I've heard it said that you see your life flash before your eyes in a near death situation. I can verify that this is entirely incorrect. When your life or the life of someone you love hangs in the balance, you live four life times per second. Every divergent path that moment could take flashes through your mind like lightening and crashes into inevitable oblivion as a new and worse outcome is conjured in your thoughts. How do I know it’s exactly four?
Last weekend was family camp out. Our Boy Scout troop, Troop 413, planned the whole event. All us moms and siblings had to do was show up. They pitched our tents, cooked our food, and cleaned our mess. What more could you ask for? The answer is canoeing on the Illinois River in Tahlequah, OK.
On Saturday, while us moms lounged in the pool, the group of nine boys and two scout masters took a few canoes out and worked on their canoeing merit badge. Jon, my husband, has had a lot of experience in a canoe and on this river in particular. When he got back, he said it was going to be a fun trip, the boys were going to do well, but he was worried that the water levels were too low for our twelve mile float.
We continued on with our evening of hobo dinners and Dutch oven cobbler, but while preparing for bed, Jon stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle. It wasn't really bad, but enough to put him off kilter.
The next morning dawned with a roosters crow echoing off the foothills of the Ozarks. The boys were moving slow, but part of the Scouting experience is to let the scouts do everything themselves, so they learn…you know…how to do everything themselves. We didn't actually get on the river until noon for our four to six hour trip down the river.
The campground bus had already left by the time we got everyone in the water. Jon and I were the last ones to push off our canoe that held our six year old son Caedon, our Chihuahua Despereaux , and all the food and water for the trip. About ten seconds into the trip we realized things weren't going to go smoothly. We started taking on water. We weren't too worried with the slow leak. We would just tip the boat at lunch time and continue on.
A leaky boat was only the first hurdle. Another ten minutes into the trip, Jon’s worry about water levels were confirmed. They were very low. This caused two problems. First, we spent half our time pushing canoes over the rocky bottom of the river in the shallows. The other and more dangerous issue, is that the low levels create islands in the middle of the river. This forces the flow of water to consolidate along the edges. If you know your physics, a smaller area for the water to flow through, means a faster current. For amateur and even seasoned canoers, a faster current can spell trouble.
We’d already had one serious accident with two moms in a boat. Our certified dark water lifeguard, Darien, saved the day. By the time we made it to the halfway point and lunch, we were exhausted from carrying the canoe, bailing, and fighting currents. Jon’s ankle, which he figured he would be resting in the canoe, had gone from a nuisance to serious from walking on the rocky, uneven bottom of the river. And all our food was wet because our canoe had sprung more leaks from being dragged across the rocks.
We discussed calling the float company and having them pick us up. Thankfully one person had brought a cell phone in a dry box. Our trip was already supposed to be over, but instead we were only halfway through and it was getting late. Instead we decided to press on.
We all got into our canoes. I tossed my life jacket behind me, thinking I’d put it on in a minute when we got underway. Jon and I, with Caedon and Des, were toward the front of the pack. We had only gone about 250 yards when we came up on another shallow area. Ahead of us we saw the assistant scout master, Chad, walking his canoe over the rocks with his little girl and our little girl in tow. We decided to follow him to the left where it looked to be a little deeper.
What he had seen, that we didn't, and why he had jumped out to walk the boat, was that the shallow area dropped off into a fast channel just past where he was. This in itself was not a problem; however, a tree had recently fallen from the bank and completely blocked the channel.
Jon and I both thought in a few seconds we would be grounding the canoe and walking like Chad. Instead, in a few seconds we were caught in an incredibly strong current heading for the downed tree. We both worked together but we collided with the tree. The canoe turned sideways, and already being partially filled with water from the leaks, tipped and swamped.
I went under.
Here is where I can tell you why I know how many lives you can live in a split second. As the current pulled me under the canoe, my first life entailed me getting stuck under the canoe and how my family would cope with my drowning. My second life was all about being swept away while my child was stuck under the canoe. In the third life we lost our wonderful dog Des. The fourth was the loss of all of us. I didn't think about losing Jon. I knew he would be okay.
I came up a second later on the downstream side of the canoe under the leafy green branches of the tree. I do not know how I found my footing the swift current. Just a half hour before, in a slower current, it had taken me four or five tries to dig in. But there I was on firm ground. I believe angels held me there as I can’t even remember my feet touching the ground when I think about it.
“Where’s Caedon!” was my first scream when I saw Jon on the upstream side of the canoe, a branch partially blocking him from my sight.
He pointed to my left where Caedon had just popped up screaming. He grabbed the bow of the upturned boat and latched on like a spider monkey. I reached out for him, but he wasn't going anywhere. He just held on for dear life and screamed.
“Where’s Des!” was the next question I shouted over the roar of the water.
“I don’t know!” Jon yelled back.
I looked downstream hoping to see him doggie paddling toward shore.
“There!” I heard Jon yell.
I turned back around to see Des emerge on my side of the canoe, but his head was barely above water. He wasn't making any headway toward me. I reached out to grab him, but he was firmly stuck in the tree. I didn't have time for that. I grabbed him by the collar and head and pulled. I spared only a thought for possible injury. Des latched on to my shoulder. I turned my attention back to Caedon who was still crying in fear.
