Short Stories - non fiction, Travel Adventures

SAVING BERNICE

Back in 1998, we rented a cabin on Golden Lake near Eganville, Ontario. My Mom had some relatives who stayed up there for a couple of weeks each year. I didn’t know any of them very well, and some I’d never met before, but it was the chance to get away and spend some time with my folks, so Bruce and I packed up James and off we went.

The lake was very shallow, and it had a lot of clam shells on the bottom which hurt to walk on, so water shoes were essential. Because the lake was so shallow, the water was also quite warm. The weather was extremely hot that week, I’d say the humidex was up into the 40’s. So the lake was well appreciated by everyone, clams and all.

James was only 4 years old at the time, and being the nervous mother that I was (and still am), I didn’t let him out of my sight. The water was very attractive to a 4 year old, and I didn’t want any tragedies. However, it was not James that ended up in trouble.

My mother had an elderly cousin Bernice, she was a retired school teacher. She never married, and never had children, but she was a very intelligent woman, and everybody loved her. Bernice was 84 years old, and was about to celebrate her birthday. There were rumors that Bernice liked to drink, perhaps a bit too much, which may explain what happened next.

As I mentioned earlier, the weather was extremely hot, so Bernice decided to take a dip in the lake. My Dad was watching her from our cabin’s balcony. I happened to walk by and he said to me “please keep an eye on Bernice, she doesn’t look right”. I looked at the lake and saw Bernice moving rather erratically in the water, her arms were flailing about, and she was jumping up and down. It was bizarre behavior for an elderly woman, to say the least. “Does Bernice know how to swim?” I asked my Dad. “No, I don’t think so…” he replied. “Oh oh” I thought, this was less than good.

I did my best “Baywatch” impersonation and flew down to the shore. In true Baywatch fashion, I grab a water noodle as a flotation device. I ran into the water, tripped and fell, cut my knee on the clam shells, got up and kept going. Bernice was barely detectable in the water, at this point she was unconscious, and floating face down. The waves were rolling over her body, and she blended in so well with her grey hair and her black bathing suit that it was hard to see her. When I got to her, I immediately flipped her over and put the water noodle under her neck. Bernice’s lips were blue. Her eyes were open, but she was unconscious. I was pretty sure that she was dead.

I raced to shore shouting instructions to the crowd who had slowly started to gather “call 911”….”have someone stand by the road and wait for the ambulance”….a woman met me closer to the shore “I am a nurse she said” ….”check her pulse” I shouted. I am not kidding, it was very dramatic.

Bernice did have a pulse, and as we pulled her onto the sandy shore we could hear her breathing in a very shallow and raspy manner. We laid her on her side, and put a blanket over her. I wasn’t sure if a blanket was the right thing to do, but it seemed like it probably was, so that’s what we did.

During the craziness of the moment I was very mindful of my four year old son James. I remember a friend telling me a story about how her mother, who was a lifeguard, rescued a woman who was drowning. During all of the turmoil, she lost sight of her three year old son. Tragically he drown during the commotion. This memory came back to me vividly right then and there “don’t let James out of your sight” I said to Bruce.

The ambulance arrived in a short time, and transported Bernice to the hospital. The strange thing was, after the big rescue, everyone went about their business as if nothing had happened. Nobody seemed to want to talk about it. On the contrary, it was as if her family wanted to pretend it never happened. I found this quite odd.

A day or two later she returned to the cottage, still alive and kicking. Seemingly no worse for the ware. She said that the waves had knocked her over, and she couldn’t stand up, so she just kept pushing herself up to get some air. Eventually she was too tired and didn’t have the energy to continue, so she gave up. She had literally decided to give up the fight for life.

It took me weeks to get over the rescue. I actually had to sleep with the light on because every time I closed my eyes I relived the horror of finding Bernice in a near drowned state. I suppose it was a form of post-traumatic stress.

Looking back it seems very surreal that this actually even happened. After the events of that day, I always felt a strange connection with her, whether she realized it or not. Bernice lived for about another 8 years or so after the near drowning, I suppose I bought her some time.

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