Family Togetherness


This is the story of how I went canoing with my family and almost died. No, I’m not kidding. I may be exaggerating a little bit, but I’m not kidding. Really.

See, my family went canoing together Sunday, and if you know my family already you’re thinking, “Oh, dear.” I mean, we’re known for many things (being way too smart and articulate for our own good, rampant eccentricity, having read too many books), but any sort of physical ability or sports aptitude is usually not included on the list. The one time we went canoing before was remarkable for how much time we spent out of our boats, not in them. This, coincidentally, was the cause of a lot of hilarity, giving us several stories we happily told in the years since then. And so, the weather being beautiful and Judy’s birthday coming up, and while we were all still in the same geographic location (an unusual event typically prevented by my family’s tendency to wander off when not watched), we decided to go canoing again.

Everything was going really well. Mom decided to paddle her own kayak instead of being a passenger in someone else’s canoe, which lasted just long enough for her to discover that she cannot steer and does not like paddling. After the second (maybe third?) time she ended up in the water she wisely let someone else trade places with her. Other family members also discovered that they could not steer. Michelle and Larry seemed to make their way downstream by heading horizontally bank to bank in zig zag fashion. I was doing very well, though, sharing a canoe first with Eddie, and then with Mikey when Eddie decided that he wanted a turn in the kayak. My canoe never seemed to run into difficulties, serenely avoiding sandbars, lightly getting through rough places. As I successfully navigated challenge after challenge, I started to think, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this.” And that’s where things went wrong.

We came to a kind of tricky place in the river. There was a large branch overhanging the water on the right side, the water underneath it running smooth and deep. If you cut to the left to avoid it, the water looked ripply and disturbed, the turbulence evidence of rocks beneath the surface. Close to the right bank the branch lifted up enough to make an arch you could paddle through if you steered precisely enough, but you would have to cut left immediately after you emerged to avoid a huge tree stump that jutted out of the water a little way further down. In my hubris I decided that I was up for this, and steered us towards the opening. And it went really well, until in our triumph at having navigated the arch, we didn’t cut hard enough and ran up against the tree. Mikey in the front was able to avoid it. I … couldn’t, and the whole canoe tipped over.

I came up under the canoe. There was still a little pocket of air under there, so I could take a breath and then duck back under to push it off of me, assisted by Mikey. (Mikey: “It was really scary when I came up and you didn’t, and I couldn’t see you.”) The next few minutes were very confused. Everything happened really fast. Judy and Heather were in the canoe right behind us which at first avoided the tree, and then tipped a little way past us. The current was very strong, sweeping us and the canoes downstream fast. We were trying to get our feet under us, hold onto the boats, and grab for paddles and life jackets (which, um, we weren’t wearing) that threatened to escape. The canoes were rapidly filling with water, which made them incredibly heavy and difficult to handle. Still, it looked like everything was ok. We were all above water, and working hard and fast to fix the situation.

And then it happened. I was on the downstream side of our canoe which was on its side in the water, trying to keep hold of it as the current pushed it down like the wind filling a sail. The river wasn’t very deep, so I was trying to get a foothold that would let me stop the thing so we could empty and right it. And then I got stuck on a submerged log. It was behind me and completely under water, so I never saw it. All I knew was that suddenly I was up against this big thing in the water with the canoe and the full force of the current crushing me against it. My right leg and ankle were trapped under water, snagged on something. I couldn’t get it free, and the force of the canoe was trying to make it bend in ways legs were never meant to bend. I couldn’t get out. The boat was getting heavier by the second, and I was up to my shoulders in rushing water.