Jon had to unstick the canoe and the only way for him to do that was to get Caedon off. I tried to pry him. He wasn't letting go.
“Look at me!” I yelled at the panicking child. He still didn't respond, only continued to cry.
“Look at me now!” I yelled again and again.
In the seconds it took to gain some reason from him, I lived a few more life times. Some of my past cane forward too. The current was sucking on my shorts, and I thought they were about to be pulled off. I remembered as a child watching people pulled from floods that were naked. I recalled thinking how embarrassed they must be. I realized at that moment they didn't care. I wouldn't have cared if I came out of this naked, as long as we were all alive.
“Look at my eyes!” I got more specific and took Caedon’s face in my hands. He finally made eye contact and responded.
“Let go and hold on to me Caedon.”
He finally let go and came to me.
“I’m going to the shore.” I yelled over the din of rushing water and turned to go.
The last thing I saw before the current dragged me away was another canoe, the one that held my fourteen-year-old son and his friend Mason, slam into my husband’s back and tip. The last thing I heard before the branches pushed us under will haunt me for the rest of my life. My husband’s painful scream tainted with fear.
I was under only a second. In that second I lived another four lifetimes. They all included a life without my son or husband or both. Then I surfaced for air. I saw Chad’s camouflage t-shirt and his feet splashing across the shallows towards me.
“Take Caedon!” I managed to say before I went under again.
I felt the weight of my child lifted off me and rocks scrape against my knees. I surfaced again to Chad trying to grab me.
“Take Caedon to the shore and help Jon!” I said and pushed him away as much as I could with what little traction I had. I saw him run toward shore, and I was under again. I felt hands on me, and I came up again to see our lifeguard, Darien, trying to help me. Now I could feel rocks all along side of me, and I knew I could get my footing.
“I’m fine! Leave me alone! Help Jon!” I scream and him. He tried one more time to assist me, and I slapped at his hands. “Help! Jon!” I yelled at him.
I gained purchase in the shallows and turned to see Darien cross the river in three super human strides. Then my attention was drawn back to Caedon sitting on the shoreline, alone, crying.
I dragged myself to the rocky beach and gathered him in my arms. I put Des down, and he stood there shaking like only a Chihuahua could do. Across the river, I see my older son and his friend clinging to the opposite bank downstream from the tree. I knew my sons were okay. I saw my daughter downstream in a beached canoe. She was okay.
I couldn't see Jon. I could only see a mass of boys trying to pull a swamped canoe against the current to free him. I believed he was underwater. I sat in the rocks trying to console Caedon. The next three minutes, or 180 seconds, allowed for 720 lifetimes to be lived. All of them without my soul mate.
Finally I heard that haunting scream pierce through the chaos. I knew he was at least not underwater, but he was in pain. I couldn't see any headway being made at all from my vantage point so I continued my wordless prayers.
Then, from behind me, two young, very muscular men appeared. They crossed the river and joined the battle. In moments the second canoe was free and Chad pulled Jon from the tree. I didn't see anything else. I just watched as my husband walked across the river with help. My superhero husband being assisted. That still rocks me.
They made it to the shore, and he collapsed. My daughter, Charis, immediately sank to his side and laid hands on him and prayed. Caedon was worried so I gave him the job of making shade for Daddy’s face. I bent and kissed my love’s lips, still not knowing what the outcome of this would be.
Darien was doing triage and trying to decide what first aid actions to take with Jon. It was apparent he was in shock from being crushed between hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of water and metal. Jon answered as best he could. Then broke my heart.
“Both my boys right there,” he said and began to cry.
I knew what he meant. He had lived the same 736 lifetimes I had, and in them he was completely helpless to save his children.
I told him everyone was fine. All the scouts were fine. We lost no one, and he slowly came out of shock.
I sat there with him as we decided what to do and watched Troop 413 do what they had learned. Each boy was taking it on themselves to help in the situation. Some had lent their strength to freeing Jon. Others, the smaller boys, gathered bottles, shoes, and paddles that were floating away. Some pulled canoes higher on the beach to make sure they didn't float away. One boy was checking on the others as they came ashore, asking triage questions just as he had been taught.
Not one of them panicked. They acted with cool heads and strong hearts. I couldn't be more proud of those boys.
I suddenly remembered the two strangers that had appeared. I asked if anyone had seen where they went. Most people didn't know who I was talking about. Someone pointed down the beach, and I saw them walking away.
“Thank you!” I yelled, and one turned around and waved. I was distracted for a moment but when I looked back, I didn't see them anymore.
Jon was pretty banged up, but we were all safe. Those boys showed amazing courage and valor as well as the adults with us.
I asked myself when it was all said and done, “Is this worth it? Doing things like this? Being involved in Scouting?”
I consider the alternative; sitting at home, doing nothing, being afraid of life, teaching my children to be afraid of anything new. That’s not the life I want for them. That’s not the life I want for me. And when my time on earth is through, and my life flashes before my eyes, I want it to be full of wonder and risk, adventure and adversity. I want it to be more than a seconds worth of stories. So if I’m going to go adventuring, I want to do it with a group of Boy Scouts.