In the Blink of an Eye

Marc - Ashland, Oregon
Entered on March 3, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: carpe diem, death
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I had come a long way in my challenge to make peace with a life-altering disease.  I knew that to embrace suffering as a teacher is an ongoing challenge.   I also knew that one of my biggest enemies was pride. I was conspicuously different….not by choice.

I love to kayak whitewater but sometimes I can’t help wonder if, with my disability, I belong on class 3/4 rivers alongside expert paddlers.

One trip stands out.  It was summertime on the Main Salmon River – an eight-day wilderness trip through the middle of Idaho.  Around  mile 79 we stopped at Bailey Rapids.  I’m always more nervous when a rapid has to be scouted, and this time was no different.  

I was the last to go. A cheer greeted me at the end. I felt great and then I looked back up river. My eye was caught by a large log, golden in the light.   Just then another party of boats started through.  The final boat, a bright yellow sit-on-top kayak, was out of line and the strong current was pulling it directly to the log.

The paddler flipped and was pinned. His life vest did its job admirably, holding his head above water.

I got ashore hoping to help, and scrambled up some boulders.  The man was no longer visible, but we all hoped he might be caught in an air pocket.

When the lead rescuer finally got close enough to grab hold of the man’s arm, it was limp. The man was dead. A voice played in my head. “You wondered why you were on this trip. Here’s the reason. Even though the rescue was not successful, someone might need you.”

I was aware that my left arm was shaking more than usual. The tremor from Parkinson’s Disease is accentuated under stress. In other situations I might have retreated out of embarrassment, pride and self-consciousness, but in that moment to be alive, with or without Parkinson’s, was indeed a blessing. 

That was the moment a great shift took place in my life. How absurd to let my sense of pride, of embarrassment, get in my way of being the best human being I could be at that or any moment, tremor or no tremor.

Someone from the other trip pointed me to the man’s wife and his two teenagers.  I identified myself as clergy and sat with them, cried with them, was silent with them, and offered to pray with them. There was very little I could do but be a witness.  I knew, however, that having someone reach out to you at a time of loss can help save your life. 

That day I experienced something profound and intimate; being present at a death always is. I believe the reason I am here is to be the best human I can be with all my frailties and faults, and to treasure life because it can change in the blink of an eye.