Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[personal|cancer] The first time I thought I was going to die

The first time I can remember thinking I was going to die was back around 1982 or 1983. I was either a freshman or a sophomore in college, I don't recall which now. We'd all piled into Pete's parents' Grand Marquis so he could tow his NACRA 5.2 racing catamaran down to Lake Buchanan, behind Buchanan Dam near Burnet, TX. It was a day of sailing and stupidity in the fashion of students everywhere with a little time and a friend with a boat.

I wasn't a small man even then. Wearing the harness that allowed me to dangle from the mast stay and fly when the cat went up on one hull required me to take off my life jacket. So instead of a floatation device, I had about ten pounds of fabric and metal wrapped around my upper body as we skimmed across the deep water not far behind the dam, at least a good quarter mile from shore.

A swift blackline squall popped over the looming height of the dam. We had not seen it coming, not me, not Pete, not Steve-that-we-called-Wally, none of us on the boat. The wind knocked the cat flat over. I spun at the end of the line straight up in the air like a plumb bob being swung on a line, avoided decapitating myself on the forestay of the mast by dumb luck (though it did take a little chunk out of my toe), and dumped into the water where my glasses fell off.

In a reflex drilled into me by an entire childhood of wearing corrective lenses, I let go of the safety line to grab at them.

At the same time, the cat took off on its sail functioning as a hull, and the trampoline of the deck functioning as a sail, propelled by the sudden, violent energy of the storm. Steve dove in after me, trying to help, also not wearing a life jacket. Within seconds, he and I were alone in three-foot chop and violent rain, with lightning striking the water around us. We were too far from shore for me to swim comfortably even in good conditions (I literally don't float, even in a swimming pool, so any time spent in deep water is very laborious for me), let alone in heavy weather with the harness still on my body.

That was pretty much it. I shouted at Steve for putting himself in the drink with me. He shouted at me for letting go of the safety line. My arms tingled with the electricity hitting the water. It was an even bet whether we would both drown or be electrocuted first.

The only reason I survived that day was that two people out in a motorboat had seen us go over. They were quartering the lake in the teeth of the storm, looking for me and Steve. Within about three minutes, we were fished out by friendly hands. In another ten minutes, the storm had passed and we had caught up with Pete and the catamaran. It was all sun and fun and oh my God after that, with profuse thanks all around.

But for those three minutes or so, I didn't think I was going to die, I knew I was going to die. I knew with visceral certainty that my life was over.

And it wasn't my life that flashed before my eyes. It wasn't all the things I'd done at that age. It was all the things I had not yet done.

For me, this is still true. The tragedy of death is not the loss of what has already passed, it is the loss of what is yet to come.

Tags: cancer, health, personal
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