This past weekend I went back in time. It wasn’t any type of planned nostalgia tour or anything like that, it was simply a trip with friends who had no idea the connection I had to the place we were going. That place was the small town I grew up in. And, I didn’t share that bit of information until we were already there because, as I have established, I loathe sharing parts of myself due to past trauma and internalized shame. When you share you potentially give away personal security and I’m over allowing people to hurt me.
Even now, as I sit and write this I can hear the sound of gentle rain falling outside and the steady trickle of water running out of the downspout near the open window takes me back to a time so long ago, a time that contains both happy and painful elements. Everyone’s life is written this way. It’s never all bad and no good or no bad and all good. It’s a mixture with no true balance, just moments of shocking clarity to help us pause and reset.
As a child those brief happy moments could be sparked by such simple things as the sound of rain falling on the leaves of the tree outside my bedroom window. That memory still remains and it still brings a smile to my face so I focus on it instead of the moment soon after of being hit or screamed at for one supposed infraction or another set into law by my father. I focus on the gentle sound of the rain and not the memory of my brother continually violating my privacy and dignity with his abuse. Listen to the rain. It will wash all of that away, even if only for a fleeting moment. Hang on tight to that moment, it will prove to be very important later in life.
Now, each time we drive through this little town, on the way to see my daughter, I send out a silent wish for peace. A silent plea to release me from it’s grip and to release my remaining family members from their own trauma. This is great progress considering years prior I would scowl and extend a middle finger as I drove through, cursing its existence and wishing all who resided there no good will, only continued torment. It wasn’t the right way to handle pain but it was the band aid I needed to cover my wounds at the time.
We had planned a float trip on a river I knew well and one that held trauma tight against is banks and bluffs and even though I had come back to this same river several times over the years this trip just felt off. Not in an impending doom sort of way but in a nagging little worry at the back of the mind way. This time I talked to the river. I asked it to spare me. I talked to those who never made it out of that small town and told them I hoped they found peace. That was a mistake. To pin my safety to the memory of those who lived anger filled lives and those who abused and emotionally scarred others proved to be near fatal.
I don’t know why I chose to extend grace to abusers on that day. I don’t know why I listened to the voices of well-meaning yet still ignorant subscribers of the “forgive and forget” poison force fed to so many who have been traumatized in the past. There is no true forgiveness for the wicked and to forget is to set into motion certain traps that easily pull you right back into the mire. Distance creates inner calm and healthy caution builds the security system we all need to guard against future attacks. It’s so naïve to think dark water flows under and away from that bridge. It doesn’t go on by, it waits under the bridge for a signal and I called out to it.
As we gathered our gear and loaded up our kayaks I stood and looked around at a place both so familiar and yet also so foreign. I recognized none of the faces of any of the other people packing gear into their boats. I usually didn’t but this time I felt exceptionally unwelcome and uncertain in my surroundings. I had been gone from this area longer than I actually lived there so, of course, faces would be different and the scenery would change over time. Nothing stays the same. It’s just that this time something was not quite right before we even began.
The water was chilly but still felt good and the weather was pleasant. The water was not as high as we would have liked but it was manageable and despite multiple drag moments to contend with we were on our way. My uneasiness dulled my senses and I missed several moments where it was necessary to try and “read” the river. That book slammed shut on me and the submerged rock hazards and low hanging branches and tree root obstacles took over.
I have been kayaking for several years and while I am no expert I could claim that I had never capsized or got caught up in river hazards but, that day, every hazard possible got together and plotted my potential demise with great enjoyment.
The first dumping opportunity came in a swift rapid as I high centered on a group of rocks. One caught my kayak, another turned me around and yet another tossed me out into the water where I struggled to get up as my capsized kayak floated on by. Each attempt to stand in the swift knee deep water was met with a fall on the slippery rocks below and a bruised knee so I crawled to the gravel bar and got out. Luckily, my partner caught up to the adrift boat and helped me gather my things and drain the water but the tone for the day was set.
Each new set of rapids was met with panic and dread. I’d never been like this before. What was going on? All of this happened right before floating by the spot in the river where my younger brother drown, many years ago, when he was 17. In the past I would float on by and not look around, purposely emptying my mind of bad memories. This time I looked up at the large rock he jumped from and I thought about how far he floated downstream before his body was found. I thought about the awful things he did to other family members before he died and wondered if he was sorry now. I let those thoughts in and after doing so I begged them to spare me. Those memories had other ideas I guess. They gouged into the side of my kayak just like the dangerous root balls and rocks hiding around each bend in the river wanted to do.
