This is a story I dreamed up based upon a childhood experience of falling into a fast moving but very shallow river and being shocked at just how powerful it was...
My first thought I remember was, “How can I get out of this water?” but it was more of an instinct than a collected thought. My lungs were bursting and the claustrophobic panic of being under water was trying to control my thinking. My head broke through the surface of the thick churning layer of foam and icy cold water. I gasped for air only to fall back under the froth.
I tried to grab the rocks and get to a crawling position so I could try to stand but my fingernails just scratched over the surfaces of the slippery rocks. My knees were banging into the rocks and the force of the water kept dragging me farther down the stream.
There was no chance to scream or shout for help. I could barely gulp down a breath before the splashing water covered my face time and time again. My arms and shoulders hurt from bumping into the hard sides of the rocks. Thankfully, I was wearing a lifejacket that protected my torso. The water dunked and dragged me along for what seemed like hours, sapping every conscious bit of energy out of my muscles.
“Why was I by myself?” The thought flitted across my thoughts and disappeared. My arm found a corner of a rock to grab onto and I tried to grip it as the fast moving water spun my body around. I held on for as long as I could, but the force of the water was stronger than my grip. I remembered to gasp some air before I was free floating in the water again. My body swung wide as I kicked and thrashed to try to keep from being a rag doll tossed into the rocks.
“Why am I by myself? Where is everybody?” I asked myself. This time when my head surfaced, I tried to look around and try to get my bearings. The water ahead was still fast moving but there were no white caps. I flipped over on my back, sucked in as much air as my lungs would hold, and held my arms out horizontally to direct my course. By stroking hard with my arms and kicking with my feet, I managed to turn around so my feet were in front of me and I could see there I was headed. The river ran straight for a bit before I could see another bend with rocks. Off to my right was a sandy stretch of land that I knew I had to try to make a swim for so I flipped over on my stomach and swam hard to cut across the fast water. When the water was only about ten inches deep, I still had to crawl and fight hard to overcome the current but I made it. Exhausted, I lay on the sand and pebbles, letting the bright sun warm my trembling body.
The roar of the water dulled out any competing sounds and I drifted into an unconscious sleep not noticing anything but the cold feelings from the light spray that hit me once in a while when a gust of wind blew my way.
“Karen?” I heard someone calling. I wondered who else was out here but didn’t care enough to open my eyes or move a muscle. I drifted back under the blanket of comfortable sleep, leaving the voice calling Karen alone. I didn’t know any Karens.
A bug landed on my lip and instinctively, I reach my hand up to brush it off, moving my head slightly. A wave of pain shot through the right side of my head.
“She’s moving. Karen. Hey, Karen.” There was that voice again. I opened my eyes and slowly sat up. I could see two guys in a raft trying to make their way over to my narrow beach. I looked around in the blinding sunlight to check for more people, shading my eyes with my hand. There was no one else.
I watched the guys paddle hard until they landed their boat just ten feet or so from me. My muscles were still too trembly to stand.
“Karen, are you alright? We thought we lost you,” the shorter, light-haired man said looking in my direction.
I turned to see if this Karen was behind me but there was no one there.
“Are you talking to me?” I asked.
“Of course, who else?” This time the taller, broad-shouldered man laughed at me.
“Why are you calling me Karen?” I asked them. I did notice that they were wearing the same kind of lifejacket that I was wearing.
“Karen! We were seriously worried…”
“Hold on, Josh. Look at her head.” He interrupted as he jumped out of the raft after the other guy gave it a good shove onto land.
“Are you hurt?” he asked as they both knelt in front of me.
“No, I don’t think so, just pretty tired from trying to get out of the water.”
“Ben, I’m getting the first-aid kit,” Josh said.
“Well, I am glad you guys came along. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of here.”
“Wait, Karen. Do you know who we are?” Ben asked me, leaning forward to look at my face.
I saw he had kind eyes as he lifted his sunglasses. “I have no idea who you are. Should I?”
“Oh my god, Karen. I’m Ben and that’s Josh. We met last summer on the Colorado River white water rafting trip.” He was squinting at me and reached over to pull my hair away from the right side of my face.
“Geez, you have a nasty bump on the side of your head”
He turned to look at Josh who had the blue kit in his hand. “I think she hurt her head pretty badly.”
"Well, she’s conscious and talking - that’s a good sign,” Josh said as he knelt beside me. Both of them were wearing leather sandals. I almost laughed when I saw that I was wearing similar shoes.
