So on our third day of our wedding anniversary’s five day float down the Willamette River, our kayak snagged and flipped and suddenly Alysia and I were in the water. We had been exploring a side channel of an island. A derelict wooden bridge once connected the island to the mainland. Floods over the years have accumulated snags against its pilings so the rushing current dives under the snags. It looked as if this snag dam probably went all the way across the channel but we didn’t wait to see. Being swept into and possibly under the dam could be fatal, so we immediately turned upstream and paddled away from the dam. Unfortunately, the current in the side channel was strong and we weren’t able to make it the hundred yards back to the main channel. We tried… but then the kayak highsided and half a soaking hour later we gave up trying to rescue the stuck kayak. We needed to rescue ourselves instead.
Our bag of dry clothes had floated away but we got our tent and sleeping bags out of the boat. The bank of the island was a steep, ten foot slippery slope. Alysia slipped as she struggled up and she started feeling chest pains. (She had to retire from teaching last year because of her heart.) At the top of the bank were blackberry brambles four feet high that we had to push through. The current had ripped off one of my sandals so I had a sock and sandal on my right foot and only a worn-out sock on my left that left the ball of my foot and heel bare to the hooked brambles. We carried our equipment over to the main channel side of the island and pitched our tent where we could wave down a passing boat – though this weekday was cloudy and we had not seen another boat all day. Alysia was beginning to shiver. We set up the tent and took off our wet clothes and got under our sleeping bags together, bare skin to bare skin. Alysia had her medicine pouch so she took a nitro to control her heart spasms. But that dilates blood vessels, letting more blood flow away from her core, making her colder. We lay together. Her belly was cold; she was in an early hypothermic state. But her heart spasms were worsening so she took another nitro which made her shiver more. We lay skin to skin, gradually warming one another. Now we were worried about her heart. Waiting a day for a passing boat didn’t feel safe. We agreed I needed to try going for help but the only way off the island was that derelict bridge or the snag dam beneath it. We agreed that I would come back if I couldn’t make it across and that if I did make it across, I would blow the whistle so she wouldn’t worry.
I need to stay as warm as I can, so of the soaking wet clothes that are available for my naked body, I first put on my fleece jacket. Then I put Alysia’s wool sweater over that. Over that, I put the thickest of our life jackets, both for warmth and for protection from thorns. Then I put back on my wet pants. I put my sock and sandal on my right foot and my worn through sock on my left foot. A memory of another pair of socks makes me pause. I rummage through my daypack. Among its contents are a sock and a hand towel. I redo my left foot. First the new sock. Then I wrap the hand towel around that and then pull the wornout sock over the towel to hold it in place so I have 2 ½ layers of cloth beneath my feet (2 layers on the ball and heel, 3 everywhere else). I decide not to wear a hat, thinking it might keep snagging in the brambles. I bring my soaking wet wallet; it has my insurance cards. I take a long swig of water. I want to keep my hands free to deal with whatever lies ahead so I don’t want to be carrying a canteen. I take another swig and then set off across the field.
The ground is level and soft and I make good time towards the bridge. I begin looking for some sign of the road/ruts the wagons and farming equipment surely would have made going back and forth through the years but I can’t find any. I pass a row of old apple trees. I have only a kayak-level approximate sense of where the bridge stands. A solid thicket of blackberry rising seven feet high prevents me from seeing anything in the channel beyond them. I back out into the field again, walking back and forth, scanning for any clue to the bridge’s location. None. So I estimate a location for the bridge, choose the spot where the brambles look lowest and head in.
I have never pushed through an overgrown blackberry thicket before but need is pushing me. My feet rarely touch the ground. I place them on the one-inch thickest canes, both to push down my main resistance and also to hold me a foot or two higher within the thicket. This keeps my head above the thicket so I can look around and also presents less resistance as I push through. The fingers of each hand carefully take hold of the two largest canes immediately before me and delicately hold them to the side. Delicately – but also this finger to cane will be the contact by which I maintain my balance. I then push my right leg forward, place my sandaled right foot onto the largest cane within reach, and push through the canes. The smaller canes scrape by. The larger might scratch or get hooked onto my clothes and require an extra effort to force my way past. Then I bring my left foot up beside my right food and try to place it on the same large cane. Unfortunately, the largest canes have the longest, woodiest thorns but I can’t really look down to place my foot and my foot, having to push through the brambles, doesn’t have the freedom to be placed precisely. So I simply have to place my socking and toweled foot onto the cane. Sometimes this hurts but most of the times it’s all right (relatively). Repeat. In this way I push through twenty yards of brambles. The thicket grows deeper as I draw closer to the edge. Several times I break down through the canes to ground level. Then I need to stop to pull up my sagging pants so that I can bend my wet cloth-garbed knee enough to get my right foot back up on a large cane. Because of the resistance of my wet pants, I usually have to use my hands to help raise my foot up onto the cane. Then I look up through the opening I dropped down through, and select two canes above me to help pull myself back up onto a thick cane.
