Cindy, I’m honored to be your guest blogger. As a writer, I admire the way you capture life’s hidden corners and bring them to light through people experiencing ordinary life. Your short stories and poetry have inspired me to delve deeper, to recall and write about a painful memory. The pictures here were taken while the following events unfolded.
The Dark Water Fall
Rays of sun danced through oaks and maples of the northern Canadian forest amid giant boulders, meandering streams, and hiking trails exacting the winter ski runs. In summer, bright sunlight cleansed the rocks within the streams making them rough so bare feet could walk steadily upon them. In autumn, algae formed as leaves fell and the sun weakened and the rocks grew slippery. I did not know this one autumn, as I led a small group of middle school kids into the woods.
I led my son and daughter, and their close friends, up a steep trail, one they had skied over the past winter, and one I had taken in summer without them. We climbed beside the noisy drop of a shallow waterfall and eventually reached the relatively flat, dense forest above it. I encouraged the kids to remove their shoes and walk in the streams. Bushes, vines and small trees crowded the water and confused its path to the hidden waterfall. Sahra, a friend, held her shoes and ventured laughingly into one of the streams. After three steps she slipped. Her shoes flew into the air. One landed on the shore and another into the water ahead. I went after it and slipped. I landed hard. “On second-thought,” I called, “Everyone keep your shoes on! Stay on the path.”
“Where’s Andrew?” I asked about my son after we’d collected Sahra’s shoes and helped her brush silt and leaves from her feet and legs. “I think he kept going on the path,” my daughter said.
I ran ahead, calling his name. I could not find him. I ran back. “Would he have gone down without us?” I asked everyone. No one knew the answer. We had planned to hike further up the mountain before turning around.
We spread out. We called his name over and over. Eventually we ran back down the path we’d climbed. The young girls ran ahead. Sahra’s sister ran back to me, out of breath. “Someone fell,” she said. “They are rescuing him. I think it’s Andrew.” I shook my head and denied this possibility. “No,” I balked, “It can’t be.”
Two rescuers waded from the river carrying a backboard with a small boy strapped on top. I saw his little twelve-year-old face. It was my baby. I started to run toward him. A hiker blocked my path. Coatless, wet, and shivering, he said, “I found him lying on that rock.” He spoke in broken English and a French Canadian accent. “I thought he was dead,” he stammered, clearly shaken by finding more than the majesty of nature on his walk. “He was white as a sheet, his eyes closed, his arms spread wide. I waded out. I touched him and he opened his eyes. I covered him with my coat. I called for help and a mountain rescue team walked by. They were heading down to the lodge for lunch. They had a radio and called the ambulance.”
Where had the sun gone? Darkness crowded all about me. I heard the hiker only as a means of future recall. I gazed at the rock and my eyes carried up the waterfall behind it. Its vertical ascent of rushing water stretched to the height of our two-story home back in Virginia.
I ran to Andrew and the rescue team. I babbled my confusion about how this could have happened. I didn’t see him. I didn’t know. The crew was out of breath from the effort of shifting him off the boulder to the stretcher without jarring him. One of them quietly shared his clinical assessment, “It could be a broken spine or neck.“ I stared at my son’s pale arms dotted in dead leaves, and his face cradled by the stretcher. He blinked at me as they lifted him into the ambulance. I climbed in. I wanted to hold his hand. Both were tucked inside. I sat on cold metal. The tech whispered urgently in my ear, “Keep him awake.” She said this multiple times on the long ride to the hospital. I didn’t hear the sirens or notice the flashing lights, or the cars moving out of our way. I just stared at his little face, blinking at me. “It’s going to be alright,” I replied often, smiling tightly. I believed it, but I didn’t. “Your dad will meet us at the hospital. The others will tell him. We will have pizza later.” Meaningless words emerged from me to keep him engaged. They fought for prominence against the questions I wanted to ask but could not. How did he fall? Did he feel abandoned? Had he been terrified, all alone? Could he move his legs? Could he wiggle his fingers?
“Why would they paint the walls of a hospital this sickly, phlegm green?” I muttered to myself as I sat in the lone chair outside the x-ray room. They would only let one parent inside and since my husband had arrived, and I keenly felt my failure to keep our son safe, I let him take over. The machine emitted a thin crescendo before it fell to lower tones, only to rise again, like eerie music in a ghost story.
“A broken wrist, thumb, and knee cap,” my husband said. “They are small breaks, but very important bones.” They set his arm in a white plaster cast. They placed the leg in a brace. “Do not let him straighten his leg, or the bone will sever the tendon in his knee cap,” the doctor instructed. My husband shook his head at me and his expression said, “How do we keep a middle school boy from straightening his leg?”
I only slept that night long enough to have dark nightmares. My baby had endured something more traumatic than I could imagine. And I had led him to it. I worried about his thoughts as the water had taken him over, as he had slipped and scrambled to save himself, as he had fallen knowing pain awaited at the bottom, then hit. I dreamed of him in a dark, cold, wet and frightening place. In the full sunlight of morning, as he smiled and laughed at something his dad said, I dared to ask, “What did you feel and think as it was happening?” He didn’t remember. He didn’t remember.
We needed to return the hiker’s jacket. Sahra’s mom got his name and address. The flight home was tricky. They opened the side of the airplane at National Airport and a lift lowered his wheel chair. American doctors laughed at the plaster cast and replaced it with fiberglass. Further x-rays revealed if anyone were to break a knee-cap, Andrew had broken it in the best possible way. He was not in any danger of severing a tendon, but he would have to be in a brace and could not put weight on his leg for six weeks. They rigged a special crutch with a resting place for his casted arm, since both breaks were on the same side of his body. He rode the elevator at school and I gained a fearsome reputation. “Don’t make Mrs. Kyme angry! She’ll push you over a waterfall,” the middle school kids said. They are ruthless at times. They are learning to analyze their world and can be brutally honest. Thankfully, that honesty works both ways. Finally, a few months later, my son offered me a great kindness. Finally, I had my answer. He had remembered. He had scrambled like a cartoon character as the water and the slippery rock sent him toward the drop off. But then, a light euphoria had embraced him. He’d felt a sense of weightlessness, a calm well-being, and he did not experience the final drop. He came awake lying on his back under three feet of water. A clear, soothing thought told him to climb upon the rock, where he rested, his face to the sun, and waited for the inexplicably, swift arrival of help.
I’m Nancy S. Kyme, the author of “Memory Lake, the Forever Friendships of Summer” a 2012 Next Generation Award Winning memoir. When childhood friends plan to meet at a camp reunion thirty years after their adventures together at summer camp, a fun, inspirational journey begins in which the reader is immersed into summer, youth, and the warmth of meaningful friendships. Present day challenges and past outdoor adventures are woven into an unforgettable tale of friends overcoming fear and grief through joy and laughter.