Part 1: Black Friday
By the time I get up onto the fishing boat, he’s already come back from the dead once.
It didn’t occur to me why they’d left me treading water for several minutes, my canopy slowly deflating and sinking into the lake, getting more curious than tired. I’d had a beautiful jump -- intentional water landings are some of my favorite novelties in the sport -- and I had a few more minutes left in me before it got dangerous. And, after all, I was the last to land. It was only once I was up on the boat deck, dripping and smiling, that I had any idea what I’d missed as I was navigating my final approach down to the water.
“Joel had a bad landing,” the woman, our host, says, so simply that I first glance around the benches to see if I somehow did not notice him sitting there. Then I see his legs at the other end of the boat, alarmingly grayish, in a pool of liquid on the floor.
I suppose I’m lucky in that, when very bad things happen, my emotions turn themselves off at the breaker. As I drop my gear and cover the distance between us, I feel the power go down; when I look down at him, I’m already in the color-by-number space of simply following my training. The fetal curl of the recovery position gives him the wet, undetermined air of a newborn before its first cry. At first, it’s hard to tell if he’s breathing.
I get to work. The others answer my questions about what happened as I palpate and inspect, Joel piping up through his twilight fog to announce again and again that he’s fine and he just needs a minute, his eyes lazy in their sockets. I’m informed that he had decided to follow through on the stunt cutaway he’d been talking about earlier in the afternoon. It had not gone well. As most people do, he’d egregiously miscalculated his altitude over the fractal landscape of the lakewater. He had hit hard enough to knock himself out; had been pulled out as he drowned. The others describe the sound of the impact, wincing to retell it.
After a few minutes, Joel pulls me over conspiratorially, asking me why he’s wet. In fact, his memory for the last three months is gone, erased by a violent shake of his cognitive etch-a-sketch. He knows me and he knows his own name, but I watch him strain to remember what we’ve been doing all summer long, then forget what he was trying to remember and tell me again, irritated by the flurry of dismayed attention of which he is the center, that he’s fine, and that he just needs a minute.
The paramedics arrive. They do the same checks I’ve been doing, making the same discoveries: no blood, no obvious breaks, intact spine, some lakewater still coming up in coughs, concussion. They ask Joel if he wants to go to the hospital. He tells them, unequivocally, no. They turn to me, faces expectant. Joel is looking at me, too, with a surprisingly cogent don’t-you-dare written all over his face. I hate the feeling of telling them that it’s his choice, but it is his choice.
So the lot of us limp back to the lakehouse: we in disgrace, hosts and party guests working hard to bail out the mood.
The paramedics have given us very strict instructions not to let Joel sleep for several hours, but every time I leave his side, even very briefly, he heads for a couch or a bedroom, sore and cross and entirely exhausted, and I am fetched to see to him. I sit on the floor beside the bed, listening to the party outside, trying not to feel defeated. Wake up, I’m sorry, look at me, please, I’m sorry, can’t sleep yet, I’m sorry. Hours later, I can finally leave the room, if only to have semi-stunned conversations with the others. Thank you for welcoming us into your annual crew party. Thank you for a truly extraordinary jump into a truly extraordinary place. Thank you for saving his life. Thank you for not letting him drown. Thank you for letting us stay here in your charming lakehouse while we figure out what the hell to do next. Thank you.
I make the mistake of watching Joel’s helmet cam video. There’s a moment, just after he loses consciousness, when his hands float calmly, sweetly, gently up into the frame, undisturbed by the least twitch of self-preservation, crepuscular. Ready to be dead.
We get it together to drive onward to the next destination — Iowa — the next afternoon, Joel still determined to walk it off. I, unused to conducting the behemoth motorhome, sing to myself to calm my nerves as Joel lolls listless in the back. I do the Iowa jump when we get there, Joel being unable to move from the couch. By the next morning, he’s starting to smell like a corpse. I tell him we’re driving to a hospital. He’s too weak to argue.
We arrive at the University of Wisconsin Medical Center in the afternoon. Within the hour, Joel is being prepped for surgery. Later, the surgeon tells my father that Joel was hours away from dying yet again, his bowel having punctured on impact and slowly leaking poison into his system.
After the surgery, sitting awake next to a sleeping Joel among the mess of tubes and machines that keep him among the living, my feelings start to come back online. They flicker on slowly at first, and more-or-less comfortably, with a warm bath of relief and gratitude. Within minutes, however, the rest of the circuits light up, and I’m in turmoil. I’m whipped between righteous anger (I TOLD HIM NOT TO CUT AWAY WHY THE F*CK WHY THE F*CK WHY THE F*CK) and dismay (this is way too big to do on my own I can’t do it on my own how do I do this on my own) and a thick, sticky kind of survivor’s guilt. I ruminate the stories of the women around me who lost their partners like this; what it would have been like if I had landed in that lake that day and Joel was simply gone. I can’t seem to cry about it. I just judder quietly in the reclining chair until I fall asleep.
The next morning, I think — though time takes a strange, distended shape, bedside — we talk about it. We decide that, somehow, I’m going to keep going as he recovers, and he’ll catch up later. He’ll fly to my parents’ house upon his discharge from the hospital and standby there (thanks, mom; thanks, dad); Brett will join me to help with the driving so I can handle the morass of logistics this project requires and keep up with my client work, besides, without which the game is definitively over (thanks, Bretterz).
I drive to the next dropzone — Wisconsin, blessedly close by — in silence, alone. When I get there, I float in the warmhearted welcome extended me, enjoying the dropzone as a kind of suspended emotional animation before I drive back to the hospital to curl up into the space at Joel’s side, wedging myself against the bed’s hard edges, carefully working around the pipes and tubes, knowing I’ll be leaving in the morning, unsure what I’ll find out there. Unsure what happens next.
On the step.
Nod-nod-nod. Out-in-out. Whoosh.