In this manner, I eventually reach a point where I can see beyond the thicket. The top of the bridge is visible off to the left, upstream. I study the situation – and conclude that the distance to the bridge is such that pushing straight for the bridge through this deeper part of the thicket will be harder than going back out the way I came, moving back up alongside the thicket to the right place, and plunging back in from there. This I do. Going back is slightly easier than the initial push through the thicket. I go back up the field to where I now think the bridge will be. The thicket is taller here. I would choose some other place except I’m pretty sure that the bridge is on the other side of this place.
I pause. I really don’t want to push through the brambles again. My feet and hands are already hurting and I don’t even know if, at the end, I’ll be able to get across the channel. But really, I have no choice. Alysia needs help. She won’t get help unless I push through these brambles. So again I push into and through the bramble thicket.
When I finally push through, I am off to the left of the bridge. But I’m also on the edge of the sloping bank and below me the brambles give way to non-stickery plants along which an animal trail threads. I drop down onto the trail and follow it towards the bridge. It wends back up to the top of the bank and ends within ten feet of the bridge in a broad bedding-down area, beautifully green, surrounded by a wall of tall brambles. If I was a deer, I’d love to lie down here. But I’m not. I sigh. If I am going to cross, I must push through this surrounding wall of brambles to the edge of the bank right where the bridge is. That is where I will either be able to walk across on the bridge or drop to the snag dam below. As far as I can tell, the bank is almost sheer on this side so a few feet to either side won’t work. I have to get right above where the snag dam hopefully touches this side and drop straight down onto it. So, I step up onto the canes and push on through.
In a few minutes, I approach the edge of the bank. I am just downstream of the bridge and from here I can easily see there is no way to cross on the bridge. The last span is completely missing. Getting on the bridge would require a ten yard leap from brambles. Therefore, the only possible route across is the snag dam – if it stretches all the way across to this side. And that I can not see. I become aware that my mouth is dry. Very dry. I push to the edge of the bank. It is a straight drop down through brambles into a current flowing swiftly right against the sheer bank. I can see the snag dam and it looks like it will be crossable if I can get on it. But I can not see that place where the dam would touch this side if it does come all the way across. That point lies just around a slight corner. If only I could reach my eyes five feet to the left.
You know the move you have to make if you are standing in deep water and you want to start swimming? You can’t push off so you “roll” from upright to horizontal. I crouched down in the blackberries and made a roll like that and pushed my head out through the brambles, trying to extend my eyes out those five feet to the edge beyond that corner. It was like swimming. Very little of my body weight actually touched the ground; the brambles were holding me up. I finally pushed my eyes far enough for them to see down – and one six inch diameter log completed the connection. As far as I could tell, the dam was crossable.
The next day, Alysia shared with me how she was very anxious while I was gone because she was afraid that I would die doing something dangerous in trying to get across. I told her, without forethought but quite honestly, that that would never happen. I was going for help for her. If I did something that resulted in my death, I would not be able to go for help. If I couldn’t make it across, then I would return to the tent and lie with her, help her stay warm and we would remain on the island until we saw a boat go by even if it took a couple of days. So I was not going to get killed. But I was going for help. I was hiking for two. That describes my mental focus. Determined enough to push through a hundred yards of blackberry brambles and rip up my feet and hands but focused enough and aware enough of my limits to not get killed.
