Survival


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.

It happens every single time. You go to a wedding. It’s a lovely wedding. You might even tear up when the couple exchanges vows. And then you proceed to the reception. It’s a lovely reception. They have Ornamental Thingies on the tables, and an invitingly large dance floor laid out in front of an impressive table full of Mysterious DJ Stuff. The open bar is flowing. Things are looking good.

Then they start playing music.

It’s all the good stuff – sappy old lovelies like L-O-V-E and standards by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. You know these songs. You dance to them every week. They’re great songs, fully of swing and sass, with killer breaks made for hitting. Your feet start to tap, your hips start to swish – it’s all you can do to not grab someone and start dancing right that instant. But you don’t. That would be wrong. The bride and groom haven’t had their first dance yet. The bride and groom haven’t even arrived yet. They’re just barely starting the warming plates to serve dinner. Dancing is a long, long way off. You grit your teeth and get a hold on yourself. You can wait. Really, you can.

At long last, after the bridal party arrives and dinner is served, after the toasts and the speeches, after the couple’s first dance, and the dance with their parents, and the dance just with the bridal party, and the dance just for married couples, and God knows what, finally, finally you can dance. You head for the dance floor, eager to flash some moves. They’re playing pop music now, but it’s marginally swingable, and all those swing songs earlier gave you an itch you just have to scratch. You look around you and discover… there’s no one to dance with. Sure, there’s lots of friends shakin’ their booty on the dance floor, but not one of them would know a swingout from a hole in the wall. If you’re a girl, you realize that you are the best lead in the building. If you’re a guy you realize that not one of these girls has any clue how to follow. Maybe there’s one or two people who kind of dimly remember that one lesson in East Coast swing they took three years ago, but that’s it. You’re dieing for one good Lindy dance (just one!), but your chances of getting that? Well, let’s say you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery, particularly since you don’t buy lottery tickets. You begin to be grateful that the DJ isn’t playing swing music anymore, and settle yourself down to an evening of good, old-fashioned, non-partnered dancing.

But it doesn’t end there. Nuh-uh. See, your friends, they love you. They know how much you love swing dancing, how crazy you are about it. They’ve had to sit through enough impassioned ravings about the nuances of rock steps and demonstrations of solo-Charleston moves. They know you won’t be happy unless you swing dance at least a little. So they ask the DJ to play some swing music. And he does. He plays one of three songs: either Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Zoot Suit Riot, the Brian Setzer version of Jump, Jive and Wail, or something by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Whatever he plays, it will be killingly fast, and there will be no one for you to dance with. But all your friends are watching, eagerly waiting to see how you’re enjoying the treat they so sweetly arranged.

So… you make the best of it. You grab that one guy who sort of remembers how to lead a couple of turns in East Coast and make him dance with you. You do your best to follow whatever he’s doing, even when he forgets the rock step or throws them in randomly from time to time, even when he almost yanks your arm off on an outside turn, even when he lets four breaks in a row fly by without even noticing they were there. You don’t even dare hit them yourself or throw in the slightest bit of styling. Anything unexpected totally throws him off. Tossing in a swivel might make him break down completely. You grit your teeth, and after a small eternity the song is done.

You walk off the floor, quivering slightly from the badness of the dance. Your friends cluster around you. “Oh my gosh!” they say, “You’re really good! That was awesome!” Words fail you. You retreat to the bathroom to try to regroup. The reception is far from over. The bar is still flowing. There’s a good hour at least of dancing still to go. Maybe it will be all right. Maybe they won’t play swing music anymore. Maybe…

High on my list of Things I Am Not Fond Of, far above People Who Turn Into My Lane, even beyond Writing Daily “Thought Papers” For An Entry Level Class (I hate these kinds of forced reflections with a burning passion that will never die) is a special category titled People I Care About Being In Unsafe Situations. Here there is, of course, the ever popular Friends Being Deployed To War Zones, and also Family Members Living In Underdeveloped Countries With Insufficient Health Care. However, far and above anything previously named, there is a very special section I have created just this past month. It is called Family Members Being Caught In Undeveloped Nations In Which There Is Uncontrolled Violence And Possibly Ethnic Cleansing Going On.

My sister Lisa is in Kenya. She arrived there shortly before Christmas to begin a five month stint teaching grade school at St. Jude’s Academy, the second half of her year of service in Africa. I don’t know how many of you guys have been following the news, but the country is in a downward spiral of violence that is threatening to turn into a total meltdown. Just after Christamas there was an election in which the two main candidates were members of rival tribes. The election was massively corrupt. Protests by the party that lost turned violent, there were reprisals, and everything quickly spiraled out of control. Now there are gangs of men from one tribe armed with machetes and clubs studded with nails actively going out to hunt down members of the other tribe, and being disappointed when they can’t find any to kill. So far the police have been unable to stop the violence, and have lately been given orders to shoot to kill. The US State Department’s warnings have been growing progressively grave, although they have not yet warned US citizens to leave the country.

Here’s the good news: the village where Lisa is living is out in the middle of nowhere, far from where the violence is occurring. Moreover, the violence seems to be almost entirely between the members of the two tribes. Europeans and Americans so far do not seem to be targeted at all. The area where she lives is populated entirely by the tribe of the politician who is in power, so the violence is unlikely to spread there. The family she lives with is being extremely careful, barely even letting her go outside by herself. She doesn’t go outside at all after dark. So for now it seems like she is safe.

