Two Rivers: a memoir

Drowning is such a bizarre, yet beautiful, experience. One second you’re above the water, breathing all of the air that you could possibly want; the next second, you’re stuck under a raft, struggling for your life while trying to “remain calm,” because that’s what your river guide told you to do. It sounded so easy when I had my feet on the ground: “If you should get thrown out of the raft, the last thing you want to do is panic,” he said. “Promise me right now that you will not panic.” He made us put our hand up and repeat that we would not panic, as if we were a Boy Scout troop reciting an oath. “You are all safe in our care. This is a man-made course, and the worst thing that could happen is that you fall in and pop right back up.”

Yeah. Okay. I didn’t believe it when he said it, and I sure as hell didn’t believe it when I was on that raft.

Open bodies of water never appealed to me. I did not like the fact that I could not see my feet in the water. As a swimmer, I’m much more comfortable in a swimming pool. Crystal clear water, four walls surrounding you and keeping you safe, and no rapids or fish or dirt. I was only on this trip because I wanted to be with my brother and sister. The bus was filled with elite swimmers under the age of 18, so I was the outsider. They had all just competed at the YMCA National meet; I was simply along for the ride to save money. As we waited for our group to be called, I watched the flood of water fill the course; the company used actual river water from Deep Creek, but I’m not quite sure how they managed to transport it, since the course was at the top of a hill. Instead of sharp, little pebbles scattered below, the bottom of the course was smooth concrete. Without the water, the course looked like an abandoned skate park. “Calm down, Kels,” my sister, Emily, said. She grabbed my hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll be in the boat with you. Just smile, you look terrified.”

“Why do you smile like that?” some kid had asked me. I was thrown back into the river of 5th graders, waiting in the hallway for their next class to begin, forced to stand on the right side of the hallway. I must have looked confused, because he went on. “When you smile, you show your gums way too much. Can’t you smile without showing them?” I tried, and apparently failed, because he let out a disgusted sound. “You look disgusting. If I see you smile like that again, you’re going to regret it.” I had never thought that anything was wrong with my smile. So you could see above my teeth, big deal. My classmate’s reactions told me otherwise. Yes, he was just a dumb 5th grade kid, but I was also a dumb 5th grade kid. From that day on, I made sure to cover my mouth when I smiled or laughed. I dreaded taking pictures because I didn’t want to offend anyone or gross them out. God forbid I show those horrid gums that had started to haunt me.

I tried to laugh along with her. “As long as you’re in the boat with me, I think I’ll be okay.” Neither of us was convinced, but together we climbed into the raft.

“Hi guys. My name is Ben and I’ll be your river guide this morning. Just curious, how many of you have actually white water rafted before?” No one, out of the six people in the raft, raised a hand. Ben chuckled. “Don’t worry, folks, you’re in good hands. I’ve been a guide for…” Blah blah blah. I zoned out completely. I was on a raft with six inexperienced people, on a body of water that I couldn’t see the bottom of, and I was expected to “just smile”. One half of my mind said; Don’t worry, you’ll be okay. It’s like a water roller-coaster. If they can do it, you can do it. The other half of my mind was screaming; Get the hell off of this raft right now. You can swim to shore. This is a terrible idea. You don’t even like rivers. I think they sell ice cream in the lodge.

I should’ve listened. I should’ve dived off of the raft while the water was still, before we hit any rapids, and got a vanilla cone. Instead, I clung to my paddle for dear life, crying any time we hit a wave, a fake smile plastered on my face.

My smile didn’t just offend my 18 classmates; it also offended my orthodontist. In a meeting with my mom and me, he said that I wouldn’t be considered beautiful unless I got corrective surgery. He showed me pictures of girls who had undergone the surgery; on the left, the girls had gummy smiles just like mine, on the right, their gums had vanished. “No one wants to see a gummy smile, but don’t worry, we can fix you,” he said. I was twelve years old. I burst into tears. My mom almost dove over the desk to punch him. I’ve never been so proud of her in my entire life.

