Near-Death Experiences


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.

Trey claims that I kissed him when we were dancing Wednesday night. This is not my recollection of the incident. This is what I say happened: we were dancing to a pretty fast song. Trey led me in a series of very fast spins – I think a triple going one way, and then a double in the opposite direction. While it is a tribute to how far I’ve come that he was able to lead me in this at all, it also shows me how much I have to work on. Cuz somewhere right about the second reverse spin my feet were no longer underneath my body and I started to go over. I reached for Trey to save myself, and realized quickly as my momentum shifted in his direction that my head was on a collision course with his. I could almost feel the sickening smack of skull impacting skull. Somehow I wrenched my head back marginally, regained my balance, and the next second had been spun out again.

Trey looked at me down the length of our arms and asked, “Did you just kiss my face?”

I, still feeling the adrenaline rush of danger narrowly averted, looked at him in bewilderment. How could he have not realized what had just happened, how close we had both come to having concussions? I could only make incoherent noises before he was leading me in a side-pass, laughing at me as I went by. I tried to find a way to smack him somewhere in the next few eight-counts, but, well, he’s a good lead, and he didn’t give me the opportunity.

I’m never going to hear the end of this.

Dang it, if I were going to kiss a boy, he wouldn’t be asking whether or not he just got kissed!

Former Wine RackOnce upon a time, I had a cabinet with a wine rack and holders for wine glasses, etc. in my kitchen. It was mounted on the chimney next to the refrigerator, right behind the chair at the kitchen table where I sit to do my homework. I would bump it every once in a while and hear the glasses in the holders tinkle against each other, which reminded me to scoot my chair forward. This is a picture I took of it in happier days when I was trying out my mom’s blurry digital camera.

Tuesday morning I wandered into the kitchen bleary eyed, getting ready to buckle down to my usual cram session prepping for my MA level Aquinas class that afternoon. I woke up my laptop, then randomly got up and went over to the other side of the kitchen for a drink of water. Just then, behind me I heard a huge crash followed by the sound of much glass breaking. I turned to see the entire cabinet off the wall, still more or less upright, crushing some boxes that had been stored underneath. Almost all of the wineglasses had slid out of the holder and smashed on the floor, along with the bottles of alcohol that used to be on the top of the cabinet. Shards of glass were completely covering the area where I had been sitting only moments before, and had shot out to cover most of the kitchen. The place where I was standing was almost completely untouched, although my socks were quickly soaked by either Port or Apricot Brandy flooding across the floor. If I hadn’t gotten up to get that class of water, there is a good chance that the cabinet and the smashing glass would have been right on top of me.

I was able to pick my way to the kitchen door, where Liv brought me a pair of shoes to wear. She couldn’t help with the cleanup, the glass would have punctured her wheelchair tires. It took me three hours to pick up all the glass and clean up the alcohol. It was especially interesting because as the alcohol dried it started to glue the smaller pieces down to the floor.

Unfortunately, this consumed all of the time I’d set aside for school work. Consequently, I found myself at 1pm, just starting my prep for Aquinas at 3pm. There was no way I could get everything done. This meant that I had to send an e-mail off to my professor, asking for an extension because the wine rack fell off the wall.

If I were a teacher, I wouldn’t believe it either.