However, the situation is volatile. In a split second all this could change, and Lisa could be swept up in the kind of unpleasantness I don’t want to think about. The temptation is to tell her to get the heck out of there, to get home as fast as an airliner can take her. However, in order to get out of the country she’d have to travel eighty miles over unsafe roads (the State Department website warns that travel may only be safe as part of an armed convoy) straight into Nairobi, the heart of where the violence is occurring. It is true that the airports are still operating normally, and that most of the violence is happening in the slum areas where she would not go. The problem is… can she get to the airport safely? We don’t know.

They make adventure movies about this stuff. However, this was never the kind of movie I wanted made about my cuddly, bubbly, blond little sister!

So, you know, if you could pray…

Jenny called me Sunday night. Her mother is dead. She called me about an hour after it happened. This was not unexpected. A year ago this Christmas Eve Shelly was diagnosed with liver cancer. At the time I had been living with them a little over three years, first as Jenny’s nanny,  then as a roommate.  I helped raise Jenny, but she was never like my daughter, more like a favorite niece whom you spoil and scold and expect much from.  My relationship with Shelly had always been more ambiguous.  She trusted me and relied on me, but we were never really friends. We lived in the same house, but somehow we never got past firm acquaintances. And now she’s dead.

I still remember the shock of Christmas Eve. A week before she’d seemed fine, if a little under the weather. She had a cold she couldn’t seem to kick, but that was all. We’d all been supposed to go cut a Christmas tree together, but then both Jenny and I got pulled away by other commitments. So Shelly had gone out and done it herself. She was like that. Then she threw up at work, and for some reason her doctor ordered a CAT scan. It showed a mass in her liver. The biopsy came back cancer.

And then it was Christmas. On Christmas Eve I watched Shelly and Jenny baking their family’s traditional Christmas breads. Jenny was doing most of the work while Shelly bossed from the other side of the island. I saw something in the way Shelly watched Jenny, an anxiety that Jenny really know and understand what she was doing. I saw a mother saying good-bye to her daughter, passing on the generational knowledge she would need as an adult. I knew then, though I didn’t want to know, though I wouldn’t let myself know for months.

We were pretending everything was going to be fine, celebrating while we waited for the oncologist’s office to open again after the holidays. The only real treatment was surgery, and the surgeon she needed to see was in Texas. She left the day after New Year’s, and just as quickly she was back again. The tumor was already too big. The only hope was chemotherapy, and pray that it would shrink. It didn’t. And here we are, not even a year later, and Shelly’s gone.

What do you say to a girl an hour after her mother’s death? What comfort is there in words? Do you say, “It’ll be ok.” No. There is no ok here. There won’t be for a long time. Do you say things about “God’s will,” and “a better place?” As true as those may be, when death is so fresh they sound like obscenity. Platitudes are useless here.  In the face of death, sometimes there are no words to say.

One of my friends recently blogged about what she was doing this time a year ago, and it got me thinking. A year ago this October Joe was still in Afghanistan. I was writing letters to him in class while trying hard not to flirt with Carlos, and just barely starting to notice Trey’s attention. (I didn’t even begin to take him seriously until one night he blew me a kiss to say good-bye, and I thought, “Oh, maybe there’s something going on there…”) I was still living with my former roommate, and though I wasn’t all that happy, the thought of moving out hadn’t entered my head. Liv and I had just started to hang out on a regular basis, and though we got along like a house on fire, we still had no inkling of the best friends symbiosis that would soon assert itself. Anna had put the word out that she was looking for more teachers just the month before, and I had started to learn how to lead (to teach you need to be able to do/explain both lead and follow).

Last October I took my first ever West Coast lesson.

This October Joe is in novitiate in Louisiana, Carlos has established himself as Not My Type, and Trey is the kind of friend you call “dear” and wouldn’t date on a dare. My former roommate is dieing of liver cancer (she’s been in Hospice Care for about a month now), Liv and I would be joined at the hip if her wheelchair wouldn’t get in the way (did I mention we live together now?), this month I’m teaching Swing I, and last weekend I drove two hours each way to attend a four hour West Coast dance.

I’d like to say I’ve learned Deep Life Lessons in the intervening year, that I’ve Grown and Changed as a person. Mostly, though, it’s felt much more like riding a roller coaster with no safety restraint system, holding on for dear life trying not to get thrown off into the bottomless void beneath. Ironically, I learned how to let go of my need for drama just as life was handing me some major Drama to deal with. Every month has had its challenges, none of them little: the liver cancer diagnosis right before Christmas Eve, guy drama, family issues, chemotherapy, moving, planning a wedding (regrettably, not my own), major money problems after my financial aid got screwed up, trying to settle into a new home, more guy drama, sprained ankles, school challenges, road trips… oh, and dancing. A lot of dancing.

I’d like to say it’s been a good year, but I’m not sure if it’s been good or bad. I suppose it’s been good for me. At least I’ve survived so far. That’s something in itself. I’ll count my blessings.