That Fear Thing: In Which I Refuse to Let It Beat Me

Photo by Dan Henry, published Monday, August 26th, 2013

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m afraid of certain things. Ordering take-out, for instance, and social misunderstandings. In another era, I’d probably end up a shut-in like Emily Dickinson, only crappy at poetry because I wouldn’t have the internet. (Without the internet, I’d probably end up like Polonius“Neither a borrower nor a lender be! You’re welcome.”)

Well, there’s nothing like a little actual, life-threatening experience to put things into perspective.

Two weekends ago, they convinced me to go whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. They, as in everyone I love. Knowing I’d be too swayed by my family’s influence to be talked out of it, my husband spent the days leading up to our trip fabricating fantastic statistics designed to scare the crap outta me. “Did you know that three out of four injuries incurred on the river result in hospital visits? Did you know more people die whitewater rafting than from shark attacks?”

Didn’t help matters much that my brother’s girlfriend went rafting on the exact same stretch of river two weeks prior, and within five minutes of putting in, watched her friend’s leg SNAP IN HALF on a particularly notorious rapid known as Grumpy’s. Same river, same rafting company. The massive, sunburned River Leader reluctantly recalled the event, how he strapped his paddle to her leg and hauled her up the bank to the waiting ambulance.

Well, Grumpy’s was not our undoing. Our undoing was a class-five rapid called Broken Nose. There’s an amusing story behind the name, made less amusing in light of our experience.

To say I was terrified would not be an exaggeration. There’s this awful drive up the river that must be endured, padded out in life jackets and helmets on a moldy bus, past every rapid we would have to go down. It was nine a.m., August 24th, the first trip of the day. Every so often the River Leader would lean over and exclaim at some rock or stick and its level relative to yesterday. Whether this was good or bad I could not determine; to me, everything seemed like an ill omen.

I almost chickened out. Waiting in line, carrying our raft down the slippery ramp past Misty, one of the waterfall-like dams used to control the flow of the river, just about undid me. I remember Niagara Falls as a kid: lots of water, bright rain slickers, lots of water and lots of noise. Did I mention lots of water? If someone had suggested getting in a raft affectionately called “The Dinosaur” and going for a spin, my four-year-old self would have told you “No way, dude.”

But in we went, into the shockingly cold water, straining against the might of Misty. “Our raft is the oldest in the fleet,” our guide told us–a rookie herself, in her first season in charge of other people’s lives. “It can’t handle some of these bigger rapids, so we’ll be taking the easier lines and avoiding the big water.” Her tongue ring flashed every other syllable, and I strained to hear. “The other guides call me Hazard. That’s cos I like to steer clear of all those dangerous spots.”

Reassuring, at the time. Though now I’m not so sure that’s why they called her Hazard.

#

The Dinosaur glided over the water, the paddling much easier than I thought it would be. We went ten minutes without dying. We only got stuck only a few times. Most of the time we hit the rapids backwards or sideways, spinning down the river like a leaf. I think it was by design. I hope it was by design. My husband knew we were in trouble way before me. Like any good fool, I trusted our guide implicitly.

We had something known as Big Water: all the rapids were classed up. The Class 4 river had become a Class 5. Class 6, of course, being illegal to send inexperienced rafters down, even if they do shell out money for it.

We got stuck at the top of a three-level drop. I couldn’t see anything over the edge. Our guide gave her orders, “paddle one, paddle two, two back,” while she steered. We listened best we could. Eventually, the raft nudged off the rock, and we dipped over the falls sideways.

And stayed there.

I never thought you could get stuck in a rapid. They call it surfing. The continuous fall of the water, combined with the backward suck of the current under the rocks, creates a unique situation in which you literally ride the rapid, never going anywhere.

Under the relentless fall of the water, we instinctively climbed to the higher side of the raft. “Paddle!” came the vague but unneeded command. We paddled, like chipping away at a glacier. Every foot we would gain, every time I thought we might pull ourselves out of it, the circulation would suck us back, the water would swamp us, and I’d choke and sputter. Soon, it became more important to time our breaths than to paddle. Paddling got us nowhere; we had to keep breathing.

