and I was meant to be a part of it. I, he—everyone—was a part of something larger and unimaginably complex, and for the first time in my life, so close to death, I finally had an inkling of what he’d been trying to tell me.
In a sudden flash of intuition, it all made sense. The colors, the people, the connections. “Steve was right!” I gasped. It wasn’t fair, I thought. The white light was coming to take me away, but I still had so much to do.
I couldn’t die yet; I wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot.
If I was going to go, that damn light was going to have to come and get me. I leapt out of the bath with one thought: Find Steve. If nothing else, I had to tell him he was right. So what if I was wet and naked? I didn’t have time to dry off, to put on clothes. Those were minor inconveniences in comparison to the incredible gift of wisdom I’d just been given. My wet feet skidded across the slick bathroom tiles, but I didn’t let that slow me down, either. My breath was coming shorter and shorter. Who knew how long I had left to live?
I was born into a Jewish family but had never considered myself a religious man. Still, I’d once heard a soldier say there are no atheists in foxholes, and with that white light chasing me down, I believed it.
Flinging open the hotel room door, I literally streaked into the corridor like a modern-day Archimedes, but instead of shouting “Eureka!” I was shouting for Steve.
I promptly collided with someone. He bobbled for a moment, and we both went down.
“What the—“The man struggled to untangle himself, then scrambled to his knees, gaping at my nakedness. “Lewis! What’s happened?”
It was an old driller friend of mine from my roustabout days. Behind him stood Harvey Snowling, who worked with me in H.S.E. “Can’t breathe,” I gasped, clutching at my chest. “Dying. White light. Find Steve!” “What light? What’s wrong?” Harvey blocked my escape while the driller mumbled some excuse, turned tail, and ran. “It’s the colors. It’s all about the colors.” Furious that Harvey didn’t seem to understand, I gripped him by his shirt collar. “It’s all connected, don’t you see?” I must have been shouting, because up and down the corridor, doors started to open. People poked their heads out. A number of my Transocean colleagues were attending workshops at the Novotel, a type of universally nondescript hotel which hosts management conferences and family vacations with equal ease. They exchanged bewildered glances. A few of the doors hastily closed once they caught sight of my naked bum.
“What’s wrong with Lewis?” I heard someone ask in sotto voce. “Call a doctor. He’s having some kind of attack.” “He’s hyperventilating. Try to keep him calm.” “Steve was right. Must tell him he was right,” I croaked between increasingly difficult breaths. “The colors are the key.” I’d started to sweat profusely, despite the cooling bathwater slicking my skin, and I trembled like a drunk in a rehab center. Still, I was strong enough to fight the hands trying to cover me with a blanket and to restrain my frantic attempts to drag Harvey and whoever else was holding me down the hall.
“Steve! Where in the hell are you?”
All the fight suddenly went out of me. Exhausted, I dropped to my knees and fell over onto my back. My chest heaved. My mouth contorted with the effort to drag in a few final breaths. Harvey cradled my head in his lap, and I stared up at him. His nostrils were the last thing I would ever see in this life. Slow down.
Even now, I can’t say where The Voice came from. No one else heard it. Some might argue it was all in my head, an hallucination induced by too much stress, too many stimulants, and too little sleep. Some might say it was supernatural, a voice from above.
I wouldn’t argue with any of them, because arguing isn’t something I do anymore. And it doesn’t matter what anyone else believes.
The Voice was only for me, it was real, and I believed what it said.
You can have a breath if you make a promise.
I stopped struggling for air, frantically searching the faces of the people around me. Which of them had spoken? What did he mean?
Make a promise.
A promise? What kind of—and then one came to me. “I—I promise to spend more time with the family!” I gasped, and the pressure in my chest eased enough to allow me one breath. The Voice spoke again, and this time I knew it was coming from inside my head. You can have another breath if you make another promise. Another promise? I was fighting for my life, and he had me making promises. Whoever The Voice was, he knew how to get what he wanted. Fine, another one. “I promise I’m going to start listening more!” I cried out, my words nearly strangled by the effort. As bargained, I got my next breath. Then I started to try for another, and The Voice came again. You can have another breath if you make another promise.
“Bloody… All right. I promise—“ I racked my brain. What, what, what? Then I knew. “I’m never going to have an argument again!” Oh, that was a good one. I could almost feel The Voice’s amusement, but I knew, even then, it was a promise I would keep. My life meant a lot to me, and I wanted another chance at it. Dying on the floor of the Novotel, my unfulfilled potential the only real legacy I left behind, was not how I wanted to go.
I got my breath, but the next one eluded me. My chest heaved, and I struggled to understand what more The Voice wanted from me.
You can have as many breaths as you like, he said gently, if you make one more promise. “Yes. All right. I promise . . . I promise to find a way to help people.”
B-bring them together.”
“Help them…help them communicate better!” And my breaths flowed in and out. I was set free. As soon as I said that last promise, I understood what it meant. Communication was the key. If people could talk to one another, and listen—really listen—not through their own filters, but from the perspective of the other person, perhaps they would stop hurting and being hurt. Perhaps I could learn to stop hurting and being hurt.
All this activity, all this intensity, all this drama in my life. Why? I had thought I was successful. A beautiful family, great job, the respect of my colleagues, a healthy income, and yet it never seemed to be enough. I’d go to sleep after a job well done, see the Piper Alpha in my dreams, and get up to start all over again, driving through my day like a maniac.
I took it personally whenever someone got hurt on a rig. I took it personally whenever someone’s feelings were trod on.
Maybe, just maybe, I’d finally discovered the real meaning of success. I finally had an inkling that, at the end of the day, success is not defined in terms of the money we earn or the things we buy with it, but in the people we touch, in the lives we change just by being in them. And while my role as the H.S.E. manager had helped to save lives, I hadn’t really changed any lives for the better, just put off the inevitable for a while.
With sweet oxygen flowing through my lungs, I saw it all like a finished puzzle in my head.
I had a choice. I could pretend The Voice had never spoken. I could laugh it off as some sort of crazy hallucination and go on with life as I knew it, just existing, making a living instead of making a difference.
Or I could do as I promised. I could help people understand one another, and as a bonus, I could save lives in the process. And for the first time, I thought I knew how to do it.
French paramedics arrived and injected me with something in my left thigh, a tranquilizer strong enough to knock me out for a full day, I later learned, a necessity given the fact that I was still blowing and going, fighting the helping hands around me and trying to make myself understood.
The edges of my vision turned gray and ebbed as the sedatives coursed through my veins. My world slowly faded to black.
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