We all have defining moments in our lives. One of my biggest is also a textbook definition of irony.
One summer in my middle school years, I went to the mountains of Tennessee with a bunch of other teens and preteens for a summer camp. It was a religious camp, so there were the usual daily services and praise sessions. I won’t say what church, though, beyond it being Protestant.
The leaders took us one day to a mountain river to let us swim, play, and have fun. There was a small waterfall and some of the boys decided it would be fun to jump from beside the fall into the pool below. Now, I’ve always struggled with a fear of heights. For some reason, I got it into my head that jumping would help me get over my fear. I also wanted to feel as if I belonged more to the group. Perhaps I thought jumping would be like passing through some special rite into the bosom of the group.
I reached the boulder, took a stance from which to jump, and…promptly froze. Water rushing over the slick stone pushed me, millimeter by millimeter, toward the edge and that was the last place I wanted to be. However, I couldn’t make myself move for fear of slipping. One of the boys saw my distress and encouraged me to jump. I begged him to pull me away from the edge and back into the main river. He replied he couldn’t do that.
“You have to jump!” he shouted.
“There’s nothing I can do for you. Jump, Suzanna! It’s fine! You’ll be fine!”
After some more cajoling, I made the leap and he was right. It was fine. And it was exhilarating in the same way that finishing a roller coaster ride is exhilarating. But it didn’t make my fear of heights vanish. There was a much, much larger and far more dangerous waterfall on the other side of the pool. Being near that almost caused me to panic.
At some point, two of the male leaders decided to scout another jumping point. Feeling like I still had something to prove (whether to myself or to the group, I can’t say), I went with them. The leaders’ wives (one of whom was pregnant) and one other girl also went with us. I’ll call the girl M.
The leaders found a new fall from which to jump but beside the fall was a sign that read, “No jumping or swimming!” Below the warning was the number of people that had died on that site. Leader #1 did a closer inspection and found a bunch of beer bottles and cans scattered along the edge of the bank.
“Oh, those people were drunk,” he said dismissively. “That’s why they died. I’ll go first, though.”
Leader #1 jumped and we all whooped and hollered. From the water, he advised that we make a running jump to stay clear of the rocks and safely reach the waterfall’s pool. Leader #2 made a running jump and joined his friend. More whooping, hollering, and clapping.
From the pool below, they encouraged M and me to make the jump. M was hesitant. Perhaps she was still thinking about that sign. Personally, I wouldn’t blame her. If I were there at the age I am now, I’d be of the same mind. Hell, I wouldn’t even have jumped the first time. But I was very young, very stupid, and very much in the need to prove something.
I lined up for the jump. My heart pounded, my fingertips tingled, and a small part of my brain screeched at me: Have you lost your freaking mind?? I ran for the edge.
But, as my foot touched the edge, I realized two things. One, the edge was wet and slick. Two, an acrophobic can only ignore instinct for so long. I hesitated. My foot slipped and down I fell, butt-first, to the rocks below. Fear tore through me. I just knew I was going to die.
A wet rock met my butt and I slid into the water. The cold mountain water embraced me. When my feet touched rocky bottom, I pushed off for the surface while a part of me wondered at the lack of pain while I rejoiced at still being alive. However, Leaders #1 and #2 didn’t share my enthusiasm. In fact, they ignored me. I actually had to tap one on the shoulder to get his attention.
M approached the edge but she seemed more frightened than ever. Leaders #1 and #2 encouraged her to jump. She shook her head and backed away to join the two women. We returned to the shore and..the women ignored me. One in particular, the pregnant one, seemed to be angry. I couldn’t understand why. What had I done wrong?
The leaders eventually started asking if I was all right. I replied that I was fine. I wasn’t even sore. When I made impact, it had felt like I had fallen against a wet slide. Later that evening, I tried to talk to one of the wives but she didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with me. I approached one of the leaders and asked him about it.
I said, “She’s acting like I did that on purpose.”
The leader asked, “Did you?”
And that’s all I remember of that conversation. Finally, I went to M. She was (and still is) a very sweet, kind, and pious girl and we were all right friends. I asked her why were certain people were angry with me or constantly asking if I was all right.
“Suzanna,” she said, “you bounced on the rocks. You scared Ms. [Redacted] so badly, she thought she was going to go into labor.”
I don’t recall bouncing. I recall landing on the far edge of a rock and sliding into the water. Perhaps from her vantage point, it appeared that I bounced from one rock to another. Or maybe I actually did. Either way, I reflected on her description and realized that it must have looked pretty terrifying. I might have gone to the woman and apologized for scaring her by accident. I don’t precisely remember doing that but I was the sort of child who would have.
Looking back, I can’t help but to note two things.
One, at first glance, it looked like a miracle had occurred. Certainly, it was a wonder that I hadn’t hit my head on a rock. It was also a wonder that I wasn’t more injured. But no one that night at the praise session made mention of it. If anything, the incident further cementing my position on the fringe of the group. The second thing I can’t help but to note is the utter irresponsibility of the leaders. It’s not just that they should have heeded the sign but they should have also carted me off to the nearest ER, no matter what I said. You don’t feel all injuries right away, after all, and it’s just plain better to be cautious.
I’ve since had more than one back X-ray and no doctor has found any evidence of trauma to my spine. At least, nothing a few good chiropractic sessions couldn’t cure. And, really, in our age of stooping over computers, we all could use a few sessions with a chiropractor. The point is, I walked away from that incident without so much as a sore behind and it’s anyone’s best guess as to why. I have my own belief but I’ll leave my readers to come to their own conclusions.
It’s a textbook example of irony because you would expect one of two reactions: either an immediate visit to the local hospital or a whole lot of praising the Almighty that I hadn’t been hurt. According to my memory, neither happened. Instead, I had one person angry with me and another all but accusing me of having done it on purpose. Irony, after all, is when the exact opposite of what is expected happens.
It’s also one of my defining moments because it brought me closer to the realization that you can’t spend your life trying to impress others or earn a spot in a group. Eventually, you will lose yourself and lose the life you could have lived.
I don’t know why I’m telling this story. I usually avoid doing so because I don’t want to embarrass anyone or cast accusations. I don’t want to make the leadership of a certain faith community look bad or anything like that. I suppose I wanted to write about it because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I became who I am now. And I can’t help but to think that the person who emerged from that cold mountain river was not the same person who had jumped in.