Our family’s normal procedure when someone runs into difficulties while canoing is to hang around casually while they right themselves, pretty confident that they’re fine, but there just in case. So there I was, trapped near the right bank of the river, with Judy by me trying to hold on to the other canoe, now pressing up against my canoe. The rest of my family was fetched up on the left bank, unconcernedly waiting and unaware that I was in deep trouble. Larry was out of his canoe, watching us. “Do you need help?” he asked pleasantly. Judy started to say that we did, and I cried, “I need help NOW!” my voice rough with panic. I think the raw terror in my voice got their attention. Within moments I had Larry, Mikey, and Sean all over there trying to help. Their first attempt to pry the canoe away only forced it harder against my leg. Then they got Judy’s canoe away, which eased the pressure a little. But my canoe wasn’t moving, and my ankle was still securely caught. Mikey started feeling around under the water trying to see what was holding it. I started praying a Hail Mary out loud. And then somehow I came free. (Later I realized that the whole side of my Tevas, which was what had snagged my foot under the water, had ripped away, freeing me.) I was able lift my ankle up and over the log that had snagged it, and stumble away from the group holding on to the canoe. With me out of the way they could let it go a little further downstream to calmer waters where they could right it.

I stood away from the group for a long moment, almost unable to believe I was free. I suddenly felt a deep need to not be in the water at all. I haltingly made my way up onto the bank a few feet away. I turned and looked at my brothers in the water with the canoe, at the sunlight glistening on the water, at the people and boats drawn up on the rocky beach opposite, at the lush green trees framing everything in beauty. “I just almost broke my leg.” I thought, and I started to shake. “I could have died.” I thought, and right there had a small, quiet bout of hysterics. Larry noticed. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said as I hyperventilated, “I’m just having a reaction. Give me a minute.” Guy-like, he stood and waited for the tears to stop, then walked with me as, still jittery from the adrenaline rush, I crossed back over the river to the rest of my family.

And then we all got back in the boats and continued on our way.

I’m still amazed that I got off so easily. I think my Tevas must have been cushioning my foot under the water. My ankle is bruised some on the front, and there’s a huge scrape/bruise/contusion on the back of my calf that will be turning interesting colors for some time. Other places are sore to the touch, but there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. Nothing broke. I only have a few scratches. I think I aspirated a little water, which made my breathing rough for a little while, but that’s easing off. All in all, I’m fine. And I’m enormously lucky. If my brothers hadn’t been there, if they hadn’t been strong enough to get the canoe off me (in the end it took four of them to right it), if anything else had gone wrong… I don’t think I would have been typing this right now. Instead you could have been reading some newspaper story about the incredible tragedy on the river. But none of that happened, and I am typing this, and I’m so, so grateful to be alive.

I might even go canoing again some day.

So I had a birthday last week.  In the swing dancing community it’s a tradition that when a dancer has a birthday you give them a Birthday Jam.  This is a kind of exhibition dance in which the birthday girl starts out dancing with one guy in the center of a large circle of the other dancers.  As the song plays, the other guys present take turns stealing her.  If it’s a birthday boy, then the girls take turns stealing him.  I, in particular, always seem to have very interesting birthday jams.  They’re good fun, and can be the source of a lot of hilarity and/or showing off.  Showy steals, flashy moves – who knows what will show up?

This year my family showed up.  Well, half of them (I am one of eleven siblings).  It was Dad, Larry, Michelle, Heather, Lisa, and Gabe.  Liv was the Mastermind who got everyone there.  This was a big deal.  My family has never come out to see me dance.  When I was in my first competition, Liv came to cheer me on, but my family didn’t even ask me how I’d done.  Just the week before I’d been whining about this.  Trey’s family came all the way from Maine to watch him dance.  My family couldn’t go across town?

And then they showed up at the regular Wednesday night dance.  I had no idea, not the shadow of a suspicion, nothing.  I had dropped the swing club kids off early for the lesson (it was Shim Sham, which I already know how to do), and gone to chill at Barnes & Noble until the dance would start.  Of course I got caught in a book, so I was late to the dance.  I walked in, and there they were.  I was utterly flabbergasted.  It was awesome.  What made it even more awesome is that both Dad and Gabe jumped in during my birthday jam.  Gabe did a little swing dancing a few years back, so he sortof knew what he was doing, but my Dad had absolutely no clue.  He was so cute.  His idea of dancing was bouncing very energetically opposite me.  I thought, “Well, ok.” and turned it into a kicky-Charleston sort of thing.  Then he ran out of breath (my Dad bears a striking resemblance to Santa Clause, complete with white beard and rosy cheeks) and called for someone to rescue him.  It was so much fun.