“Alright, Karen. No worries. We will take good care of you.” He opened a small square packet of salve and squeezed the contents onto a square of gauze. “Let’s cover this over to keep it from bleeding more.”
He gently placed the bandage on my head, causing me to wince in pain as he wrapped more gauze around my head to hold it in place.
“So what do you remember?” Josh asked quietly.
“Hey, don’t look so serious. I’m sure I’m fine,” I answered trying to relieve some of the tension in their faces. “What do I remember?” I paused for a second. “Water. Lots and lots of water.”
“What day is it?” Josh asked.
I thought for a second and was surprised to hear myself say, “I actually don’t know.”
“And your name?” Josh asked again.
“Well, it might be Karen, just ‘cause that’s what you guys were calling me, but it doesn’t sound familiar.”
“Okay, that’s alright,” Ben spoke up. “Let’s just take this one step at a time. I’m going to get my cell phone and try to get some help.” He stood up and walked quickly over to the raft. He pulled out a bright red backpack and unzipped a couple of pockets before pulling out a plastic container. He pulled out his cell phone and tried to dial.
“Nope. Just as I thought - there’s no signal here,” Josh spoke up, putting his hand on my shoulder. “We are going to have to raft downstream to get out of this rocky area. We have to get Karen to a hospital.”
“I’m not sure I want to go back in the water again.” I didn’t know these guys and although they were very kind, I was hesitant to leave with them.
“Listen, Karen. Although you don’t remember anything, we are all friends,” Ben said. “There is only one way out of here and that is down the river. Josh and I are going to do everything to make it as safe as we can. Can you trust us?” He must have sensed my distrust as he waited for me to answer with a patient look on his face.
“Okay, I guess so. I’m sorry I can’t help much,” I answered as I tried to get to my feet, dizziness swimming over my vision.
Both men stepped forward and lifted me by my elbows. My head was swimming and my legs almost buckled.
“Easy! Let’s take it slowly,” Josh said as he wrapped his arm around my waist, almost lifting me. After a couple of steps, my leg muscles loosened up a little and I could walk a little better.
“Let’s put her here in the front of the raft,” Ben said. “Hopefully, she will have a gentler ride.”
They helped me into the raft and gave me a couple of straps to hold onto if it got bumpy. It was strange that the raft was so unfamiliar to me, even though these two men claimed I was on the raft with them earlier. I could only remember the water and trying to breathe. Ben and Josh both pushed the raft into the water with a couple of strides and jumped in. The current swung us around but they were able to straighten it out again quickly. I decided to sit low in the raft and leaned back against the side. I grabbed the straps and closed my eyes.
“Hey, Karen, I don’t think you should go to sleep,” Josh called out to me.
“I’m not sleeping, I’m just closing my eyes so I don’t feel so dizzy,” I answered back.
Every couple of minutes, one of them would say something to me to elicit a response. Sometimes, they used jokes and sometimes they plied me with questions. I had my own set of questions running through my mind. How could it be that I knew so little? I had no point of reference before being in the water. How did I meet these guys? What did I do? Who were my parents? Did I have any siblings? Was I married? A quick glance at my hand revealed no rings. How old was I? Where was I and what river was this? I felt like my brain was sonar sending out pings trying to find references as to who I was.
The rafting seemed smooth after my rough swim. We came to a wide smooth part of the river and Ben asked if I wanted a little coffee to drink.
“Sure, I guess.” I couldn’t remember if I liked it, but I was thirsty. He hand me a thermos cap half full of a milky brown liquid. I took a gulp and cringed at the bitterness. Both men laughed and I realized that they had both been watching me intently.
“That’s bitter!” I remarked.
“You are so funny. We made it extra strong because that’s the way you like it - or at least you used to,” Josh said.
“Sorry, I don’t seem to remember too much."
“Don’t feel bad. You had a nasty bump on your head. Give yourself a break.”