So there was the log crossing below. I crawled the rest of my body up to where my eyes were, rolled around beneath the brambles so my feet were below me and hanging on to the brambles, let my feet slowly slide ten feet precisely down onto that log. I crouched upon the log as I cleared both my body and mind of the brambles. The brambles were behind; this damp 6 inch log with the current racing beneath it was ahead. When I was clear, I carefully crossed onto the snag dam. Every possibly unstable step I tested before committing weight. Near the center of the dam, a few of our floating supply bags pushed against the logs. I lifted them up onto the dam. I considered carrying them across with me but decided to leave them behind. I was going for help, not rescuing replaceable items. The opposite bank was solid bramble too but one of the snags in the dam had a long branch that angled up out of the dam to the top of that bank. The bottom part looked walkable but the branch narrowed higher up. I considered whether it was safe to walk up it or not. Then I remembered. I’m going for help. Style is not part of this adventure. I sat astraddle upon the log and scooted my way carefully up. From the top I could see a farmhouse nearby. I dropped off the branch back into brambles but it was only ten feet of brambles and then I walk walking on a field of soft grass towards the house. I blew the whistle loud and long, three different times, to let Alysia know I was safely across. (She didn’t hear them so remained anxious for another half hour.) Then I walked away from the river towards the farmhouse. Two vehicles were in the driveway.
I knew I was going to have to ask for help but I could feel myself pushing through all sorts of psychological brambles as I walked up and rang the doorbell. Pushing through brambles going for help is heroic and easy; needing help is not. I’m not supposed to ask for help; I’m supposed to figure it out on my own. It’s embarrassing to have to call 911. Competent people don’t have to call 911 (except to help out others). My pride doesn’t want to do this. When a woman came to the door, I said, “I hate to admit this but my wife and I need to be rescued. May I use your phone to call 911?” The dispatch got the information, informed me that because of Alysia’s heart condition, they would be sending paramedics on the sheriff’s boat, and that a deputy would be coming to pick me up and take me to where the boat would bring Alysia. So then we waited for the deputy. Of course, the mother and father and six-year old son were wonderful. They asked if they could get me anything. Of course, I didn’t want to be a bother. I turned down warm tea. But when they offered water, I remembered my dry mouth and accepted that. They invited me inside but I felt too dirty and muddy so they offered me a chair at the doorway and we sat and talked.
I felt this hyper need to give back. I had needed help from them and so I must give something in exchange back. But all I had was my soggy self so I tried to be the best person I am capable of being – friendly, courteous, very grateful. The boy got out a new block set. I love interacting with kids so I started giving him building challenges. Now that I had accomplished going for help, whatever mental/chemical reinforcement was easing up and I started feeling cool in my belly. Just a touch of a shiver. Uncomfortable but bearable. Of course I didn’t mention it. At one point the boy went out and got an energy bar and came gave it to me. He didn’t ask (or I might have refused); he simply offered it so I accepted it with the full gratitude that I truly felt. When the deputy arrived, the boy gave me another one for Alysia. I told him that when I gave it to Alysia, that I knew she would say “thank you very much.”
The deputy drove me to the landing where an ambulance had just arrived. The boat arrived a minute later. Alysia’s wrapped in our sleeping bag with an IV in her arm. “Hello, my love.” “Hello, my darling,” we chant to one another. Lots of help there; my call had come near the end of a sheriff/paramedic training day on the river. They get Alysia into the ambulance. Again I feel this hyper need to somehow give back, if, in no other way, to let them know how grateful I am for what they are doing for us. I go around shaking everyone’s hand and thanking them. Then the ambulance driver tells me to get in the front seat and we are off to the hospital. He cranks the heat up high. That feels good.
It’s twenty miles to the Corvallis hospital up Highway 99. It’s late afternoon. The road is empty so we are hauling right along engaging in good conversation (partly because again I am striving to be the very best person I can be to express my gratitude and partly because the driver is just a neat guy). As we drive along, I notice a gentle throbbing in the highway signs and later realize that the late afternoon sunlit highway signs are also reflecting our oncoming red flashing light. Shortly thereafter, I realize why the highway is empty. Cars are on the side of the road. I look farther ahead and I see cars a quarter-mile ahead pulling over for us – and before us is open road. Tears come to my eyes. All these strangers helping Alysia get to the hospital faster. We’ve all pulled over to the side for an ambulance or a fire truck. It goes by and we pull back onto the road and continue on our way. But it is a very different perspective to see it from the front seat of the ambulance. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the highway miraculously opens up ahead of you. We are all strangers helping one another within this miracle. I start talking about this with the driver and by the time we reach the hospital, we are talking about how as fathers we are trying to do the best we know how to pass on to the next generation what is needed to make the world a bit better the next time around.