With all this love, I don’t mind being another year older.

I hate writer’s block.  Especially when it seems to be selective writer’s block, only specifically blocking the one thing I really, really, really need to be working on right now.  And I was on such a roll this morning before I had to stop to go to my first class.  Why can’t I get back there now?  Arrrgh!

So I’m blogging.  Because that helps with writer’s block, right?  Right?  Well, at least it’s an attempt.  It’s better than reading Veronica Mars recaps on Television Without Pity.  Not that I’m, you know, doing that at the moment or anything.  Though it would be research for when Justin trades me his DVDs of the first two Veronica Mars seasons for the Heroes Season One DVDs I just finished.  (I still like Sylar the best, except for perhaps Mr. Muggles.  Is this wrong?)

Ok, moving on… I had a good Easter break.  I dug the vegetable garden and planted sweet peas and lilies of the valley.  Hopefully the seeds haven’t frozen in the ground by now, what with all the random snowflakes flying around, but they’re cold-weather plants, so I think they can take it.  I think.  It was one of the happiest times of the last couple months digging out in the garden under the wide, open sky.  I forget, during those months when I don’t have access to the ground, how much being outside helping things grow fills me up inside.  I don’t know how people could live in urban concrete jungles with no access to growing things.  I couldn’t do it.  I think part of me would die inside.

The Easter Vigil was fun.  I wore my new peep-toe shoes (Liv: “Peep!  Peep!”), and got to sit next to Eric, who is one of my favorite relatives ever.  (No, really, ever.)  We can’t sit next to each other in church too often.  We find the same offbeat things utterly hilarious, and can’t help pointing them out to one another.  It makes for a very distracting sort of Mass.  The Easter Vigil always starts with the lighting of the new fire, followed by the candlelight procession into the church.  After the Easter proclamation, everyone blows out their candles and sits down to listen to the Bible readings.  There are a lot of them since this is the Easter Vigil.  Eric was fidgeting with his candle during the readings, peeling layers of wax off of it, then breaking it into segments and folding it into a figure 8 which then got reinserted into the paper cuff that’s supposed to catch the wax.  This meant that when the time came to relight the candles later in the Vigil, his candle had two ends we could light.  So we did, giggling silently as we watched them burn down extra quickly.  Then I had to recite him the oh, so apropos Edna St. Vincent Millay poem (“My candle burns at both ends,/ It will not last the night./ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,/ It gives a lovely light.”)  That was pretty funny too.

The other fun thing was that I took Liv home with me for Easter dinner.  I love watching her hang out with my family, especially the guys in my family.  The thing is that she’s really, really beautiful.  However, she doesn’t see her own beauty, particularly since she pays little to no attention to her looks whatsoever.  In her book, her blond sister is the beautiful one in the family, and Liv is the tomboy that nobody looks at twice.  Plus, she grew up rough-housing with two little brothers, so she doesn’t quite understand how the same behavior that’s really annoying in an older sister could be, well, really encouraging in a cute young woman sortof your own age.  It’s a kind of innocence.  Mikey is still young enough that they can play together without worries (plus he’s the one she trusts enough to carry her from my car into the house), but it was interesting watching Larry, my oldest brother.  He had just gotten his hair buzzed really short, so she had to rub it (she rubs her little brothers heads when they’ve just gotten a buzz cut).  It was awesome watching his brain melt and dribble out of his skull right there in my aunt’s living room.

And the other good part about Easter?  I got to talk to Joe.  When I was getting ready to leave my aunt’s house I saw that I’d missed a couple of calls, one from Ella, and one from a number I didn’t recognize.  I didn’t really think it was him, but part of me hoped (I’ve been missing him a lot, and it had been over a month since I got his last letter).  So I listened to my messages right then and there.  One of them was from him, telling me that he’s in New Orleans and giving me a number where I’ll be able to contact him from now until May.  Do you know how long it’s been since I had a phone number I could dial and connect with Joe any old time I wanted?  Years.  I mean, first he was in Afghanistan, then world traveling, then sharing a phone with the whole Jesuit novitiate.  It’s been a long time.  I got myself and Liv home as quickly as I could, went directly up to my room and called 14.  We talked a long time, the first time I think we’ve been able to talk ourselves out since he left town a year ago.  Then last night I called him again, just because I could. 