They rowed hard for seemed like thirty minutes while I tried to keep myself calm in the bottom of the raft. I could hear them talking to each other about getting to the next stop where there would probably be people to help or at least phone coverage. There was a road that led to a parking lot near the river so an ambulance could maneuver in and meet us there. My head was throbbing and the constant motion was making me nauseous, even though I didn’t remember eating anything. Ben started talking on his cell phone and got my attention. By the time we pulled up to the docking area, a few minutes later, the ambulance was there waiting with lights flashing. There were a couple of onlookers but I didn’t care. Josh tossed them a line and they pulled us in smoothly. A man in a blue and white uniform jumped into the raft and placed a brace around my neck. He was mostly quiet as he checked my blood pressure and heart rate. Once he seemed satisfied that I was stable enough to move, he motioned for another attendant to help bring a stretcher over. Ben and Josh helped steady it as they helped me onto it. I tried to tell them that I could still walk, but they insisted on the stretcher. I didn’t remember being an ambulance before, but I found it fascinating. I heard either Josh or Ben call out that they would meet me at the hospital, but the paramedic was putting an I.V. into my arm so I used my other arm to give them a wave of acknowledgment.
Once we started driving, the paramedic started filling out the paperwork. “So what is your name?” he asked.
“Karen Phillips,” I answered.
“”I thought you couldn’t remember anything,” he said with a smile as though he had tricked me.
“No, I can’t, but I heard that guy who was with me in the raft, tell the 911 operator my name.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I will ask you the questions I have here. If you can remember anything, just let me know.” He checked the I.V. drip and proceeded to ask me where I lived, if I had any allergies, etc…but I couldn’t help him.
The ride was only about forty minutes long and the driver only used the siren once in a while. I was impressed with the compassion of the paramedics and then the hospital staff that came out to meet us at the hospital. I didn’t mind resting in the Emergency Room as nurses hooked me up to monitors and doctors peered into my eyes with their special gadgets. They explained that they were watching for swelling in my brain. I asked them if it was all right if I fell asleep after they gave me a pill for my nausea and a pain pill. Thankfully, they said it was fine since they would be checking me constantly.
Although I was sleepy, I was also concerned about reaching out to my family. Somehow, I knew that someone was going to be missing me, but whom? How could I find out?
Josh woke me up and asked me if I wanted some dinner. I was a little confused as to where I was at first, but glad that I remembered him.
“Dinner? Wow, what time is it?” I asked groggily.
“It’s close to seven,” he answered sitting down in the chair next to my bed.
“Yeah, I guess I am a little hungry. Thanks for coming here. Where’s Ben?” They were my new temporary family and I wanted to keep track of them.
“He’s out in the hallway. The nurse asked us if we could try to find out more information about you so he’s making some calls on his cell.”
“Do you guys know my family?” I asked hopefully.
“No, just your name and cell phone. Obviously, no one is answering your phone since it is probably at the bottom of the river so I think he is trying to get in touch with the rafting company.”
A nurse walked in and asked Josh if he was a relative. He told her that he was just a friend and she went on to tell me that I was being admitted for observation for at least twenty-four hours and that they were moving me to a room on the third floor. There wasn’t anything I could do but to agree. What else would I do? I didn’t know where I lived and laughed to myself at the irony of it all.
“What’s so funny?” Josh asked, looking at me quizzically.
“’Cause even if they let me go home, I don’t know where I would go - I’m basically homeless.”
“Oh, no. You can always come to my place until we get this worked out. Don’t worry; we aren’t going to abandon you.” He patted my arm in a reassuring kind of way.
I really wished I could remember something about him; I felt at a disadvantage. Ben walked in just as they were getting ready to wheel me to my new room.
“How are you doing?” he asked me as he came to the side of the bed.
“I’m fine. They want to keep me for at least twenty-four hours for observation. They are taking me to my room now.”
“Any luck?” Josh asked Ben.
“Not really. The main office is closed so they can’t get me any information about her until Monday,” Ben answered, moving out of the way as they pushed my bed out into the hallway.
“Thanks for trying, Ben,” I said.
“No worries. You would have done the same for me,” he replied with a wink.
“So what did you end up doing with the raft?” I asked him when we were alone again in the room after the nurses left.
“Oh, that worked out easy. I called the emergency number for the company and they had a guide who was coming down the river in another raft, pick it up. Apparently, there were two of them in the group. When you left in the ambulance, we waited just long enough for them to arrive and then hitched a ride here with one of the police cars that came with the ambulance.” He paused to get a drink from the sink, scooping up the water in his hands after a quick wash.
‘So, yeah. At first, the police thought we were witnesses but after we told them what we knew, they wanted to keep us with you until we find out who or where your family is.” He plopped himself down in one of the brown cushioned chairs. “What a day, eh?”
Josh was sitting on the end of my bed, alternating between listening to Ben and watching me.
“So how are you going to find out who I am?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m sure that when the office opens on Monday morning that we will find all the information we need. You must live pretty close by. We were only in the water for about thirty minutes before you fell out. When I called you this morning, you said you only had a twenty minute ride to get to the launch site.”
