It’s what wintry water demands, asks of you. You give in to it because the water is a blanket around you; one of your baby blankets, edged in pink satin, or a quilt made by your grandmother with pieces of flowered aprons and her striped house coats, warm and soft in texture and scent. The water wraps you in its arms and tells you, “Come with me. I will keep you safe.”
The water that runs straight from Maine’s western mountains in January after a rain storm that leads to flooding is especially demanding. The rising waters lift slabs of greenish-blue ice onto the bank and the river runs free. Free running water has power, as does the sun, and the wind, and the earth’s whirling in space.
If you fall into a river after a flood when the green slabs cover the banks, and if the water is up to your chin and you look up at three feet of ice slabs, you know, because your mind tells you, that you might die.
Within two minutes, when you lift your gloved, numb hand from the water and an excruciating pain makes your fingers want to break off, you stare at your hand as if it belongs to someone else and then you pull it back in the water. It’s better in the water.
Maybe the sun is out and the air is unseasonably warm, but the water, you remember, is frigid as floating, watery ice.
Yet you are not cold.
It was another of those rare warm January days in Maine’s western mountains, and a friend had stopped by, saying, “Get the kids outside; it’s warm.”
The Sandy River, I thought. I’d been wanting to get down there for two days, after the rains had come, and the river had flooded, breaking up the ice which had resettled on the banks. The sky was blue as my great-grandmother’s eyes and the air almost balmy, as my mother would have called it, when my daughter Ting, her friend and I headed down the small Phillips streets to the orange gate.
Gus stepped happily ahead of us, his thick black coat glistening like onyx, his tail raised and wagging. I’m a good dog, I imagined him thinking.
Three of Ting’s third grade classmates had joined us, so with five kids in tow, I gave them the ‘this is the deal’ talk at the gate. “No one goes past the trail’s end, and no one goes on the ice along the banks. Understand?”
I looked each one in the eye for emphasis.
But two of the kids, being kids on a blue skied day when nothing could possibly hurt them, were suddenly on the ice, throwing sticks into the fast-moving water. “Off!” I yelled. “Now, get back.”
As they scrambled through the snow to the almost bare ground, I caught a glimpse of a black tail down below the ice, in the running waters of the Sandy.
Lying flat on my belly on a slippery ice slab, I gazed three feet down at the river’s water. Gus’ eyes, as he swam back and forth looking for a way out, showed primal fear, unreachable by me. He would not come to my hand. “Come here, little guy,” I called. “Gussy, come, come here.”
Back and forth he swam, but now he was whimpering. The lyme disease that had attacked his joints two years earlier had weakened him. How long could he last? I wondered.
One swoop close by and I had his collar, but he pulled away. “No, Gus, come, come here.”
Then he was off again.
Sitting up, I removed my boot and sock, yanked one leg of my corduroy pants as high as it would go, and gingerly tested the water’s depth. If I could stand…but no, I could not touch bottom at a spot which, in summer, is the gentle slope of a beach leading to briskly cool water. Gus was crying now, looking wildly in every direction.
I turned to the kids. “Run for help, now. Get Larry, he’s working at Russ’ and can bring his truck to the gate. Fast!”
One child volunteered to stay with me. “Just in case,” I said. I didn’t know what the ‘just-in-case’ might be, but within a minute I fell into the river and found out. The child cried out, “I’m scared.” Already in shock, I tried to calm him. “I’m not scared, don’t you be scared. Be brave. Just run. Get help.”
The blanket wound around me then, the blanket of cold, right up to my neck. I was breathing hard, but I, the person I was, had gone away. There was only Gus. “Keep trying,” I begged him. “Get those paws up, and I’ll push.”
With stumps that were my hands and arms, I kept pushing, but Gus didn’t budge. Where was my strength?
My feet rested on an icy rock. When the current pulled me off, I had to move my arms to keep my head above water. Then came the rearranging, again, of Gus, on my shoulder. “It’s, okay, Gus, just keep trying.”
I must have been speaking to myself for Gus could try no longer. He leaned into the icy wall in terror, but he couldn’t try.
Where did that woman come from? Nancy, that was Nancy and she was kneeling on the ice, but she was so small and fragile. “I’ve just gotten out of the hospital,” she said. “I’m too weak to help,” but she kept her gaze on us. She was trying to help with her eyes. Were they telling me to hold on? I thought I was alright, but what about Gus?
Why didn’t someone come, someone big and strong, and help me get him out of the water?
When the current pulled me away, floating me down river for several seconds, a blissful peace overcame me. I was going, I realized. The river would be my home. “I’m coming, Mom,” I whispered. Was she there, opening her arms? And Penny, who’d gone two years before; were her sparkling eyes in a smile?
My ears caught that crying sound again. Gus, it was Gus and he needed me. I was swimming back against the current, but so slowly. I was a swimmer, but why couldn’t I go any faster? “Gus, hold on.” Then as I reached him, “Help!” came from deep within. “Someone, anyone, help, help me.”
