The closest I’ve ever been
The closest I’ve ever been to death (as far as I know) came one summer at Camp. Almost every summer we went down to our family cabin in the Catskills, on the banks of the Delaware. Mid-July was flood stage, but after years of vacationing during that time of year the rushing river seemed like just another temperamental friend.
That day, my brother and I were restless in the summer heat. Dad was out with my uncle and mom was cross-stitching on the bluestone patio out front. Don’t worry mom, we won’t go out too far. We’ll be fine. My childhood confidence was enough assurance for her to let us go to the river unchaperoned. Perhaps when I said it I had only intended to stay in the shallows. Even though Ben was older, he wasn’t as strong of a swimmer so I had to watch out for him.
We waded for a while, sitting low in the shallows to take the full weight off our feet scratching on the river rocks below. Boredom set in and I suggested we try to cross the river and jump off the rocks beneath the train tracks on the other side. Ben hesitated, but my confidence was contagious. We made our way across, cutting our path through the high water and using the current to our advantage. If you knew the way, there were sandbars high enough to touch bottom most of the way.
Jump. Climb. Catch your breath. Repeat.
When the time came to make it back across, we were probably already spent. If we didn’t start heading back soon mom would start to worry. I steeled myself for one last push. The current seemed stronger than it had before against my tired arms and legs. We tried to push straight across to the landing, fighting the current pushing us down stream. Only about a quarter of the way across, Ben was having trouble staying afloat. I checked to touch bottom. No. Still too deep. What to do. What to do.
He was scared. I could see it on his face. This was my idea but I hadn’t truly weighed the consequences. I was probably 9 or 10 at the time and hadn’t taken lifeguard safety yet, but I remembered what little rescue training they had taught us during swimming lessons. Flipping on to my back I put my right arm over Ben’s chest under his arms and kicked. We made a slow diagonal downstream, the landing moving further into the distance with each kick. My lungs burned. I was scared. What had started out as a fun time had turned bad. And we were literally drowning in the consequences.
Suffice it to say, we made it back. Once in the shallows, we waded up-river to the landing tired and shaking. We can’t tell mom. So we didn’t. I think about a decade passed before I told my parents this story. Maybe I feared punishment. More than that I feared the shame of my irresponsibility. My ignorance. My pride.
Looking back now after 20 years I am tempted to think so much has changed. Yet, I am still prone to overconfidence and subterfuge. Consequences creep up like river currents. My grandiose schemes keep me from touching bottom and my own strength can’t keep me afloat. In my head I know there is hope for saving. In my heart I know I never should have gone wading on sun-stained river rocks alone.