“Oh,” I nodded my head. “That helps. What else do you know about me?”
“Well, not too much. You had a boyfriend that came along with us last year but when we were planning this trip, you said he couldn’t make it,” Ben answered first.
“You love animals,” Josh added.
“Oh, geez. Yeah, and don’t forget green olives,” Ben said.
“You guys aren’t much help. I mean like, how old am I? Do I have brothers or sisters? What about my parents?” I asked.
“Hey, Karen. It will all come back to you. Don’t try to figure it all out,” Josh tried to reassure me.
Ben flicked the television on and they tried to keep the conversation light for me. Josh found me a tray for dinner, but I could only eat a few mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. Even normal flavors were a little off for me, so I let them finish everything on the tray. By eight-thirty, the nurse came in and chased them out for the night as visiting hours were over. I was a little frightened to see them leave, but also relieved to be able to close my eyes.
The hospital was pretty quiet that night. Even though a nurse checked on me every hour, she was very considerate and left the lights out, using a flashlight when she needed extra light. A team of doctors or rather a doctor and several med students filed into my small room around seven in the morning. Everyone seemed curious about my memory loss. I had nothing else to do so I went along with trying to answer their questions. I think when they figured out that talking to me wasn’t going to solve my mystery, they filed out to pester the next patient.
I climbed out of bed, pulling my I.V. pole with me and cleaned up a little in the bathroom. When I looked in the mirror, I had to stare at my face. How could it be that I didn’t remember myself? I decided that I liked myself except for my short hair - I would have to let that grow out. A lady came in with a tray of food for breakfast and I realized that I was quite hungry. Before I was finished, another lady came in but with a much quicker and determined step.
“Hi Karen. I’m Dr. Phelps and I am a physical therapist. We want to try a few things to see if we can’t jog your memory,” she said after she shook my hand.
A weird sensation came over me as she stepped back. “Wait. I think you smell familiar. Can that be?” I asked.
“Well, sure it is possible. Certain parts of your brain that were damaged the least will hopefully start working again. But I wonder why I smell familiar? I don’t ever meeting you. It might be a clue.” She sat on the end of my bed as I finished my last sip of juice.
“Let’s think. Do you work…no wait, I remember. You don’t remember anything. Maybe I should try to figure it out. Let’s see - you were hurt while white water rafting - but I don’t enjoy that sport. You are at least twenty years younger than I am so we didn’t go to college together. I don’t know where you work, so…oh, well. We don’t have to figure it out. I’m just glad to hear you remember something. It means your brain is not swelling anymore and might even be healing already.”
I smiled at her, glad for her optimism. Her quick smile was infectious and I felt happy just being near her.
Ben called around eleven to say that he and Josh were trying to come in around two o’clock, but before I could finish the call, Dr. Phelps came running into my room.
“I figured it out!” she exclaimed.
“Hey, Ben. I have to go. I’ll see you at two,” I finished quickly.
“Oh, I am so happy!”
I looked at her, afraid to interrupt her.
“When I left your room earlier, my brain kept going over why I might smell familiar. You know, was it the clothes? the lotion or perfume? or what? I looked down at your chart and saw your name, Phillips. I know a Betty Phillips who works in the pediatric physical therapy department. Just to be sure, I called her and asked her if she happened to have a daughter named Karen and she almost started crying.”
“You think she’s my mom?” I asked intrepidly. I suddenly realized that I might not even recognize her.
“Yes. It is your mom. She told me that she was sick with worry when you didn’t come home last night and didn’t answer your cell phone. She is on her way here now with your father.” Dr. Phelps clasped my hand in her happiness.
“Thank you so much!” I was so relieved and worried. A mother and a father that I didn’t know.
“Hey, don’t look so worried,” she smiled, realizing my consternation. “We understand what you are going through. I’m sure your parents will be more than thrilled to see you even if you can’t remember them.”
"Yeah, I suppose. It’s just so weird,” I replied.
“Let’s look at it this way. Even if your memory comes back - which it probably will, you have a great excuse to start anew. Since you can’t remember anything from before the accident, you also can’t remember your bad memories. As far as I can tell, you are not doing too poorly. You have two friends who keep checking up on you and some parents on their way. You are in excellent shape and health. That’s a lot more than a lot of people I meet.”
Again, I felt refreshed by her presence. She was right; I was going to be alright.
2016 copyright. Use only with permission.