I knew I was drowning the moment I breathed in water – the slow expansion of my lungs with a cold, thicker-than-air substance, the long, hushed breath and then – only silence. That’s when I let go. But not before the struggle to get free and not before thinking, This is where my life is supposed to flash before my eyes – and it did. I was 16.
My best buddy Linda and I borrowed a dinghy from our friend Margie to ride down the Sooke River from the Potholes to the bridge. I don’t even know who was supposed to pick us up when we got there – we didn’t make it that far. We had the necessities: lifejackets, oars, cigarettes. We hauled the dingy and paraphernalia across the rocks of the first “pothole” of the now renowned Sooke Potholes, launched and were soon gliding through the first pools, maneuvering around diving-boulders and stepped outcrops the Potholes are known for. I settled in. Twenty minutes into our ride Linda said, “Let’s pull over and have a smoke.”
Linda guided the boat to the left side of the river where the water was shallow with an easy step to the bank. She stepped out from the left side and I stepped out from the right– a mistake that nearly cost me my life. The water was to my knees and frigid. With both feet planted in the rocky bottom I was shocked at the force against my legs. I raised a foot to step towards the bank and with only one foot on the bottom, lost balance and grabbed a branch at head level. The river swung me around and my other foot lost its grip. I was on my back holding the branch, legs downstream. I struggled to pull myself up and couldn’t. My wool Indian-sweater sopped up the water, the branch lowered from my weight and my head went back and under with the river coursing over my open eyes and face. Terror gripped me as I choked and gasped. Linda was screaming something at me and trying to lift my head. I watched her mouthing words through the water. I thrashed and fought – then breathed in the cold liquid river. I thought it odd that I should glimpse my family, schoolmates and boyfriend – like a cliché of what was supposed to happen when you drown. I finally let go of the branch.
Linda told me months later I looked kind of funny bobbing down the river after that. My lifejacket righted me, I coughed and sputtered and swam to the other side where Linda picked me up. We rowed back to the left bank and I slumped onto the beach. We were still half an hour from our destination where, I remember now, Linda’s step-dad was picking us up – with one oar and one numbed-out teenager. Linda told me what she was yelling before. “Let go! Let go!”
I’m acutely aware of the ways I’ve been “rescued” in life. Linda’s step-dad was at the next beach. He plunked me into the blasting heat of his car, hauled up our boat and Linda too. He had seen the oar go under the bridge when he was crossing it. On his way from dropping us off? On his way somewhere else?
After a hot shower I determined not to tell my parents what happened. Did I mention they were against me going? I walked upstairs wrapped in my warm housecoat and watched my mom’s face change from surprise, to concern, to dread. My skin was death-white.
That experience was the first I remember of allowing the river to carry me in life. How many times did I hang on and hang on when I really needed to let go? I know there’s nothing worth hanging on to if it’s hurting me in some way. And even though the fear of letting go – of the branch, the relationship, the home – is paralyzing and the thought of change seems impossible, I know I can’t keep holding on. I release then, and let the river carry me until I find peace again – and it’s always just around the next bend.