Crossing the River

The trip wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Life wasn’t supposed to be this way.  How much can get thrown your way, and you still manage to keep your kayak upright?

Ah, the kayak. Now that’s another story.  I got it into my brain (and body) about a year ago that I’d learn how to kayak. It was the sight from my train window while rolling through the Rockies that got to me – white water tripping madly over rock.  I can remember the precise moment.  The mountains were breathtaking enough, especially to the girl from Eastern Ontario who thought she knew mountains.  But the hilly peaks of my childhood hometown with its staunch United Empire Loyalist churches atop every one of those peaks, and far-reaching steeples atop of every one of those churches, were really just that – hills.  The Rockies, now these were mountains.

But even so, even in the midst of such towering rock, it wasn’t until I saw that raging river spitting white water that I was moved to action – or to consider action. To contemplate moving my own mountains, so to speak.

Which river did this to me, I don’t know.  But that nameless river was enough to make a forty-seven year old woman suddenly contemplate doing something completely outside the normal realm of her experience, something say, rash.  Like putting her large frame into the tiny cockpit of a white-water kayak, sealing herself in with the spray skirt, and throwing herself down a river.

Note the choice of the word.  I contemplated such an action.

But still, the idea took hold. Found a permanent place within my brain, but just as  much within my body.  I physically felt the urge to go down such a river, as if the idea to kayak was somehow directly linked to my bones and flesh and muscle, part of the river-rush of blood streaming through the chambers of my heart, the oxygen streaming through the capillaries of my lungs. It was most odd.

Now it wasn’t a large river that I saw from the train window somewhere in the Rockies. A large river never prompted this kind of reaction in me. I know large rivers. Lived my early years on the shores of the St. Lawrence, a river large enough to hold a thousand islands.

Large rivers stir within me something akin to hearth and home, bread-rising-in-the-oven, chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire.  But then, I grew up in a household where something wonderful was called “the next best thing to sliced bread” – store bought, of course.  And chestnuts, well, I never saw a chestnut (let alone one roasting on an open fire) until I was an adult and moved into a house where every second year the gigantic tree growing next to the porch with the corrugated roof produced a banner crop of chestnuts. They sounded like bombs dropping.

So needless to say home-baked bread and chestnuts aren’t the stuff of metaphors to make me think of home. The tangy smell of dead fish and seaweed that rise from big rivers, well, that’s another thing.  But viewed from the train window while rolling across the Rockies, this other river stirred new and unusual feelings – feelings of adventure and unlikely daring.  Small in comparison to the St. Lawrence, the river raged and foamed and twisted through the steep rock, tumbled through the rapids, churned white, and in the moments when it was quiet, flowed with the colour of the great blue heron.  

Six months later, I stood at the edge of the YMCA swimming pool staring down at a bright orange kayak bobbing at my feet.

A classic Canadian winter swirled outside the pool windows and here I was, in a bathing suit and tucking in my tummy muscles. Vanity, yes, but also practicality. The kayak was much smaller than I had imagined.  How would I fit into it? And once in, get out?

But there were more pressing matters.  Malcolm, the kayak instructor, tossed me a black kinky number to wear. He called it a sprayskirt. It was a skirt like none in my closet. Tight. Slinky. I tried to squeeze the neoprene material over my hips. Malcolm waited in full kayak attire, looking almost Scottish, bare knees showing beneath the hem. Time passed. I finally admitted defeat and asked for a larger size. By now, the others were sitting on the deck and shimmying gracefully into their kayaks. They all fit, but what could I expect? They were men with genetically narrower body types.

I imitated the chubby kid in front of me, laid the paddle across the back of the cockpit, lowered my weight to the deck, leaned on my paddle and somehow slid my butt from the deck into the kayak.  The boat rocked, but didn’t spill.  I felt smug, even daring. Then Malcolm skirted me in. Pulled the hem so that it fit snugly over the kayak cockpit.

Not only was I in, I was sealed in.  Malcolm pointed at the bright yellow loop at the far end of the cockpit and attached to the sprayskirt. “Pull that if you need to get out,” he said. His instructions reminded me of the ripcord of a parachute.  The RIP cord.  We’ve all heard stories of the parachute not opening.

