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Taking the Plunge

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Is the end of a life the end of the story?

After my sister died, I climbed from moment to moment, hand over hand, as if up a slippery wet rope, from the bottom of a dark well, toward a vague light that some days I only half-heartedly aspired to. Some days I slipped back again, almost to the depths. Then, with cold, raw hands, I began once more to climb.

I had no hunger. I ate dark chocolate, smoked mentholated cigarettes, and drank more cheap red wine than was good for me. I sat wide awake in the middle of the night without the lights on. I wanted to learn how to breathe without weeping.

I had no words then, for my grief, but I do now. Still, they are only words for the memory of it.

Grief weighed heavy. I sighed deeply, compulsively, constantly, but I couldn’t relieve the pressure that felt like an axe in the middle of my chest. Electric currents buzzed through my heart. My eyelids burned red hot. I wanted to close them. I wanted the world to go away, the traffic sounds and the stray voices of people on the street; I wanted it all to simply melt away. Fatigue overtook me. I didn’t have the energy to stand up, or even to sit, but I couldn’t lie down because it was like being drunk, when laying down makes it worse. I closed my eyes and everything spun. I was dizzy with sorrow.

Tears betrayed me at will.

I underestimated the anger grief clutches in its gnarly fist. Everyone on the street made me mad, just because they were there. They were walking along, laughing, and my sister wasn’t, and these people didn’t know and couldn’t care less. I wanted to shout at them, and sometimes, I did.

Grief emptied my marriage of what little there was left. My husband found someone else. Of course, I should have seen it coming.

My body reduced itself to a stick drawing. I slept for hours, waking only to cry or to watch Soap Operas on TV. One day I saw blueberries on sale and remembered how Pam had loved them, and thought how I would probably have baked a nice cobbler if only there was somebody there to make it for. Then I asked myself if I was somebody. I bought the blueberries, made a huge dessert, and ate the whole thing myself.

A few weeks later, I borrowed a thousand dollars from my mother and signed up for a ten-day, all women, whitewater rafting school.

That September, just over a year to the week my sister died, I found myself floundering in the cold, speeding rapids of Oregon’s Rogue River, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

“We need a volunteer so you can learn how to run a rapid in your life jacket,” explained Janet, our river guide. “At some point in the trip you’re bound to be dumped from the raft, and you have to know how to save your own life.”

My hand shot up. So what if I couldn’t swim? I hadn’t traveled three thousand lonely miles to sit back and not have a Total Experience. And I had nothing left to lose.

I swung my legs into the water and clung to the side of the raft, heart pounding, staring up at Janet as she spoke. She was everything I aspired to: tall, bronzed, sleek-haired, and muscular. Her voice was calm and confident.

“Rapids are rated in classes one through six, according to their difficulty,” she said. “Sixes are unrunnable; they must be portaged. The one you’re running this morning is just a riffle, so you should be okay. Relax and let the water carry you. At the end of any rapid, you pass through a series of standing waves. When you see one coming, hold your breath. You’ll go under for a moment and pop back out. Look up, and when you see the next wave cresting, hold your breath again, and so on until you’re through the standing waves and into the eddy. Then we’ll pick you up in the crew boat.”

I took a deep breath and pushed off. The river grabbed my legs with startling force. The current was icy and swift. I struggled to stick my feet out in front of me, but the river would not let go. I panicked, flailing my arms in the water, instinctively trying to swim for shore.

“No! No!” I heard Janet yell.

“I don’t want to go,” I shouted back, gulping a mouthful of water.

“You have no choice,” she called out.

The river sucked me right down the chute of a Class Two rapid. I had no control. For a long moment I thought of letting myself go and slipping under, of ending the pain in my chest that had suffocated me since my sister died and my husband walked out. Then I pictured my mother standing over my coffin, weeping on my father’s shoulder.

“If only I hadn’t lent her the money …”

I stuck my feet out hard in front of me. Within seconds I saw the standing waves. I held my breath, went under, popped up, opened my eyes, held my breath, went under, and popped up again—until, miraculously, I was in the eddy, treading water.

Upstream, the crew boat pulled hard on their oars, trying to reach me.

“Are you all right?” they asked, pulling me aboard.

“I’m great,” I grinned, shivering, “just great.”

Five days and several adventures later I awoke in the night, crawled out of my tent, and looked up at the stars. The sky stretched above me like a great veil of mourning. I thought of my sister. If you can get through this weekend with me you can get through anything. How many times had I already harkened back to these words, spoken to me two days before she died? They had almost become a mantra.

Sitting in that deep, dark Oregon valley in the cool hush of an autumn night in 1981, I knew that I faced an uncertain future. Being Pam’s sister, I also knew that the boundaries of my life were not determined by my circumstance or past, but by my choices and my possibilities.

When each of her CF friends died, I remembered, she had chosen the qualities that she admired in them, that gave her strength. Then she adapted them as her own, so the best part of the people she loved could live on in her. These very qualities had become the guiding principles of her life: temerity, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, patience, generosity, and love. Through the conscious practice of those principles in my own life, I hoped that part of my sister would now live on through me.

Pam had set an example of such courage for me, that I would never fail to be inspired by it. She had taught me to acknowledge fear, and then move past it. As I had done in the rapids that week. As I did sitting on a riverbank in the Oregon wildnerness, facing my future. I could almost hear her laughing in the stars.

Excerpted from
Sixty-Five Roses: A Sister’s Memoir


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