Death Is Scary — Especially When It’s Your Own

istock.com/penkowz (Licensed)

The funny thing about death is you’re never prepared when the Grim Reaper comes calling. Whether a person is ill or someone dies suddenly in a freak accident, the impact on us is the same. We are shocked. We are in disbelief, and we grieve. The most shocking death of all then would have to be our own, or the sudden realization death is upon us.

I have no idea anymore when this story took place. All I can tell you is I lived in Southern California from 1998–2001 and at some point during that time my roommate, some friends, and a few work colleagues decided we should all do a weekend-long whitewater rafting trip on the South Fork American River about 46 miles northeast of Sacramento. The experience would be a new one for all of us and the river was considered one of the most popular whitewater rafting runs in the state.

We were all living in the Los Angeles area at the time and the drive up to the camp where our rafting trip would begin was about seven hours, so we decided to take a party bus departing from Redondo Beach. If you’ve never been on a party bus, the concept is exactly what you’re thinking. We got on the bus, we drank almost non-stop for seven hours and upon arriving at camp somewhere around midnight, we discovered our horrific mistake. We were all drunk and still had to unload the bus and build our tents.

As we drunkenly stumbled around the camp site, a fairly easy-to-assemble pup tent turned into an architectural build of mammoth proportions. We might as well have been building the pyramids of Egypt. Inserting rod A into rod B was just not physically possible in our inebriated form. We eventually worked together to get the tents built so we could sleep off the alcohol and prepare for our first rafting adventure in the morning.

A few hours later, we awoke for breakfast which I’m sure was a typical campsite morning meal of coffee and juice, as well as pancakes and bacon, or something along those lines. We then divided up into smaller groups to accommodate the size of the rafts. Our guide for the weekend would be Jake. Now, I have no idea if Jake was his name. If I can’t recall the year this happened, there is no way in hell I am recalling our guide’s name. But he looked like a Jake to me. He was a white guy, about six feet tall and mix between muscular and stocky. He had been a guide on the river for years and so his experience gave us some comfort. If none of us knew what we were doing (and we didn’t), at least Jake would. Or so we hoped.

In the first hours of our rafting trip we learned how to position our bodies, when to brace, when we could relax and more importantly, how to keep from falling off the raft. Inevitably, Jake said, at least one of us would be falling off the raft that day. How right he was. It was Jake. Standing in the raft during a calm moment, he lost his balance and into the water he went. We got a good laugh from Jake’s mishap that night sitting around the campfire sharing tales of our first full day on the river. From the heart-racing moments of entering a whirling rapid to the exultation of coming out the other side, soaked head to toe, but filled with excitement knowing we had survived one more beast, and knowing others lay ahead.

Our second day on the water was a half-day. We would raft until around lunch-time and then pack up and head home. As we moved toward the last rapid, Jake took a moment to enlighten us about its history. The rapid was called Troublemaker and for good reason. A Class III+ rapid, Troublemaker was considered by many to be the most difficult rapid on the South Fork. Jake reminded us, almost ominously, “This is not where you want to fall out of the boat.”

As we eased toward Troublemaker, we were relaxed and taking in the scenery. We had no reason to brace for the rapid because we were still a short distance away. Our relaxed mood is probably the reason no one noticed a rock jetting just above the surface of the water and our raft on a collision course with it. As the two met, the touch was just enough to jostle me and a female passenger. We lost balance and tipped backward into the river almost instantly.

My body plunged into the chilly waters, but my lifejacket helped bring me back to the surface. The danger I was in was clear as the river current raced around me. Troublemaker pulled the raft into its grip and dragged me not far behind. Our guide and my fellow rafters looked on in fear, screaming as if they their voices could help me, but the bulking raft and my meager frame were entering the rapid at the same time and everyone was helpless to stop it.

I took one last gasp of air as the rage of the water pulled me under. The only way to describe the chaos under the surface is I felt as though I had been pulled into a washing machine. My body tossed back and forth like a rag doll, I felt my back collide with rocks beneath the surface again and again. The realization struck me. I was in severe danger and about to drown.

The fight or flight response of an animal in danger is real. Whether that animal is human or otherwise, makes no difference. I kept telling myself, don’t breathe! I also remember having one other thought: You are not going to die this way!

I could see bright light above my head and the shadow of the raft. Somehow I pushed myself off the river bottom or perhaps even a rock. I breached the surface, gasped for air and gripped the rope handle on the side of the raft all at the same time. I locked eyes with Jake, our guide. The terror on his face was real as he screamed, “Oh fuck! Oh, fuck! Oh, fuck!” He grabbed tightly on my life jacket but the current of the river had pushed my body that was below the surface under the raft making his solo efforts to pull me in too difficult. Two other men on the raft jumped to his aid, grabbed hold of me and with a powerful jerk yanked me into raft. I coughed and gasped, my lungs burned as fresh air entered. At some point, I realized my hat was gone and my shoes too. I assumed they were in the water. They didn’t matter. In that moment I was thankful I was in the boat, and no longer under it.

My belongings as well as my fellow female passenger who fell into the water had all drifted easily over to the river bank. It seems Troublemaker only had its sights set on me that day.

I recall Jake patting me on the back and saying, “Wow! That was really scary.” No shit! Try living it?

On the bus ride back home to Los Angeles, I sat quietly staring out the window. I replayed the day’s events over and over again in my mind. My roommate and colleague, Sherri, who was on the trip, sat down beside me and asked how I was doing. I, of course, replied, “I’m fine.” I wasn’t. How could I be? I had just gone through the most terrifying moment of my life.

Sherri said, “I was really scared for you.”

“I was scared for me too,” I replied.

She added, “I couldn’t imagine having to go back to work and tell everyone you died on this trip.” I smiled. I’m not sure why. Nothing about her statement was funny. Maybe I wanted Sherri to feel better about the experience which was hers too. Yes, I nearly died that day, but she witnessed me nearly dying.

While some of the details are now vague for me, others remain as crystal clear as the waters that day. I can still see myself falling in the river, tossed violently under its surface, trying to hold my last breath, fighting for life, telling God, the Universe, or whomever would listen this was not the day I was going to die. The shock of it all stays with me some twenty years later. The disbelief of how easily I could have died that day but didn’t. The grief I sometimes feel knowing the blow my family would have felt at learning the news of my sudden and untimely demise.

Death had certainly knocked at my door that day. I’m so very grateful I did not answer its call.

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Hank Mendheim

Hank Mendheim is a former TV producer and travel enthusiast who's meditating daily and working through a long overdue spiritual kick in the butt!