“So, are we having fun yet?” Ben asked after we had gone through the course once. I shook my head violently, trying to make light of the situation. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you having fun?”

No, Ben. I was not having an ounce of fun. I was motion-sick, I was cold, I was exhausted, and I wanted ice cream. “I mean, I am,” I lied. “I’m just scared.” Scared didn’t cover it. I was scared shitless. I was petrified. My arms only moved because I knew that the faster I moved them, the sooner I’d be done.

“Just try to have some fun,” he said. “Once you fall in the water once, you realize just how fun this trip is. Try to smile for me.” My heart stopped. Smiling was not that simple.

We hit a rock and I fell out. I popped right back up, but I’d smashed my elbow when I fell out, and I was so done with all of this.

“See, wasn’t that fun?” Ben asked as I was struggling to climb back into the raft. I felt like a beached whale trying to flop back into the ocean, into safety. I didn’t respond to him. We obviously had different definitions of the word “fun”.

“Okay guys,” Ben said. I was starting to hate him, but he held my life in his hands, so I couldn’t hate him too much yet. “We’re going to try a river trick. After we go over these falls, we’re going to surf on the rapids. If we do this properly, we’ll spin around in a slow, calming motion. No one will get hurt, I promise.”

Promises, promises, Benjamin…

We went over the falls and turned the raft around to face the rapids. The water filled the raft with such force, like one of those giant buckets at water parks that dump on the eager park guests when they’re least expecting it, that leave welts on your skin.

All of a sudden, I was pushed from the boat and flung under the raft. This is it, I thought. This is how I die. How ironic, that a swimmer should drown to death in a river… A swimmer that’s wearing a life vest, nonetheless. I opened my eyes and realized that I was stuck under the raft. The current was pushing against me, making it impossible for me to swim out from under it. The weight of those remaining in the raft combined with the force of the water ensured that the raft was not budging. In that moment, I accepted my fate. This is when I realized that drowning is a bizarre, yet beautiful, experience. It could have been four seconds, or a whole minute could have passed; I wish I knew exactly how long I was under, because it felt like hours to me.

In his speech before we entered the raft, Ben mentioned that if we were to get stuck under the raft, push on the bottom of the raft three times, and you’ll pop right back up. It sounded absurd on land, but in my desperation, I was willing to try anything. I pushed off of the bottom of the raft three times, and was freed from its dirty grasp.

But, of course, the river gods weren’t done with me just yet. The rapids swept me up, spun me around, and bashed my body against the concrete. Finally, I emerged from the dark abyss that was Deep Creek water. I tried to open my eyes, but could only see out of my right one. Well, I can’t see out of my eye. I’m blind in one eye. GREAT. I’ve always wanted to learn braille anyway… I gasped for air and started to scream towards my raft. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” Suddenly, I heard a scream, like one of those screams that always occur in horror movies when the girl finds her boyfriend chopped into pieces by the monster. As I screamed, flailing my arms and clearly panicking, I noticed that something else was horribly wrong — my tooth was gone. Not just a chip, not just half of my tooth, but my whole tooth. It was now at the bottom of the course for some poor sap to find as a trophy.

Finally, I made it back to my raft — why no one decided to jump in and save me when I was visibly struggling and unable to swim on my own is beyond me. Emily was screaming and crying and I couldn’t bring myself to look at her, half because I was blinded, half because I didn’t want to scare her. Mostly because I was blinded.

A man in a golf cart who claimed to be the on-site EMT drove me back to the lodge. Within the next few minutes, I was thrown back into a river of people judging my smile. Little kids running in horror like I was Quasimodo or Frankenstein or something. Do I blame them? No — I was a mess. But it still hurt.