We disembark at the Emergency Room. They put Alysia under a hot air blanket. She’s on an IV. Then they ask me to go up to Admissions. Yay for my soggy wallet with insurance card. Again, I strive to be my highest self with the man at Admissions. Then it’s back to the Emergency Room. And that’s when my situation finally hits me. I need help. I can not continue on my own. I am standing in a strange hospital in a completely unknown town hundreds of miles from home. Our kayak and all of our camping supplies are lost. Our truck with its extra supplies are fifty miles away (and I have no key to that truck). My wife is in this hospital. All I have are the soggy, bramble-filthy clothes I have on. All I have on my left foot is a muddy, shredded sock. Painful scratches cover my hands and soles. Night is coming. The river has ripped away all of my stabilizing frames of reference and I am disoriented to a deeper level than I am aware. But, and this is the point of this story, that disorientation allows me to enter a state of grace. I have to ask for help but it’s all right now because these interactions are sacred. I’ve tended to interpret the “Tis more blessed to give than receive” as ‘you want to be the giver, not be a receiver’. But like in the front seat of the ambulance, I was experiencing this from a different perspective now. When we need help, we are allowing others to rise into the blessed state of expressing their love through an act of kindness. It’s OK, Paul. You need help and it’s OK to ask.
So I go up to the emergency room counter and ask if there is any place where I could get an old set of dry clothes. She says “just a minute” and comes back with a plastic bag with a new sweatsuit in it and shows me the bathroom where I can change. I go in and notice the bathroom has a shower. I go back and ask if it is all right to use the shower and they say yes and bring me some towels. So I strip off my filthy clothes and take a warm shower. I need to stand in the hot water a long time until my cold belly stops shivering. As my belly warms and relaxes, I feel one frame of reference rise into place. I towel off and open the sweatsuit bag and inside is a slip of paper that says this sweatsuit is a gift from an organization that exists to help people at the hospital in my situation. And again tears rise in my eyes and I think of all the other people who have stood here in a similar situation. Their house burns down, a car accident, and everything is upended. I put the sweatsuit on and another frame of reference slips over me. I am clothed.
I put my filthy clothes in the plastic bag, clean the bathroom carefully so no one else has to do it, and walk out barefoot. I check in with Alysia. They are going to admit her overnight until her heart spasms settle down. In a state of grace, I see the nurses interacting with Alysia. The boating sheriff comes to the hospital and tells me that they were able to retrieve everything – the tent, the supply bags I left on the snag dam, even our submerged kayak. He says he saw our truck key in one of our packs and will bring that to Alysia’s room when he gets off duty at 1:30 in the morning. I am open-mouthed with astonishment and gratitude.
The chaplain is summoned to help me. His name is Sean. He is going to drive me to the Mario Pastega House, a place on the hospital grounds for people like me or families whose loved one has need to come to the hospital for special treatments. Sean asks if there is anything else I need and I say with amazing ease, “slippers.” He takes me to the House: it has a common room/kitchen/dining room with small motel-like rooms leading off. Over the fireplace is a wooden plaque with words. Comfort, Love, Hope. The lady on-duty shows me the shelves with food I can prepare if I’m hungry, shows me the laundry rooms and says “Here, let me wash those dirty clothes of yours.” She shows me my small motel-like room and still another frame of reference rises into place.
I use their phone to call our truck shuttle person and leave a message asking if its possible to have our truck shuttled down in the morning. By now it’s around 10 at night. Sean drives me down to K-Mart and as we drive I learn he is a seminary student. He is interning this summer at the hospital and this is his first night and I am his first …? helpee? Hey, this is wonderfully special and I joke how we need to turn this experience into the stuff of sermon material. I buy a pair of cheap slippers, a bit too big so they won’t rub against the torn-up back of my heels. He brings me back to the House. I heat up a can of something for dinner, then shuffle up to the hospital to check in with Alysia, and shuffle back to my room. I take all the cards and paper out of my wallet and spread them around to dry out. My disoriented mind and sore feet prevent me from deep sleep.
The next morning, I have cereal from off the shelves. I call the shuttle people and they did shuttle our truck this morning. Sean shows up and asks if he can help. I easily ask if he can drive me down to the boat landing several miles away where our truck will hopefully be. We drive up to the hospital. I say good morning to Alysia and get the truck keys that the sheriff did indeed drop by in the middle of the night. Sean drives me down to my truck. I thank him. I unlock the truck, put on the seatbelt, turn on the ignition and another frame of reference roars back. I am autonomously mobile. That afternoon, Alysia is released and we stop off at the county maintenance yard and pick up our kayak and all the camping supplies the sheriffs rescued. The frame of reference of cherished property is restored.
Weeks later, my hands and feet have healed but not all of my comfortable frames of reference have returned – because I needed to ask for help and that took me to a place beyond where I had always been before.