Once, my gloved hand lifted out of the water and a bitter pain turned my fingers to glass. Would they break off? Back in the water. The water was warm, a blanket. I held Gus’ back legs and tried to support as much of him as I could with my shoulder.
Above us loomed the wall of ice.
Melissa came then. Small Melissa, but she had worked in construction and when she saw me, something pumped through her, some inner reserve of strength. I could see it. She found her footing on the slanted ice slabs, yelled at the kids to stay back, and in one swoop, she pulled Gus out. To the kids, “Get Gus to the car, now, and fast.”
“Go Gus,” I whispered. I was starting to sink.
“Give me your hand,” Melissa was saying.
I did, and she yanked. Melissa’s legs fell through the icy snow as she dragged me out and onto an ice slab. Melissa was pulling herself out of the snow; her legs were soaked with river water. Somehow she stood me up and ripped off my down jacket and turtleneck, replacing them with her jacket.
The shivering and shaking took over then, but a hand gripped my waist—Melissa’s—as she pushed me forward for twenty or more steps. The gate was so far away, though. I bent, nauseous, too weak to go on.
“Can’t do it,” I told her. I was scooped up, then, into Melissa’s arms. Partway to the gate, another parent came; she and Melissa formed a cradle with their arms and carried me.
When they slid me into the waiting ambulance—Ting and her friend had found someone and asked them to call 911—I was crying. “Where’s Ting? And Gus? Where is he?” Even, “I want my mother.”
“What’s her number?” asked the EMT, a woman with a golden halo of hair around her head. She was cutting my clothes off.
“Please, not those corduroy pants, my daughter-in-law gave them to me, I need them,” so the angel woman pulled them off.
“What’s your mother’s number?” she asked again, a cell phone in her hands.
“She’s dead. I can’t call her.”
I was still in the water, wasn’t I? The shivering hadn’t let up, the feeling that I didn’t exist kept on. I was being wrapped in white, warm blankets, even my head. Where was the river? Had it taken me? Why had that car hit my mother and taken her away? And Penny, why did her lungs have to let her down? Was I joining them? I was trembling and crying for the ones who’d already gone, for the wanting to see my three children, and my two grandbabies. Why couldn’t they be here? Why couldn’t Ting be in the ambulance?
The angel woman placed her hand on mine, beneath the blanket. “Maybe you can feel your mother through my hand.”
The first moment of calm began.
“Body temp is 91,” I heard.
“Can’t get an EKG, she’s trembling too much.”
“Blood pressure?” I saw a thumb turn down.
The doors closed and we were off. Another ambulance would meet us partway with a medic who could do more.
“The water saved me,” I finally said. “It was a blanket.”
In the trauma room, following injections of blood thinners, needles to take blood, to transfer fluids into me, I began to feel myself again. Two heads poked in. My buddies, who’d seen me through the last couple of years; Larry and Russ.
I was covered with a white papery blanket that blew warm air all over me through the holes on one side of it. The doctor waved them in.
“We’d like to admit you,” he told me and them. “Your heart’s still giving off enzymes,” the doctor was saying. “That means you’re not out of the woods yet. Cardiac arrest can occur at a certain point. You’re quite near that.”
As I was lifted onto a stretcher, I heard Russ say, “I’ll go out to Phillips and get Ting, bring her in to be with you.”
“Oh, thank you. And Gus?”
“He’s just fine.”
It was Larry, saying these words. Gus loved Larry so I knew it was true.
“Did I tell you the water saved me? It was a blanket.”
Now I really was in heaven. Ting was there, snuggled up against me in her pj’s. “Are you going to die?” she asked.
“You’re holding me so tight, I can’t possibly die,” I said.
The dark night protected us. The nurses had closed the door so the only light came through the curtained window to the nurses’ station.
“Mama, sing to me,” Ting said.
I was past exhaustion, but I started to sing the lullabyes and songs I’d sung to her when she first came from China to join my family when she two years old. At times I’d start to drop off to sleep.
“Keep singing,” Ting told me. She joined me. At some point, near to midnight, we fell asleep in each other’s arms, her heart against mine.
I do not fear the river or its force now. The cold is just as much warm as anything else. It is easy to drown, but now I know the body puts forth its protective gear: shock, adrenalin. Blankets of ice hold it. The brain loses focus, unless someone else is in need, like a beloved dog.
Sometimes I close my eyes and recall it, the sudden shock of ice on my skin, the sinking beneath black waters. But I don’t feel it. And I don’t feel death.
Editor’s Note: In celebration of fine writing talent, the Daily Bulldog will feature, “In Writing,” a series of essays and short stories on occasional Saturdays. Writer Elizabeth Cooke, pictured above with Gus, begins our series with this dramatic account of winter’s danger.