Monday, May 15, 2006

I Thought She Might Be Dead

This weekend, while visiting the Bride's grandmother in Waco, Texas, I had one of the most chilling experiences of my life. Here goes:


"Nice catch, man!"

"Thanks bud," I said, turning around to see who had just yelled at me and finding two young kids scrambling down a sloped embankment towards the western shore of the Brazos River, where I had just a caught a largemouth bass while wading and fly-fishing in the stretch of river just below the dam that creates Lake Whitney.

I didn't pay much attention to the kids, instead moving from a gravel bar where I was fishing out into some deeper water to look for bigger fish, towards the opposite shore from the kids.

There was an old rope swing hanging down from an ancient tree near the kids, who apparently lived up the hill in one of several trailers and tiny homes that were old as dirt. As I rolled my casts back and forth across a submerged weed bed a few minutes later, I saw the two kids pull the rope from its resting place against the tree and begin playing around with it on the heavily banked shore about 20 feet up from the river's edge, about 50-80 yards from me.

I concentrated on getting my fly-line looped low and straight and didn't really notice the kids much until I heard the younger boy, probably six years old or so, calling out "Sissy! Sissy!"

With my back to the kids, I turned around to see the girl, probably 8 or 9, dangling from the end of the rope swing with her brother standing next to her, continuing to call out to her.

I froze for a second. Something didn't look right. The girl's arms were flush tight against her side, holding onto nothing, and her feet were off the ground.

The girl had stuck her head up through the loop at the end of the rope, and had accidently swung far enough out on the slanted bank for her feet to come off the ground.

After freezing for what seemed like an eternity in my mind as I took in the scene, I remember muttering to myself "Holy shit, she's hanging to death." I threw my rod towards the gravel bank and started high-stepping through the water as I tried to take my tackle sling up over my head and off of my shoulder. I was running as fast as I could, watching the girl dangle with her toes starting to curl up and her hands balled into fists. I got my tackle belt over my head, dropping it somewhere in the river, still trying to run in three feet of water, which feels like running in mud.

The little boy was confused, and didn't seem to understand what was happening to his sister; why she wouldn't answer him.

"Pull her back!" I screamed to the boy as I reached the halfway point. "Pull her back so her feet can touch the ground!"

I remember looking down as I crossed a gravel bar to watch where I was stepping. When I looked back up, the boy had tugged on his sister just enough to get her pointed toes to reach the ground. The moment her feet reached the ground, everything must have lined up just right and the loop just slipped right over her head.

With her arms clinched right to her side, she was stiff as a toothpick. When the loop slipped off, she fell to the ground like a steel building just tipping over on its side and crashing to the ground. She hit the ground square on her side and her head, with her arms unmoving from her side, completely unconscious. She even started to roll down the hill a little bit.

By this point, I had reached the edge of the river and was just making it up the last 20 feet to where they were on the bank. Just as I got there, I yelled for the little boy to run and get help; get his parents if they were close.

I went down to my knees right next to the girl and picked her head up in my right arm, not knowing what I was going to do to try and wake her up, if anything. Just as I did, she came to and tried to sit up. I sat her up against my leg and she started coughing and sputtering and crying. She reached up for her neck, drooling all over the ground between us..

She was already sitting up, holding her head up by herself so I asked if she lived at the top of the hill and if her parents were there. She said "yes," so I scooped her limp little body up and started carrying her up the hand-made railroad tie steps to the top of the hill and the houses.

I'll always remember the way her little fingers were digging into the back of my neck as I tried to go as fast as possible up the steps. I caught up to her brother nearby and asked which house was theirs. He pointed at a yellow trailer in the middle and I started walking that way. I saw three adults over to my right, and as I moved towards the house, they started casually walking towards me.

I asked the girl if the lady was her mother, and she said "yes" so I started walking towards them. The three folks never ran, just walking casually towards me. I handed the girl to the lady and started to tell her what happened. She didn't even take her from my arms, she just kind of let me set her down on her feet in front of her.

"She got her neck stuck in the loop of the rope swing," I said.

The mom's first words were not:
"Oh my god, what happened to my daughter?" "Are you o.k., baby?" "Thank you!" or "Who are you and why are you carrying my daughter up here?"

Mom's first words after her daughter nearly died were: "What were you doing sticking your neck in the swing?"

I kind of stood there awkwardly for a second as mom barely acknowledged my presence. Not knowing what else to do and seeing that they weren't interested in hearing exactly what happened, I started to walk back to the river. Her daughter was fine, and she seemed to be uninterested in the how or why of what happened. I saw the mom looking at the bruises stretched around the girl's neck as I headed back to the river, my fishing done for the day.


The two things that alarmed me most about this story was the lackadaisacal way that the parents/family treated what could have easily been the death of their daughter. I don't think they'll ever know how serious it was unless she tells them. And that girl will probably have nightmares about that day for years to come; something that her parents will never understand because they're ignorant of what happened. That kind of stuff sticks with you.

I remember getting a cross that I used to wear around my neck stuck on the bottom rung of a ladder in a swimming pool in 1990 or 1991. I was blowing out air under the steps or something equally silly. When I tried to come back up, my necklace hung on the step, and it took me a panicked 10 seconds to get it unhooked, freaking me out bad enough that I didn't get in the pool the rest of the week.

I can't imagine that this girl won't think about this for years to come. Maybe she blacked out quickly and won't remember any of it. But I doubt it. I know that the image of her feet curling up, toes pointing down, and tense arms squeezed hard against her side with fists balling up will stay with me for a long time. As will the sight of her eyes rolled back in her head as she dangled back and forth at the end of a rope.

The other thing that bothered me, is how long I froze before I did anything. It was almost like slow motion. I knew exactly what was happening long before I ever sprang into action, even looking around for some sort of confirmation that I should do something. I feel like I watched her hang for 10 second before I did anything. Maybe that's accurate, maybe it's not, I'll never know.

But I think I'll always feel that when the crucial moment came for me to do something in a tight spot to help someone in an emergency, I froze.

Thankfully, she was o.k. Believe me, I've spent plenty of time the last few days thinking about what might have happened if I didn't notice it until a minute later and still froze.

I can't imagine what it's like to bear the burden of knowing I could have done something to help and wasn't able to do it in time as someone lost their life.

Just like I can't imagine someone handing me my son or daughter who escaped death and not falling to the ground as I grasped them in my arms and wept over the fact that they were still alive.

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