It was cause for celebration. July 1st. In this country we celebrate a national holiday and the enactment of the British North American Act. We wear red and white and, for one day, we scream our love for this country and our normally reserved personas step aside. One day of outward patriotism. A day of unity and celebration.
One particular Canada Day resonates within me like no other. It plagues me even to this day. It was over fifteen years ago but I remember it. How could I forget? It should have been the best summer of my life. Instead, it’s my summer of discontent. All because one day spiralled out of control and nearly ended with the loss of my life. It should have ended that way.
I used to spend my summers between University sessions with trips up north to cottage country working at a country club teaching tennis. I spent three morning hours on the hot hard courts teaching children and three afternoon hours teaching adults. I had two hours everyday between those classes to eat lunch and take time for myself. A short nap on the dock, walk around the property that hugged the lake or a private lesson to make some extra money.
My routine was mine. I owned it. I could have strolled blindfolded through those summer hours, with only my memories to guide me. Except there was this sailing instructor that didn’t make friends easy. He was a bit shy, lacked confidence and stumbled on his tongue whenever he talked. He wasn’t shunned, but he had to look hard for something to do on his lunch break; and someone to do it with.
For the first couple of weeks he used to ask the staff if we wanted to go sailing with him for an hour. Everybody declined. I declined. But as the days turned into weeks that voice of his took on a somewhat sad and forgotten turn. He knew the answers before he asked. It was no, no thanks. It was never going to happen. Ever. But it did.
One day we finished up lunch early and he came walking my way. I knew that walk. Before he opened his mouth I stopped him in his tracks, “Sure Dan. I’ll go out with you today.” His face lit up. He looked like a little kid does on Christmas day. Seven words that should have changed his summer. Seven words that almost ended mine.
The water turned rough that day. We walked around the side of the property to the docks that housed the sailboats used for teaching. Small sailboats for one and two people. I watched as the blue sky was flooded dark grey and stood there as the still lake turned rough with small waves crashing into the dock. I saw the birth of strong winds and weather fury as I stood there.
I’ve always been a city boy. I grew up in a big city and didn’t see my first cottage until those University days. I was naive and numb to the different way of life. I think I avoided Dan’s first few offers because I was afraid of the unknown and protective of my physical sanity. So when the weather changed in front of my eyes and the winds picked up, I should have seen it coming.
He pulled the boat up close beside me. I sat down on a surface that rocked back and forth and welcomed me to life on the water. He undid the rope, pushed off the dock with his feet and jumped in. I held on to the sides so hard my knuckles turned hot white. We were on our way. We were quickly miles from shore when the wind reminded us who controlled things on the open water. Certainly not me.
Dan looked like he knew what he was doing. I wouldn’t know but he seemed confident and poised. The first cause for concern was a few minutes away from safety and security when the boat turtled. It flipped. I was thrown into the cold, shaky water and held on to the edge with my nails as he climbed on the back of the boat and flipped it back upright. I should have said something then and there. I didn’t.
We spent the next five or ten minutes cycling between upright and flipped over. The constant stress and struggle between freedom and survival destroyed my energy. I was fatigued. But I held on tight, or as tight as possible at the time. All I could think about at that moment was how I wished I was back at the cottage dock relaxing and preparing for the afternoon’s lessons. I wasn’t though. But I wished it with all my might.
There are times in your life when you know everything isn’t alright. You know it isn’t going to be alright. You’re powerless and frightened and uncomfortable. And yet you’re as alive as you’ve ever been. That’s what I was going through. Living through. Barely living.
I turned to Dan when we flipped it back side right. “Hey! Get me the fuck out of here.” I wasn’t mad. I was scared. I wasn’t afraid to show fear because I know it was written on my face. Before his eyes could reassure me we flipped again.
These next few minutes were the scariest of my life. I didn’t see all my days flash before my eyes, like some people say. Instead, I saw the movie reel of my life spinning out of control on the ground as the film spread out before me. I saw everyone that was important. I saw everything. It spun out of control before my glossed over eyes.
I knew something was different when we flipped this last time. My head ended up under the boat but in the air pocket where we were ideally should have been sitting. The waves were so rough at this point that my gasp for air was met with handfuls of water. At that moment I dug in and swam out. I thought I swam a mile but I ended up under the sail and pulled myself back to the pocket with the rope flirting near my feet. I was confused but immediately gained enough strength to swim in the opposite direction. Yet again I ended up under the sail.
I’ve heard the word panic a few times in my lifetime. At that very moment in time I lived the word. I took a deep breath from the pocket of life I clung to and swam with all my might underwater. The winds must have shifted above ground because for the third time I came up for air with the sail stopping me in my tracks. One last time I made my way back to the pocket. One last time I prayed to God.
I tried to gain my senses. I tried to stay calm. I was failing miserably. My feet were kicking to stay afloat and within thirty seconds I felt the rope that flirted with my feet earlier take hold around my shins. A few seconds later the other half of the rope tied itself around my neck. I began the goodbyes in my mind. It wasn’t meant to be.
I think back often to this exact moment and what might have been. My mom’s face appeared before me. Every important person did. I knew my time was done. My time should have been done. I took the longest breaths of my life and calmed myself down as my heart rate surely flirted with failure. And I dug in.
My hands reached for the rope around my neck and started unwinding it. I didn’t know if I was going in the right direction or not, but luckily I was. As soon as I felt that rope come loose I kicked my feet. God helped me at that moment. The rope swam free. And at that very moment I felt two hands grab my ankles and pull me out with the fury of a thousand men. Fast. Furious.
The timing was perfect. Any sooner and my fate would have been sealed. Any later and I would have lost the air keeping me keeping. I sat atop the overturned boat with my sweater soaked tight to my skin and I cried. I sat there so happy at my luck that I cried because it proved to me that I was alive.
A few seconds later a motor boat approached us. He saw the entire thing unfold but was shocked to see me. He thought there was only one man struggling that day. He didn’t expect to see a second person appear. But I did. He looked at me and said I looked whiter than a ghost. Those exact words. I believed him.
He helped me onto his boat and he drove me back to safety.
I went to my room as soon as I entered the clubhouse, walking past the rest of the staff who didn’t see a thing. None the wiser. I went to my room and cried and sobbed and laughed. The shock was gone and happiness slowly took over. I called my parents. I called anybody that I knew. And once I calmed down and felt safe again, I went downstairs.
I motioned to my friends as I entered the kitchen to pull out the ground lamb from the fridge and pull out the bubbly. It was time to celebrate life. Mine. I made these lamb burgers with this recipe and drank glasses of champagne with my friends. I looked at and called Dan over to thank him. No matter what happened, he did pull me out.I told him everything was going to be okay. It was, because I was.
- 1 lb. ground lamb
- 1 large egg
- 1 tbsp. water
- 1/4 fresh bread crumbs
- 1 garlic minced
- 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp. rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 small red onion, grated
- 1 tsp. cumin
- sea salt & cracked pepper
- 4 Ciabatta buns
- In a medium bowl, beat the egg and water. Add in the onion, bread crumbs, rosemary, mustard, salt and pepper, garlic and cumin. Mix in the ground lamb. Shape four 1/2 inch thick patties.
- Place on a greased grill over medium-high heat and close lid. Cook, turning once, until no longer pink inside, about 10 minutes. Remove and serve.
- Serves 4.