had just been released from the monotonous toils and redundant lessons of Vista Del Valle elementary school, Claremont, California, and into my sixth summer. With my family, I had gone to visit my Aunt Francis, my father's oldest sister, who lives in the middle of nowhere (somewhere in Northern California). I used to love to visit my Aunt Francis, or rather, my Aunt Francis's hundred-acre backyard. I couldn't wait to explore her vast green pine woods, picking wild berries as I went and catching salamanders in the rivers that crisscrossed her property.
One small river in particular, a brook actually, flowed only a short distance from my aunt's house. When we first arrived, my four siblings and I excitedly shucked our shoes and rushed to play in this river. Thoughts of my aunt were gone, as were thoughts of the hello's we owed her. And soon the cool mountain water washed away the stickiness we felt after riding for twelve hours on flat, black freeways and two more hours on rock-strewn dirt roads in a hot, stuffy, antiquated Ford station wagon. The sun danced on the water as it rushed past, enticing us. At the time, none of us "city folk" could swim, so we stayed near the riverbank, gingerly dipping bare feet in the clear water. We splashed each other; we tried to skip flat rocks across the water. They sank. We laughed. A short distance from where we played, the smooth continuity of the brook was interrupted by a small waterfall, but of course, even in our youth, we had enough sense to stay clear of it.
In the middle of the river was a huge boulder -- its slime-covered, weather-softened peak rising out of the water, bravely holding its position despite the pull of the river. Carefully, we moved from the safety of the riverbank out onto this rock, wary of its slippery surface. Gaining courage I ventured further and further from my siblings and their stony haven. I stood in the freezing water up to my bony six-year-old knees, watching as it passed, carrying flotsam from upriver. Time began to slip by with the river; our bare backs turned red with the sun, but we did not care.
We were too young to know about the mutations in skin cells that overexpose to the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun caused. Even had we known about cancer, I am sure that we would not have cared. Naïve exuberance and youthful innocence made it impossible for us to imagine long-term consequences. "Careful" was a word used only to describe how Christmas presents were to be wrapped or how crystal vases were to be carried.
Then I slipped.
I do not remember how it happened, but suddenly I was in the water above my head. I think my body was in shock because I could not feel anything. Except the water. The icy water no longer felt refreshing. It grabbed me, held me, pulled me down. I remember turning around and looking at my siblings still on the rock as the river pulled me away. They stared at me, and I at them. Faces devoid of expression, they stood motionless, not knowing what to do. Then the river consumed me, swallowing me whole and covering my head.
I could see the riverbed: a mass of smooth rocks what seemed like miles below my motionless corpus. My mind froze with fear, and I felt myself moving out of my body. I watched from a numbing distance as I floated quickly toward what looked to a three-foot-tall six-year-old like Niagara Falls. The river was no longer a wandering brook, but a beast, turned wild at the hint of fresh warm flesh.
Time froze; my body tumbled, caught in the strong undercurrent and I realized that I was going to die. My life flashed before my eyes. Blip. And it was gone. Was that it? Then I realized I was only six. I had not done much with my life yet. I had never been elected president. I had never been kissed by someone to whom I was not related. Morals still governed my actions, and Big Bird was still real to me. But worst of all, I had never been on the big kid's play yard at school.
This can't be it. I can't die now. I was back in my own body, and I began to struggle. My lungs burned: they were ready to burst. Flapping my arms and kicking my feet, I found my way to the surface. But it was too late. I was only ten feet from the waterfall. Frantically, I searched for something to hold onto.
There, on the bank: a root. I reached for it. Grabbing it, I held on as tightly as I could. The river greedily sucked at my legs; my hand began to slip. I cursed my stubby little six-year-old fingers. Just as I was about to fall back into the river's grasp, a long arm reached down for me.
It caught hold of and lifted me clear of the water. I looked at the arm, followed it, and saw that it was attached to a body. A body that had a face, a man's face, smiling, eyes relieved. The man set me down out of reach of the greedy water. The roar of the waterfall echoed in my ears, much louder now. It screamed in rage, its prey lost, its plot foiled.
I knelt to cough, letting all the water out of my lungs and filling them again with air. When I looked up again the man was gone.
That is all I remember, but it is enough. I visited my aunt a few summers later, but I could not bring myself to venture near that river. For years afterwards I could not force myself to go anywhere near water that had not come from a faucet. No matter how warm the water, it would send chills down my spine and I would remember. I had learned that life was fragile, and I did not want mine to be just a blip in a river. I had to preserve my life, to be careful, because I had only one. Life itself was sacred to me, but the fear of death scared me more. I was afraid of what might happen after life, afraid of the unknown, of what could be and what might never have been. One wrong step and I would be dead, gone forever from one cruel and predatory world and into another from whose bourn no traveler returns.
I have often wondered who my savior was. Why was he there? And why did he leave while I was still choking on river water? No one else seems to remember him. All that my siblings recall after regaining control of their fear stricken minds is finding me struggling for breath on the riverbank. They never saw him. No one else ever saw him, and I never saw him again. Sometimes I imagine that he is my guardian angel and it is his comforting touch which guides me through the trials and tribulations that make up my life. No. I did not really believe that. I could not: I was far too cynical to believe in angels or ethereal guardians. Maybe the three sisters of fate were just playing with my mind. But none of that mattered to me: thanks to one random act of kindness I had a life to live and for many years I lived it in fear.
It was not until I entered junior high school that along with my body, my mind began to change. My parents forced me to learn to swim. That may have started it. On reflection I realized that a phobia of water was not the only gift from the river, but that it had also given me a phobia of life itself. Heights terrified me, and the dark. Roller coasters, power tools, stoves, chemicals, wet squirrels and anything that had large teeth, barked or drooled: they all terrified me. Danger scared me to death. Every time I closed my eyes I would see, in the darkness trapped behind my eyelids, the river and the waterfall. The instincts and the miracle that had saved me were forgotten, but the waterfall was still there, made a hundred times larger in my malevolently active imagination.
Although fear controlled me, I did not want to waste away like the old lady who lived across the street. She came outside only when her wrinkled and withered body, unaccustomed to the sun, was feeling especially active, maybe once in a blue moon or so. She smelled like a room that had gone too long without airing, like must, like mildew. She had stopped wanting to live, and now her body and mind had begun decomposing before she had even been buried. Her gnarled face joined the waterfall in my nightmares, the heavily lidded and sunken eyes staring at me from a ghastly white visage. She was afraid of life, just as I was. Slowly, my face replaced hers. Fresh and young but dead inside, waiting for the decay to set in.
I realized that the phrase 'you only live once' did not mean that you should preserve your life like some rare stamp locked away in a safety deposit box. No longer did I fear dying, but rather dying without living. I had only one life, and it was an investment, to be used and risked. Where once I was fearful, now I am only careful. Depending on my mysterious guardian, I would no longer hesitate before jumping onto a vomit scented roller coaster, or mixing caustic chemicals, such as nitric acid and glycerin, together while not wearing any protective clothing, or even doing both at once. I have still never been kissed, and I no longer desire the responsibilities of the presidency, but I've still got some time.
I learned to swim quickly, though I still wear my bright orange life preserver, just in case. Every so often there is still a tinge of fear as I look at the dark painted twelve on the porcelain tiles above the deep end of the pool. The physical scars are gone, and my regular psychiatrist assures me that my 'condition' and the nervous twitch will soon follow. But now, I have almost completely forgotten the incident. It no longer visits me in my dreams, but its lessons will remain with me… or something.
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