"Do not go gentle into that good night . . . / Rage, rage against the dying of the light"
I will always remember September 30, 2012 as a day of raging.
We awoke that morning with adventure in our hearts and adrenaline in our veins. The day before, Rob and I had arrived at Waterfront Lodge, the gateway to Victoria Falls in Zambia. With three wide open days on our hands—and, presumably, money to spare—our tour group had been ushered into a large on-site amphitheater. There, an impressively produced marketing video teased us with all sorts of once-in-a-lifetime experiences: Frolic with the lions! Climb atop an elephant! Take a bungee plunge from Victoria Falls Bridge! Soar the skies in a microglider!
The choices were seductive, and somewhat overwhelming. Eventually, however—using an unscientific formula of adventure ( + ) duration ( - ) cost ( + ) gut feel—we were close to settling on a choice or two.
Rafting the Zambezi River topped the list.
“I’m a guide,” offered a 50-ish, wiry, weathered and confident blond to my left. He’d obviously overheard our deliberations. “If you have any questions, I can answer them all.”
- How were the conditions? I asked.
- Superb, he said.
- What class? I wondered. (As if I had a clue).
- Class V. Best in the world. Best time to be here.
“And,” he added, “we’re fully insured. Medical evacuation, all of that.”
Sign us up.
The next morning, September 30, we were back in the same amphitheater, watching a safety demonstration straight out of Laurel and Hardy. Designed, I’m sure, to set us at ease, the performance actually created a false sense of security—a feeling that, despite Mother Nature’s power, nothing could possibly go wrong on the river.
- If you fall out of the boat, we’ll throw you this line, said one guide.
- Don’t wrap it around your neck, quipped another.
- Hahaha! chirped we would-be rafters.
Soon enough, we were on the river. Nervous energy snapped through our systems like electricity crackling through a power line. We were ready. We were adventurers. The pre-rafting video proves it:
“Hoo-ah!” we shout, hoisting our oars overhead.
We launched at The Boiling Pot, just around the bend from the cataract. The name alone should have clued me in: This rafting trip would be no Denali River, no interior Bali. In stark contrast to both—where I’d experienced Class II rapids, believing they were hard core—the Zambezi churned and raged. Still, it was exciting. This river was one of, if not the, best rivers for whitewater rafting. Whatever that meant, Rob and I would bring home a real souvenir: The knowledge that we’d done something most people hadn’t.
The first rapid was a thrill. We floated under Victoria Falls Bridge, waving to the bungee jumpers high above, right before shooting through the roil and popping out the other side—just enough water in our
faces, just enough jostling through the torrents—to awaken an exhilarating anticipation for the next.
One short run later, we approached our first bona fide Class V: Morning Glory.
“We can go left, or we can go right,” our guide, Voster, offered. “No flipping that way.”
The six of us in the raft looked sideways at each other.
“Or,” he added, “We can go right down the middle. No guarantees then!”
Our raft chose the middle.
Later, watching the video, the whole thing was over in 30 seconds; yet it felt like a total loss of time, space, and reference. “Get down!” Voster shouted, and our raft slammed into the central entrance to Morning Glory—a significant pothole topping the longest rapid of the river. Before I could take a breath, I was face down in the raging river, ripped from the safety rope and stripped of my oar. I was vaguely aware our raft had capsized—and acutely aware I was alone. As the roaring fury pushed me under, spat me out, and swept me below again, I did exactly what those of us familiar with the water know not to do:
It’s difficult to describe, even now, the horror of those seconds. I didn’t want to die. Unable to escape the violent surge, I was certain I would. And yet I raged and struggled—to swim, to breathe, to scream.
Succeeding at none, my panic intensified. I can’t do this to Rob, I recall thinking. Where is Rob? Where am I? Will they even find me?
I didn’t sleep for two nights. Closing my eyes, I’d replay the experience over and over, trying to make sense of it, breaking into a cold sweat. This close, my psyche whispered. This close.
The post-traumatic realization was, for some reason, even more chilling than the experience itself. I became somewhat obsessed—talking about it to anyone who would listen, showing the video to anyone who would watch.
Rob was patiently encouraging: Talk it out, he’d say. It’s okay.
Then one Saturday morning, near the height of my preoccupation, I happened to log into Facebook.
There was a message from my college roommate. “I can’t believe it,” she began. “Collette died.”
Collette was a casual but ever-present friend at BC, a best buddy to my roommate and a vibrant presence. I’d lost touch with her after graduation, but had reconnected on Facebook a few years ago, catching up on her life: A military husband, whom she adored; a beautiful little girl, whom she adored more. The family moved a lot for work, traveled a lot for pleasure, and smiled a lot out of happiness. Subtle clues pointed to a victorious bout with breast cancer; while keeping her own experience private, she publicly cheered for early detection, research funding, and others facing the same battle.
Collette was 41 when she died. Her daughter was six.
I could say more, could try to analyze the bigger meaning, but that would cheapen the lesson I’m trying to teach myself.
I’m grateful for second chances.