The second and last capsizing came about 2 miles from our takeout point and just after an attempt to calm myself with thoughts like, “The water isn’t too deep here, I won’t drown.” I have no idea what made me say that. It wasn’t a certainty that the river would be kind to me. It wasn’t a given that the river even cared. As it would turn out it cared very little and so, when the gurgling, swirling water thrust me into a small tree jutting out of the water my paddle and weak arms were no match. Hung up in the branches, grasping onto wispy limbs for dear life, I had the presence of mind to yell, “No fucking way!” It was simply too much and as I let go and slipped into the chilly river, for a brief moment, I considered that it was my fate to die here.
Now, I won’t say that I am particularly afraid of dying, I made peace with the idea that any place is better than this Earth long ago but, to have my untimely demise caused by the same river that took the life of my tormented younger brother would have been infuriating to me. This was not the way I wanted to go out. Heart attack while climbing a mountain? Sure, why not? Being blown to bits in a natural gas leak? I could see that. But, not this!
On my way over the side of my kayak I could feel the bungee cord that the paddle was attached to wrapped around my arm, pinning me to the side of the boat. I was fully submerged and fighting to get my arm free. Somehow I wiggled loose and tried to kick my way to the surface but the current was holding me in place. You ain’t going nowhere! Kick. Kick. Turn over. Kick. Flap arms upward. Upward. Upward. Kick. Fling yourself over on your back and desperately gasp for air only to get a mouthful of river water.
Finally, after one last kick and an awkward flailing motion I was able to break free and slowly inched my way to floating on my back until my feet could touch the rocks below me and I crawled to the bank. Surprisingly enough, I was still wearing my sunglasses and my hat was plastered against my back with its strap pulled tight against my neck. I looked back to where my kayak was to see it still upright and tightly wedged up against that damn tree. Well, at least I didn’t lose anything. I didn’t LOSE anything? I almost lost my life!
In the midst of struggling to the bank I caught a glimpse of my partner hurrying back to where I was and out of sheer exhaustion and anger I screamed FUCK as loud as I could. It wasn’t aimed at him. It wasn’t aimed at me. It was directed at the river, my brother, my estranged family and my inability to get that damned legacy out of my head. It clouded my judgment and it distracted me to the point of near detriment.
Back up on the gravel bar I felt arms tight around me and I just sobbed in relief, anger, exhaustion and pain. It was all there, every last nasty feeling that had been holding me hostage for the past few decades. Get out! Get out! Get out! You didn’t get me this time and I’ll make damn sure you don’t get me ever! I heard the words, “I’ve got you.” in my ear and I recognized this to be true. The river didn’t “get” me, my past didn’t “get” me but my partner did have me safely in his arms and I was going to be okay. Fuck you river. Fuck you dysfunctional family!
Once back at our cabin I stood in the shower feeling the water spray on my shoulders from the way too low shower head in the way too small shower stall. I slumped down until I could get my head underneath and just left it there making sure that damn river water got washed out of my hair and off my body. Wash it clean. Down the drain. Down. The. Drain. Good riddance.
On the way home we stopped by my older sister’s place and relayed the events of our float trip gone awry. I recalled saying something to the effect, “I’m sure there are a few family members that wish the river had taken me too,” and was met with doubt that this was true. I’m not so sure I’m wrong about this. I’m willing to admit that I have been wrong about a lot but, to have me no longer creating “waves” by telling my truths would very much make certain branches on my family tree shake with delight. The ultimate silencing. For one person in particular, this is what she felt God should do to me, strike me down and silence me for good.
It sounds awful to say out loud but it’s always there at the back of my mind. Who, in my family would actually care if I was gone? Dead. Kaput. Finito! Oh, I know I’d get a smattering of tears here and there along with the “if only” laments but these are merely muscle memory actions, the stuff people are “supposed” to do. I don’t even know why I’m thinking about such things because I may be triggering some twisted self-fulfilling prophecy bullshit carnival ride to hell for myself. Oh, well. So be it.
So, back to the river. Will I return any time soon? I don’t know but I do know that new sit on top kayaks are in order. When death flows up on you and you are able to ride the wave out you best prepare for the next time you tangle. Ever vigilant. Ever prepared!
Yes, I’m going back because I am not a quitter. I’m may be getting older and slower but I’m also, even less afraid of dying now. Try and take me! I dare you…
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