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River Plunge

Preface & Reader Response

As if they happened yesterday, and in very slow motion, the images of the next few seconds burned deeply into my memory.




by Jerry Murley

It is hard to say whether close family relationships are a blessing or an affliction. This quandary is doubly true when applied to one's long-lasting ties of interdependence to senior members of the clan. When older family members do much and figure often in one's regular activities, a reliance develops that strikes deeper when it falters – and crushes when it fails.

In our eyes, my dad could do everything and do little wrong. A former athlete, he could finesse every situation, physical and social. I just never expect him to stumble. But of course he, like the rest of us, does at times. I guess this is why the events of 13 years ago, when he was about 67 years old, are still vividly disturbing to me.

* * *

When I started chemotherapy in late October of 1996 to combat my second bout of cancer in 26 years, my regimen included a surprise. Between treatments every three weeks, I took Prednisone. Before taking it, I had never heard of the drug. Prednisone is a steroid, which on its own reputedly cured small children of leukemia. It is a beneficial and interesting drug, but it is also dangerous for some of the same reasons. Instead of feeling down and lethargic after my first treatment, I was supercharged by the following weekend. Prednisone stimulated me to undertake projects that I had long avoided.

While waging my personal battle with cancer, I became concerned that the things around my house and property, the parts that I had not maintained completely, would be left in disrepair for my wife and son if I became further debilitated. I was particularly agitated about the state of the 14-foot 2" by 8" oak planks that compose the driving surface of my bridge. And in a related vein, I wanted to do something about the poor condition of my rock driveway and wanted to improve a swampy wasteland next to my garage that I aimed to convert into a parking area.

On the first weekend after I started Prednisone, I commenced addressing my vehicular-related problems by giving priority to a primary bottleneck, one that was blocking a solution to them all. On a rainy Saturday, to the astonishment and consternation of my extended family, who had come to the house to visit after hearing of my second onset of Hodgkin's, I went to the local equipment rental outlet and brought home a Bobcat bulldozer. I spent all day learning how to operate the machine and using it to push mounds of gravel and sand away from the solid-rock bottom of my creek ford. I succeeded in clearing a sizeable pathway. This wasn't madness alone, there was purpose: now I could order truckloads of clean sand and limestone rock to repair my driveway. I also ordered extra, which ever since has been referred to as "Jerry's Prednisone pile." In the 18 months after clearing my ford for the passage of big trucks, I took delivery of 120 tons of rock and 10 tons of sand.

Eventually, in the summer months following my seven months of chemotherapy-driven driveway frenzy, I rented a backhoe, too. In one day I learned to operate it and dug a 150-foot trench for a French drain across my swamp. The two-foot by three-foot deep trench was filled with black perforated drain pipe covered over with rock and then topsoil. Limestone rock was added as topping to create the perfect parking area – one that is high, dry, and out of sight of the house.

But back in the late winter of my Prednisone discontent, having cleared the way for needed layers of new rock on my driveway, I tried to tackle the problem of the rotten boards on my bridge. They were 16 years old. Not all needed to be replaced, but at least every other third one did. My parents visited one weekend and as is their wont, when the weather permits, they tried to help with outside chores. They would often join my family raking leaves, pruning trees, building a rock-lined flower bed. This time my father and I set out on a sunny Sunday morning to clean up tree limbs hanging over the bridge, as a prelude to replacing the planks. I don't remember being on Prednisone that weekend. In fact I definitely was not, as I was decidedly worn out by the chemotherapy and had an abysmally low white blood count. I had been giving myself shots to rebuild my immune system. There were ups and downs in terms of energy level over the span of seven months and this was one of the puny days.

Atop the 14-foot oak planks on my bridge are two safety runners made of 4" by 4" oak; they sit about eight inches from the edge on either side spanning the bridge. In the early life of the bridge, before deterioration, the runners were securely bolted to the underlying planks. Dad was cutting tree branches that hung too far out into the drive path at each corner. I was standing close to him as he stepped over the southwest runner in order to reach farther out to the branches. I distinctly remember cautioning, "Watch out, Dad." I was concerned because my bridge stands about eight feet above a solid-limestone rock bed. Rarely is there more that two or three inches of water running under the bridge. The creek is thirty feet across. So, in all, the area has a canyon-like appearance. Also, I knew that the bridge boards were insubstantial and that there was absolutely no support under the section of board outside the runners.