I played bumper cars for most of that first lesson, crashing into the other kayaks, apologising to the men, smashing into them again, hitting the pool deck, scaring the lifeguard. Malcolm kayaked over with two strong strokes and turned my paddle around the other way. “The power blade faces the water,” he said. “And use your right hand control grip, it’ll help you handle the offset of the paddle.”

Yeah, right.

“Hug the kayak,” he instructed next. “Put your arms around it, bend at the waist as if you’re kissing the deck, and roll upside down. Slap the bottom of the boat three times, and then pull on the loop and somersault out.”

Yeah, right again.

But I did it, rolled over. Slapped the hull like a beaver slapping its tail against the surface. Tugged that loop. Somersaulted underwater like an otter.  Left the pool that night feeling the Zen of it all. Hug the kayak. Be the kayak. Hey, I could do this.

It was the following week that the parachute didn’t open. I rolled over and lost my bearings.  Forgot to hug the kayak. Kept reaching for that loop in all the wrong places.  Just kept reaching…

Panic set in, raged through me like that white-water river through the Rockies. I used my hands to dogpaddle the boat upright. Gasped a bite of air, tipped back underwater.  Tried again. Another bite of air, then rolled back upside down.

Blindly reached for that damn rip cord. 

So how much can get thrown your way, and you still keep your kayak upright?

My story started with a journey and that’s where it will end. Not on the train, but another trip a few months after Malcolm flipped my boat upright.  I finished the pool course, but pushed from my brain and body all thought of travelling down a river in a kayak.

In the spring, my mother was lonely so I drove out West to visit her.  The evening I arrived she didn’t get out of bed. I went into the kitchen to make tea, and that’s when I heard the thud, found her crumpled on the floor. “Stroke,” the paramedics told me as they tried to find a hospital that would take her.

What came next is a blur, intensive care, intravenous, brain scans, convulsions racking my mother’s body, discussions with doctors about life and death.  But against all odds, against all predictions, my mother wouldn’t die. Refused to do what was expected of her.  “There’s the funniest looking little man standing in a river over there,” she said one day from her hospital bed, peering into the distance over my shoulder. “Keeps waving for me to join him, but I’m not crossing that river.”

Probably Malcolm.  “Is he wearing a skirt?” I asked, but mother had already drifted back into unconsciousness.

Later that week, I asked my mother what she wanted to do. My father had died the year before, and the family house sold.

Mother’s eyes once again looked over my shoulder into the distance. “I want to go home,” she said. “I want to see the St. Lawrence River again.”

Two months later, still in the hospital, her recovery akin to a roller coaster ride, she called me on the telephone, her voice small and despairing. I had already returned to Ontario.  “The doctors say I can’t travel, it’s too dangerous. I could die on the way, heart failure or a stroke, and Air Canada won’t risk it either.”

They had her in restraints, across her waist and her wrists. She had bruised her face quite badly, falling while getting out of bed against orders. But I knew what she was doing – trying to gain the muscle strength to walk again.  The strength she’d need to convince them to let her come home.  They saw it as the belligerence that comes from losing touch with reality, hallucinating men-sightings in rivers and such.

Mother had some money left from the estate, but not much. Father worked his whole life in a factory. They had scrimped and saved in order to make ends meet for us - their family of five children. Even in their “golden years,” dining out meant McDonalds, and going shopping meant buying thrift shop. Mother had a closet full of second-hand clothes.

But if she were going to die anyway in the very near future, like the doctors predicted, for what did she need to save her money?

And if she were going to die anyway in the very near future, like the doctors predicted, why not die trying to make the trip home?  She had stubbornly not died yet.  Maybe she would live to see her river again.

“A personal jet and nursing care on the plane will cost thirty thousand.” I tested the waters, waiting for her reaction. I had done the research, knew the figures, but it was a huge amount of money for her.  Much more than my father had made in a year’s wages anytime throughout his life.

“You’ll book the jet? You’ll do that for me?”  she said.

There was something new in her voice. Hope, but also daring.  The thrill of adventure. She would fly home in her own jet. She knew the risks as much as I did, but chose to take them.

Yes, I would do that for her. I would do that for me.

I hung up and made the arrangements. She would fly two days later, an ambulance taking her to the airport, pilot and plane waiting, her own nursing staff, an ambulance meeting her when she landed.

Then I made another call - to a white water kayak outfitter.

Booked a trip down a river.

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This story was originally published in The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, True Stories From Around the World, Traveler's Tales 

© Marianne Paul 2011