Now I’m trying to finish up school projects, clean the house to make a good impression of the potential roommate who might come visiting this weekend while I’m gone, and getting ready to leave for Boston.  Yup, friends, it’s time for the Boston Tea Party!  I’ve been waiting for this since I came home from my first Tea Party last year.  I’m so excited and nervous and stressed thinking of all the things that have to happen between now and when I fly out of Columbus on Thursday.  Thank goodness this year I have a room in the actual hotel, and if all goes well I’ll actually make it out for Thursday night instead of missing my flight like last year.  I’m also registered to compete in the West Coast Newcomers Jack & Jill.  Also, John Lindo owes me two dances.

Eeek!  Just thinking about it makes me nervous.  Breathe, Bernadette, breathe.  Ok.  I’m going to take another stab at that paper writing, and if that doesn’t work, I’m doing laundry.

Jenn just messaged me that K-Mart is selling roses for cheap!   Maybe I’ll have my rose garden after all!

I just got home from our annual Family Christmas Planning Brunch. Thank God this only comes around once a year. There’s just so many of us (eleven kids plus two parents, though two kids are overseas and one’s at college so we only had seven), and everybody has to chime in on everything. It was three and a half hours that felt like a small lifetime. Even then we didn’t get everything done, so we’re going to have Christmas Planning Brunch: The Sequel sometime in November. I love my family, I really do. Just they make me feel so… claustrophobic.

What made it even more fun was that Heather, the sister I get along with the least, was especially fragile. She just found out that she’s being laid off. Her employers lost a major contract, and since she was the one most recently hired, she gets the ax. There had been some planning mix-ups about the brunch itself, and I hadn’t been notified that the time had been pushed back two hours to accommodate Heather’s schedule . At the beginning of the meeting, I asked that if we were going to change the time of a group event like this that we have at least a week’s notice. Heather decided that this was a personal attack against her, and said that the time had been open to change since no specific time had been set on the calendar. I stated that this wasn’t true, since I’d had it on my calendar with the original time for months. She decided this meant that I was calling her a liar, and proceeded to have an emotional outburst, complete with swear words, at the brunch table. Perhaps this is nothing unusual for most families, but I have a mother who doesn’t want us to even use the word “crap” because she considers it unacceptably vulgar. Thankfully Heather reined herself in about that point, or things could have gotten even more dramatic. Unfortunately, since this was in front of the entire family, everyone had to chime in immediately afterwards with their analysis, attempts to reconcile the two of us, recommendations for avoiding similar situations in the future, etc. By the time I got them to move on we were already an hour into the meeting and had accomplished precisely nothing. It was lovely.

The good thing is that we’ve established some important groundwork for the holiday season, including scheduling all the major family events, of which there are many. We’re a family who really likes to celebrate the whole Christmas season, not just one day. So there’s Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Family Gift Giving Day, Going To See A Movie Together, Preparing for Events, and the Huge Blowout New Year’s Day Party, with smaller things tucked in here and there between. I really like how we celebrate. I just wish there were a way to do it without the meetings.

In other news, I wore my Princess Pupule costume to the Halloween dance last night, and enjoyed myself thoroughly.  The costume was a hit.  As I was paying my admission, Jenn spied the basket of papayas I’d parked on the counter.  “Are those papayas?” she asked incredulously.  “Yes,” I said, “Do you know why?”  “Oh, yeah!” she said, and started laughing.  It was awesome.  And really, if you need a costume you can dance in, a hula girl costume is hard to beat!  It’s comfortable, not too hot, and the grass skirt really flies when you spin.  I wore two of them over my ballet leotard and tights, with leis around my neck, one pinned in my hair, and another twisted around my ankle.  I’ll wear the costume again at the weekly dance on Wednesday.  I have to say I’m looking forward to it!