The other rafters, lined up along the shore just past the rapids, watched, wide-eyed. Several of the guides stood on the nearest ledge–not even thirty feet away–with worried expressions. You don’t want to see experienced rafters worried about anything concerning you. You want them to laugh and say you’re just a melodramatic rookie, it’s fine. This happens all the time.

They threw us ropes. We held on–what else could we do? We stuffed ourselves down inside the raft, my husband and I pressed together, and held on. I know my dad was there, my brother too, his girlfriend and our guide, but it was just the river, in my ears and down my throat, my husband, tangled in my legs, and the rope, biting into my hands.

I don’t know how long it lasted.

Somehow, they got the timing just right: they yanked the nose of raft just enough to dislodge us momentarily from the suck of the water, just enough to throw me backwards, into Broken Nose. Someone grabbed me, then let go, and I was gone.

Photo by Dan Henry, published Monday, August 26th, 2013

The only apt description is like a cork. I bobbed, against the bottom of the raft. From videos I’d watched to prepare myself for the unlikely, I knew that the seconds after popping up were critical, the few seconds that I could find the raft and get back in before being shot downstream.

I did not want to get back in that raft.

So downstream I shot, floating feet-first as I’d been instructed. This was so different from being stuck. This was free. I had no time to be afraid. I was alive.

“Swim! Swim your little heart out!”

If someone hadn’t said that, I probably would have floated right past the rafts.

Someone stuck out their paddle. I swam with feeble strokes that somehow got me there, grabbed hold, and was pulled as dead weight into the raft. I flopped onto onto my back, coughing up half the Ocoee; my rescuers tried not to stare. The whole thing probably lasted thirty seconds.

Back in Broken Nose, the situation had not changed. I sunk down so I couldn’t see and funneled the last of my strength into not crying. If someone had even suggested the mere possibility of quitting, you can bet your life I would have. Had it been an option, I would have hopped out right then and walked all the way back to Atlanta, leaving a trail of soggy water-shoe footprints.

But they didn’t. However long later, after my family had to abandon the raft one by one and we regrouped downstream, I climbed back into my raft, gave my husband a weak smile, and away we went. It wasn’t long before we started cracking jokes about stopping at every Total Wine on the way home. And, I’m happy to report, I had fun. Every drop sent my heart into my throat, but I’d survived worse. I could do this.

#

“I’m sure you’re not happy this happened,” our guide told us at the end, unable to meet our eyes, “but I am. I had to experience something like that sooner or later, so I could learn something from it and try to keep it from happening again. Just sucks that it had to be you.”

Poor girl. None of us felt the desire to tip her. I still feel bad about that.

Most of my family blame her, but I don’t. Things happen. Mistakes are made. Part of the training for becoming a river guide involves swimming the same rapids you later send unsuspecting tourists down in rafts–so you know what it’s like to be afraid, but also so you know how to overcome it. The river is fear-inspiring. And yet, every year, thousands of people are drawn to its unrelenting roar.

That weekend, two women died on that stretch of the Ocoee, one of them in the same manner that almost got me. Except, where I shot like a cork under the raft and down the river, she stayed under until it killed her. We heard the ambulances before we’d even finished our run, screaming up the river toward Misty. The moment I found out what happened, I felt like I was fluttering between those two eventualities: existing and not existing. The line between them is thin and dotted and not always straight.

#

So here is where I bring it back around to writing:

Writing is not like whitewater rafting. It will not kill you. It will most likely not become a story you have to repeat for everyone you know, two weeks straight. Most of the time, no one will even care.

But writing is like whitewater rafting in that, when you get it right, it will take the things that scare the pants off you and transform them into something more. Just as the raft glides over the surface of certain death, writing that hits at the tender places of the heart makes difficult things easier, breaks them into manageable pieces. Great stories help us deal with unexplainable loss, or fear, or longing. As well as joy. It does this for both the reader and the writer. The real world can be too hot to handle. Turning it into fiction gives it meaning and makes us understand.

Some people say it’s merely human nature to look for patterns, to find meaning in the chaos. Maybe. But chaos isn’t a very nice place to be, and I would much rather spend my time looking for answers than accepting that we are all just corks, bobbing aimlessly down a river. I refuse to accept that.

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