My parents and sister and I had been stranded in our house for 9 days with the power out since some big trees had fallen down and blocked the road. My older sister, Mara, and I were starting to get restless when dad told us to go put on our jackets and boots and come with him. Happy for a change, we followed him out into the chilly December afternoon. My sister and I stood outside of the garage trying to stay warm while dad crashed around inside. I waited patiently for Mara to zip up her blue jacket and put her gloves on before she turned to help me with mine. Finally, dad emerged with a pumped up raft and a rope slung over his shoulder. I had no idea what was on his mind this time, but I was excited.
There wasn’t any snow, but the ground had crunched beneath our feet as we struggled along behind dad, trying to balance the heavy raft over our tiny shoulders. Mara kept trying to show me how to carry it right so that it would not be so awkward, but I wasn’t as good at it, and only frustrated her. It took three steps to span each of my father’s ahead of us. It felt like a long time before we made it to the new lake in the backyard.
“Come on! I want to paddle out to that island,” Mara got comfortable by the oars and impatiently glared as I shook the boat and indecisively rolled over the bulging rim. I looked across to the pile of rocks holding up a few dead branches. The pebbles looked like they were just barely keeping afloat over the water. Rocks don’t float, I thought to myself.
“You promise again that you won’t let go of the rope, dad?” I squeaked out. Just in case, I took off a mitten and held the rope where it was tied to the handle until I dug fingernail marks into the palm of my hand. Dad unwound the rope, and walked us out until the boat was no longer on land. I wasn’t even ready yet when he shoved us off. “Don’t let go of the rope!” I reminded him.
Dad talked Mara through handling the oars, making slow and careful circular patterns. I wasn’t sure if she was really following his directions, or just trying to splash me. Somehow we made it to the island, yet I had securely fixed myself to the bottom of the boat, and there was no childish teasing or coaxing that was going to convince me to step off here. Besides, someone had to watch the boat while she explored. My sister had drug the boat up the shore of the island, right across the rocks, to get out. Unless I quickly moved it back onto the water I knew the raft was going to pop.
I used the oar Mara had left in the boat to gently slide the raft off of the island. Perfect. I would just sit here and wait for her to finish exploring. The peace of the calm lake was shattered by her desperate cry, “Emily come back! I need to pee!”
Come back? I was waiting for her right by the island. Slithering over to the side of the boat, I poked my head up to tell her to just get in with the other oar and paddle us back. Rather than finding myself face to face with her, we were separated by an increasing distance of water.
Good thing dad brought the rope, I thought. I flopped over to check that the rope was still tied. Good. “Pull me back to Mara, dad.” Once he got me back to the island, Mara could run inside to the bathroom, and then she could paddle us out to the forest on the other side of the lake that I wanted to see. I watched my last breath freeze and waited for the boat to start moving.
“Pick up the oar and row to her,” I heard my dad say. He had to be joking. My dad got me into the crazy predicament, and he was going to get me out of it.
Straining to peer out over the rubber rim, I could just make out Mara on the island begging me to come back. I turned and crawled on my hands and knees to see where I was being taken. Not twenty feet away, and closing fast, was a looming mass of sticker bushes with thorns like daggers waiting to fight their way through the boat to me. I froze in panic. If dad let me drift much further, the raft would surely pop like a balloon and I would drown in the icy cold water. “I’m serious, dad, the boat’s going to pop in the sticker bushes!”
“Pick up the oar and row to her,” he repeated. What was he talking about? I couldn’t row. It was slowly becoming a very serious predicament. The sticker bushes were getting awfully close, and they looked hungry. I crawled on my hands and knees across the raft to look him in the eye and show him how serious I was. That’s when the world ended. Right there. Mom was really going to be mad this time.
I was too stunned to move. I just knelt there, mouth gaping, concentrating on the spot where the rope disappeared under the murky water. My father had actually dropped the rope; had just left me to drown. I tried to trace its shadow back to him, but his hands were empty. He had really done it this time.
“Pick up the oar and row to her.” I don’t know how many times he said this in the same patient tone. Dad had this horrible way of taking these life-threatening situations of mine lightly. I craved solid ground under my feet.
Finally, about ten feet from complete doom, I realized I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. Matters were big. I could barely fit my shaking fingers around the handle of the oar. Awkwardly, I lowered the tip into the water and tried to mimic what I’d seen grandpa do in his fishing boat. I was going in circles, five feet from sure death.
“Just keep paddling,” my dad was persisting. Somehow, through my wobbling back and forth, the boat was beginning to inch its way toward the island. Mara did not have the patience for my pace, but I was starting to feel a little like I didn’t have the patience for her teasing. All that I could think was to not drop the oar. It was so big in my small and freezing hands. I wanted so badly to grab the handle of the boat for balance. But, I knew it was important not to drop the oar.
When my sister leapt into the boat next to me and pried the oar from my hands, I was in an excited daze. Even after dad had steadied the boat with his hand and pulled us to safety, I felt no relief from the ordeal. There were knots in my stomach, that not even mom would be able to untie. “Dad, you let go of the rope!” I pouted, but I felt thrilled now that I was safe again.
The whole hike back home I was revived by the feeling of solid ground beneath my rubber boots. By the time we got back, I was bursting to relate the whole story to mom before dad or Mara ruined it for her. “I almost drowned, but I paddled the boat all by myself!” I squealed as I ran into the kitchen. The first part obviously caught her by surprise, but she was so relieved to see me in one piece that she laughed and served us hot tea while our hands and feet thawed.
Years later, relating this story over Christmas dinner to my mother, it was met with a blank stare. She couldn’t remember what on Earth I was talking about. When she finally realized what I was referring to, she laughed, just like I remembered. She said she had been surprised that the raft even fit in that tiny mud puddle, let alone floated off the bottom. My dad had a similar response, claiming that he could have walked out to me across the puddle without even getting wet through his boots. They are obviously exaggerating.