The second time my head went underwater, I thought, “Shoot, this is such an embarrassing way to die.”
Heights’ headlines flashed through my mind: “Archer Parquette, Beloved Award-Winning Columnist, Drowns in Shallow Wisconsin River.” Subheadline: “Maybe if he wasn’t so short, stupid, and sucky, he would still be alive.”
Only a few seconds ago, I had been calmly enjoying a vacation up north, relishing the perfect stillness, peace, and natural enlightenment of a canoe ride through the deep woods.
It was late July, and the past month had been a repeating cycle of nothing. I woke up, went to my internship, worked at my internship, possibly ate lunch, left my internship, went home, ate dinner, watched time pass, and slept. July was over, but it had never really started, had it? Thirty-one days, and not a single one stuck out as memorable.
“Archer, would you stop staring at the sky with that creepy look and paddle the damn canoe?”
A member of the mysterious and menacing tribe known as my extended family sat in the front of the canoe, trying to keep us on track as we hit some shallow rapids.
In retrospect, this might have been the time to slow down and worry about navigation. Instead, I believed it was the time to paddle boldly onward, straight through the jagged rocks sticking up from the river bed.
“I am Thoreau,” I thought. “I am Kerouac. I am that guy from Into the Wild. Literature and rugged survival run in my veins. Behold my calloused genius and worship.”
“YOU’RE SENDING US STRAIGHT AT THE BRIDGE, YOU IDIOT,” my relative screamed.
Ah yes, I realized slightly too late, this canoe is flying directly for a large cement pillar supporting the bridge overhead. Perhaps I can stop it by sticking my paddle in the water. Nope, that appears to have just angled the canoe closer to the pillar. And lookie here, the shallow rapids seem to have rapidly deepened.
Did I mention I can’t swim? Fantastic.
My relative stuck out her oar to buffer the blow. As you probably guessed from the first sentence of the column, it didn’t work. We smacked into the pillar like these new freshmen on campus are about to smack into the reality of their lost youths—hard, fast, and with terrifying inevitability.
We began to tip, and things got serious. There were no jokes in my head at that moment. I think I may have said “We’re going,” as the canoe flipped, but beyond that I was completely silent. My mind was just a strangled prayer, a moment of unbelievable panic, and then adrenaline.
My relative fell in head-first, while I tried to hold on to the edge of the canoe. I hit the water, went under, and couldn’t see anything. Part of me expected my feet to hit the bottom. It was supposed to be a shallow river, but I guess not shallow enough for a gremlin such as me.
Flailing, my hand landed on my floating oar. My head went above water just long enough to remind me of the beautiful sunshine that I would never see again, and then I was back under. Evidently, oars are not effective flotation devices.
While under, my mind delved into a world of dumb metaphors and fear.
Death—it seems like we’ve been circling each other for some time now, like middle schoolers at the big dance. Finally you decided to stop making eyes at me from across the room and just came over and asked me to take your hand. Personally I would have preferred a slow song, possibly ‘Slipping Away Peacefully Surrounded by Loved Ones,’ but you seem to be going for that punk-rock anthem ‘Slowly Drowning in a Dirty Backwoods River.’ I see. Well, you leave me very little choice, Death. I suppose it’s time to dance.
It’s been a good run, I thought, as the water held me down.
Wait a second. It hasn’t been a good run. The run sucked. My last month was just a string of empty days and pointless nights. I barely existed, much less lived. Minute after minute of precious life flushed down the toilet, and now I’m going to die like a freakin’ chump. Screw that.
And so I told Death I had to go to the bathroom and snuck out the back door of the gymnasium.
One of my hands hit the side of the canoe. In my best imitation of ‘swimming,’ I tried to jump/grab, and somehow hooked one arm over the bottom. Pulling myself up, I looked left and saw my relative bobbing on the other end of the canoe and realized that we had not escaped the rapids by any means. Carried by the current, we were positively gunning it through the water, and I could barely hold on.
Maybe the slightest effort in those four years of grade-school swimming classes, and I might not be in this helpless situation. But then the universe re-affirmed 5-year-old Archer’s decision that swimming is stupid. The current bore left around the bend, and drove the canoe, along with the two of us hanging on, right up against the river’s edge, where the water was shallow enough for some emergency maneuvers.
Panting, hair in my face, looking like an unbelievable ass in my soaking wet clothes, I crawled onto my feet and stood next to the overturned canoe.
I looked up at the sky in a dramatic and poignant gesture, the taste of filthy river water still in my mouth. For only a few seconds, I had really—more so than ever before in my sheltered life—expected to die, and I hadn’t.
And that made me realize one thing, as I rounded the bend into my senior year at Boston College, toward my graduation and the terrifying vast wasteland of unfulfilling jobs, one-room apartments, and day-old takeout that looms on the horizon. Those pointless worries don’t matter. What matters is tomorrow and the day after and the month after. The rest of summer at home matters, time with family matters. Coming back to Boston, living in a Mod, eating in Lower, studying in Bapst, doing the stupidest, simplest, most enjoyable things matter, if they add up to something. If in the end, they turn a particular month into something real and memorable, not just another lost July, then they matter.
I guess it took falling out of a canoe to get me to realize that. It’s a story that seemed worth telling, one that could be told plenty of different ways—stories of unexpected diagnoses, of screeching tires and burning metal, of burst blood vessels. Those stories lack the light touch and lovable goofiness of a dumb kid who can’t swim flipping a canoe, but they all come down to the same thing—how quickly everything can change.
What am I going to do now that I understand that a fraction better? Still write dumb columns, apparently. It’s not like a magically reborn me is going to run around seizing the day and living the fulfilled life. But I’m not going to sleep until noon, I’m not going to turn down invitations because the antisocial part of me feels like watching David Lynch movies alone, and I’m not going to let the entire year float by until one day I wake up swallowing river water, caught up in a bad current, realizing that it was all a waste of time.
I’d suggest you don’t either.
Featured Image by Archer Parquette / Heights Editor