As if they happened yesterday, and in very slow motion, the images of the next few seconds burned deeply into my memory. There was a crack, maybe two. While still holding a flimsy part of a small tree coming up from beside the creek, my father, without uttering a sound, fell eight feet to a hard flat landing in the shallow water covering the limestone bed of the creek. I can see him now, his right side almost perfectly parallel to the rock, his head perpendicular to the bridge span, his right eye open and blinking slowly. In horror I cried, "Oh, Dad!" Then I hurriedly moved to the side of the creek to better see his face. I was already too exhausted to climb down the steep creek side to my father. He was perfectly still; I feared the worst. All was quiet except for the trickle of water. I began running the 125 yards uphill to my house to call for help. I collapsed across the back-door threshold, breathlessly trying to tell my mother and my wife what had happened. I thought that neither of them could help lift my dad from the creek; I was pretty sure that he had hit his head at the end of his descent. I started a 911 call. As I was talking to the operator, someone said, "Here he comes now." Dad was slumped over and bleeding but sluggishly walking up the driveway to the house.

My mother and wife fetched towels for the blood and took my father to the county emergency room. I did not go with them for fear of exposing my compromised immune system to the environment at the hospital. My wife drove them. After a long wait in the emergency room, my father was examined for threatening injuries and moved to a hospital room for observation and care overnight. Dad, always the joker, said they checked his brain but found nothing. He had two fractured vertebrae and lacerations, from the tree limb and the impact on rock, that required stitches. Dad was in the hospital most of the day Sunday and on Monday he was deemed fit enough to ride in a van back to Memphis with my sister and brother-in-law.

* * *

Recently I took a daddy dive myself. Afterward, I reflected on the impact my actions could have had on me, my wife, my son, and my extended family. At a family work day on the farm, I wanted to cut a damaged limb on a large, slowly disintegrating sugar maple tree. The limb was overhead and about three feet out of reach. I asked my nephew to pull the small farm tractor up to the tree trunk and to lift the front-end loader bucket up about two feet off the ground. I stepped up into the bucket and started cutting the limb with a 16-inch electric chain saw. The limb looked as if it should fall safely away from the trunk of the tree and straight down. As soon as I cut through the limb, it jumped back and hit the bucket and my shin, knocking me backward off the bucket. It happened so fast that I didn't have time to brace myself. Luckily, I was using a light electric saw. I was able to hold tight; having already released the throttle trigger, I had no chain movement to contend with. I fell evenly on my back and right shoulder, but my legs were pinned between the limb and the bucket. I ended up with a few nasty scrapes and bruises behind my calves. I had a gash on my right shin, I guess where the end of the limb scraped and stopped. The edge of the bucket was quarter-inch steel and rested high up against the back of my legs. With both knees trapped in between tree limb and bucket, it would not have been pretty if the limb had hit closer to my edge of the bucket. Looking back on it, the idea was not such a bad one, but my full plan of action was well under par. If I had pulled the bucket up so that I had more room to move backward, and if I had not sawn through the limb but waited to pull the limb down from the ground to break it loose, it would have been far safer.

For my performance in the competitive event of chainsaw and tractor acrobatics, the family judges awarded me 7 of 10 points for imaginative program design, 7 points for effort, a disapproving 3 points for execution, and a hardy 8 points for flexibility and resilience. I awarded myself too bottles of beer and a regular Tylenol tablet every six hours.

* * *

In an effort to do what we always do to provide work output to help the family, dads sometimes do things that are – I won't say dumb – not very well thought out. Moms are not exempt from the folly of inadvertent tumbles in the line of duty. We, the older people of this world, get lost in a cyclical trance of excessive inactivity and hapless chore-related movement and fall off the edge periodically. It is all too easy to do and all of us eventually get there. Onward and overward we trip our way to serious injury.

One can feel something akin to anger when someone close – someone liked and relied upon by others who are also close – gets hurt in a preventable self-made accident. I suppose this anger-like reaction is a type of gut-grabbing empathy so broad and deep and strong as to not have a proper name. Everything seems to suddenly turn – the future hangs for a moment over a dark crater of unavoidable difficulty and anguish – the chain of lives for a moment appears linked by nothing more substantial than a hair-thin thread.

There are many ways for dads to take a dive: They can let a big hay bale knock them silly against a tractor, they can drive a truck into a tree, they can drive a car into a river, they can overturn a tractor on a step incline, they can fall off a ladder, they can let a tree fall on them, they can eat and drink things they know they should not, and they can simply settle down to a cushy recliner several years too early. Don't do it, dads! You are too valuable to those who have depended on your work, wisdom, and companionship for too long. Don't trust physics and luck to always work for you. Physics might work reliably, but you have to calculate all the factors more carefully. Luck is not always on your side. Dads do stumble. And when they do, everyone in the family feels the pain. We sigh with relief when they do manage to get up again.


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