“Here, this woman will help you get cleaned up,” the golf-cart man said to me, pointing to someone to my left. I, of course, didn’t see her until she moved to my right. She didn’t help much, though. I was expected to walk by myself to the restroom, clean myself up with water and paper towels, and walk to the garage of the lounge. No one checked to see if I had a concussion. They gave me a towel and a Dixie cup full of water, asking me a series of questions.

“Did you fall out of the raft?” No shit I fell out of the raft.

“Do you have your tooth with you?” No. It’s gone, just like my desire to ever go white water rafting ever again and my chances of getting ice cream today.

Finally, some members of my group joined me in the garage. Someone called my parents and thrust me the phone. “Hey mommy, guess what?” She was an hour away, back at home. “I just lost a tooth, and I can’t see out of my left eye!” I could almost hear her jaw drop. She said nothing else, but handed the phone to my dad. “Kelsey Jo, what happened to you?” he said, a hint of worry and anger in his voice. “Daddy, I’m fine. They’re taking me on an ambulance, so you have to come and pick me up because they won’t let me ride on the bus.” I tried to make light of the situation, though my face was covered in blood. I hated all of the attention, but a part of me was secretly glad that it happened to me and not one of the other members of my raft, especially my sister. They were all so much younger than me, and couldn’t afford an accident like this.

“If you were an animal, what kind would you be?” was the question floating around the lunch table that day. It was only the second week of my freshman year of high school, so I was still getting used to my new classmates. “Oh, I don’t know,” I responded. I couldn’t just say my favorite animal, because that would be too expected of me. I wanted to be creative and clever; I wanted to impress those around me. “What do you think I’d be?” The kids all looked around at each other, contemplating my animal-fate. “I think you’d be a horse,” one girl had spoken up, “because when you smile, your gums show.” Everyone at the table laughed. I tried to chuckle along with them. Instead, I just nodded and pursed my lips. For about a month at my new school, people referred to me as “horse mouth”. Not very clever or creative, but just as effective.

Only one person was allowed to ride in the ambulance with me, so my swim coach joined me in order to keep my parents updated. I hugged my brother and sister goodbye before they closed the door. “Damn, Kels,” my brother said. “I thought I’d be the one that went in an ambulance first.” The real EMT strapped me in and gave me an ice pack to relieve the swelling. I couldn’t even cry because the salt water tears burned the cuts on my eyes. He didn’t seem to notice or care, though, and he continued to fiddle on his cellphone as I silently moped. I hadn’t felt that alone in a long time.

“Mom, I can’t handle going to school anymore.” I was crying in the passenger seat of our van after my mom picked me up from school. After “horse mouth,” the bullying continued and escalated. I was even told to “just kill myself” in the lunch line, after smiling at an upperclassmen. My mom tried her best to soothe me as my sobs turned to hysterics. The next day, my parents set up a meeting with my principal to discuss the bullying. I sat in the chair across from him, and explained everything; the name-calling, the ostracizing, how the bullying had gotten so bad that I didn’t even feel safe in the locker-lined walls. “Well, I can’t do anything for you,” the principal finally said. “It sounds like you’re the cause of your own ostracizing. Besides, I know that boy personally. He’s a football player; he would never say those kinds of things.” At that, my parents stormed out, and I was faced with a decision. For the remainder of that year, I kept to myself. I was alone in a river of 200 high school students; I was drowning and no one was willing to throw me a life vest.

The damage was bleak, but not as bad as it could have been — the skin was torn off of my left eye-lid, I was missing my left front tooth, I fractured my orbital bone (beneath my eye, above my cheekbone), and I tore the skin below my lip. Ten stitches, gauze, and an eye patch later, I was released from the hospital.

I grabbed my phone and sent pictures to a few close friends.

“OH MY GOD, WHAT DID YOU DO?” “ARE YOU OKAY?” “WHERE ARE YOU AND WHY IS YOUR FACE LIKE THAT?”

I even posted a picture to Reddit. Within hours, more than three thousand people had viewed and commented on it, some positive and some negative. One internet stranger even commented with a single word: “Gums”.

