The Surrender

As told to me by my Uncle Bill, a supremely quiet and gentle man.

“It must have been mid-June the day my brother Tommy and I and Paddlefoot went swimming in the irrigation canal behind our barn. It was so early in the year, that the water was still too high and cold for swimming. But, we went anyway. We thought we were pretty much grown up enough to make our own decisions. Tommy was twelve. I was ten. Paddlefoot went wherever we went because as our dog, that was kind of his job. He was probably the smartest of the three of us. He did a lot of whining and pacing his giant feet around when we got to the ditch bank road. If he was trying to talk us out of it, it didn’t work, because after a bit of pushing and shoving each other, we were both in that cold, fast water.

We’d do cannon balls off the bank and the water would carry us down stream a pretty good ways until we could get to the side and pull ourselves out. I remember how good the sun felt. How  we’d lay down on the sandy ditch bank to warm up before jumping in again.

And then it happened.

I jumped in and the water was carrying me just like it had ten times before. I was trying to swim to the edge to get out, but it seemed like the water was going faster now, pulling me toward a head gate where the water was going out of the ditch into a culvert under the road.  It sucked me into the culvert and the gate slammed down behind me. Cold darkness surrounded me. Panic filled me. I was under the road with both head gates closed. The water was still in there. Quiet. All I could hear was my heart pounding in my head.

I grabbed the bars of the gate and shook them as hard as I could. They didn’t budge. I kicked. I pried. I braced myself against the wall of the culvert and pushed as hard as a ten-year-old boy could push. But nothing I did was making any difference at all. I was trapped. My lungs were on fire. I was so cold I couldn’t feel my body anymore. I thought about Tommy. Paddlefoot. And my mom and dad. I was terrified that I would never see any of them again, so I used every ounce of strength I had left to shake that iron gate. But there wasn’t even a hint of movement.

I realized there was nothing left for me to try. I had no strength left to try anyway. My time was almost up. I was going to have to take a breath. I knew I was at the end, and I relaxed. I let go of the gate that had imprisoned me and the most amazing thing happened. It opened. And with a whoosh of water, I was back out in the canal, coughing and gagging, swimming for my life. It was like the minute I relaxed, the gate opened.”

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Uncle Bill told me this story when I was in my thirties. It was memorable because he was such a quiet man. I was visiting them for an afternoon when Aunt Bert excused herself to the kitchen leaving us in awkward silence. And then out came this story of the power of surrender. I used to wonder if I had hallucinated the whole thing. It was so out of character and seemed so random.

I mentioned this story to my cousins over a decade later on the day of Uncle Bill’s funeral. None of them had heard it before.

I’ve always been so grateful for this strange moment, this extraordinary gift. Whenever I’m faced with something that I’m fighting against with all my strength, I remember…

“The minute I relaxed, the gate opened.”  (William Thomas)