“I’ll take you if you really want this,” my dad said. Disney was holding auditions to be a character performer in their Disney College program, and I was bound and determined to get in. I decided to do research on the topic, learning the different movements and personalities of characters throughout the park. I focused mostly on the princesses and their characteristics; the way they spoke, the way they smiled, the way they greeted little snot-nosed children with sticky hands grabbing at costumes. I came across an article that described what Disney physically looked for in their face characters, and I realized something; no princess has a gummy smile. Their smiles are flawless, and if I wanted to be one, mine had to be flawless as well. I called my mom in tears, explaining my dilemma, and offering a solution: “I can always just get that corrective surgery. That would make my chances of getting in even better.” In my mind, it was so clear: pay a couple thousand dollars, fix my smile, be a princess, be beautiful. My parents were not having it, though. They put their foot down, crushing my dreams of ever becoming a beautiful princess. After I hung up the phone, I studied my smile in my dorm room mirror. Thoughts from my past filled my mind. My smile was disgusting. I would never be beautiful without that surgery…

I put down my phone and pulled down the front mirror to look at the damage. I wanted to cry. I could handle the eye patch and bruised face, but here I was, two weeks shy of starting my senior year of college, and I didn’t have a tooth. How was I supposed to go back to campus and face reality? No one would take me seriously with a big gap in my smile. Now that 5th grader was right; my smile was gross and no one was going to enjoy it, not even me.

The next week was filled with doctor appointments, pain pills, and a lot of rest on the couch. My eye-sight was better than 20/20, so no other damage had been done. The tooth, though, was gone for good. “We can make you a flipper, like the ones they wear on Toddlers & Tiaras, and you’ll barely be able to tell,” my dentist had said. “You will have a cleft in your gum for the rest of your life, unfortunately, so it will be noticeable when you smile.” Great. More smiling troubles.

I left the dentist’s office and took my new fake-toothed smile to Wal-Mart to buy denture supplies. I’m not sure what the weird looks were for — the bruises and stitches still on my face, or the fact that a 21-year-old was buying denture cream, cleaner, and a case.

As my face healed, I realized that it wasn’t so bad. The bruising around my eyes actually accentuated my eye color — I made a mental note to start using reds and purples for eye shadow. I felt no real pain aside from some burning, and my eating habits changed very quickly — never, ever try to bite into an apple slice when you are missing a front tooth. You will regret it.

I checked my smile every day, and took pictures to track my progress. While I knew that it would take a while to get used to, I had come to terms with it. I learned how to spit water through the gap like a water fountain. Most of all, I found myself smiling more. I had just escaped death, and I walked out with scars and a missing tooth. I marked that as a victory.

There have still been days where I lie in bed, letting the intensity of the situation hit me. I will have a fake tooth in when I smile on my wedding day. When my children lose their front tooth, I will be able to lose mine as well, but mine won’t grow back, and I will not receive money from the Tooth Fairy. I will never be able to eat ice cream cones, an apple, or a slice of pizza in the same way. I have had dentures before my parents needed them.

While some (most) people may not think it’s aesthetically pleasing, I think it’s beautiful. I’ve found a group of people that accepts my toothless grin, and don’t get grossed out when I smile. I was tired of hiding behind pursed lips. I wanted to laugh without covering my mouth, to smile in pictures and not hate what I see.

This is where the beauty of drowning (or nearly drowning) comes in. While you’re down there struggling to survive, something clicks in your mind that changes your life forever. Sometimes you realize it right away, but I didn’t realize it until after. For 11 years, I let a 5th grade boy dictate how I lived my life. For 11 years, I was drowning in a river of self-hatred and embarrassment. It took drowning in an actual river to see that I was so wrong. Maybe it was the oxygen deprivation that did me in. Maybe I hit my head too hard on a rock and snapped to my senses. It doesn’t matter. I am free, and I am finally smiling with ease.