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WHY DID I LIVE?


WHY NOT ME?

          It was a hot, dry summer day.  The Smiths and our family ventured for an outing.
          The smell of freshly mowed grass drifted in the air as we unloaded the two cars.  Boxes of food and a watermelon were placed on a redwood table in the picnic area.
          Ray sat across from me as we ate out lunch.  His plate was filled with potato salad, baked beans, and a hot dog.  I felt warmness toward my freckled chum, and I longed for us to be friends again.
          Nollie, Ray’s sister, sat next to me.  She resembled Ray; only she was tall and gangly.  Ray was thirteen, I was twelve, and Nollie was eleven.
          After lunch, the three of us played catch with a softball.  For the first time in months, Ray joked around with me.  We soon tired of playing catch and decided to go down by the river.  We told our parents we were going exploring.  The four of them were sitting around the table drinking coffee and enjoying the fellowship.  We could hear their voices and laughter in the distance as we left the picnic area.
          I could feel the tension between Ray and I melting away as we walked toward the river.  I never told him I was sorry for the way I had treated him, but I hoped he could tell that I wanted to be friends.  Nollie tagged along, listening to our chatter.  As we approached the Rio Grande River, the weeds were knee high.  Wild daisies swayed in the breeze while swallows sang from the treetops.  The water of the wide river was ruddy brown.  Pebbles and large rocks lined the banks.
          Ray picked up a pebble and threw it.  The water sparkled as the rock skipped across the river and sank near the other shore.
          “How did you do that?” I asked with laughter.
          “Like this,” Ray replied as he showed me how to position a flat pebble and swing it through the air.  The rock skimmed the top of the river and plunged, leaving a circle of bubbles behind.
          “Let’s go wading,” Ray suggested.
          Tennis shoes were strung among the rocks along the bank, and we rolled up our blue jeans.
          “Burr...that’s cold!” Nollie exclaimed as she stepped into the water.  Ray and I walked into the river.  I felt shivers from the water’s cold temperature, and it took a few minutes before my body adjusted from the initial shock.
          “I’m going to learn to swim,” Nollie said as she laid back in the water and splashed vigorously, causing small white waves in the brown water.
          “I can already dog paddle!” Ray bragged.
          “I can swim, too,” I said, but in reality, I could only swim a few strokes.
          Ray and I continued to act like “big shots” in front of his younger sister, boasting what great swimmers we were.
          “We’ll show you how to swim Nollie,” Ray said.
          The river was up to our waists as we plunged in and began swimming.  I moved my arms through the water a number of strokes and ran out of breath.  I fully expected to feel the bottom under my feet when I quit swimming, but there was nothing but water, and I sank!  The water rose above my head and I panicked!  Ray was having the same problem.  He was close enough for me to reach and I grabbed his shoulder trying to keep myself afloat.
          “Nollie...gulp...get help!” Ray shouted.
          “Help...help!” I screamed.
          Nollie was laughing.  “Quit joking around...I know you guys can swim.”
          We had bragged so convincingly that she thought we were putting on an act for her benefit.
          The water swallowed me.  The liquid filled my mouth and nose.  I surfaced once more.  Nollie was gone.  I felt Ray move away.  My head bobbed again, and I saw him dogpaddling.  The water closed in around and above me.  I could see the light of day, shining through the yellow liquid as it swallowed and consumed me.
          In front of my eyes (or was it only in my mind) a moving picture played for me...I was a small child playing with other children...I was kept after school to finish my work, and I fought back tears because Mom was outside waiting for me...I sang a solo in the Philipsburg church...I stood by Mom at Dad’s funeral...one after another, the series of scenes drifted by. The last scenes were the only honors I had received in life: cheerleader and Homecoming Princess...
          The water parted and my head surfaced.  Ray’s father was on the bank.  He pulled off his Levi’s and jumped toward me.  Strong arms encircled and pulled me through the yellow water.  I was hung on the side of the rocky bank.
          “Ray...where is Ray?”  The voice tore through the air. I realized I was the one screaming for Ray.
          Ray’s parents swam through the water, and then they dove  ...searching...searching.  Neither Deryl or Mom could swim.  They stood helplessly on shore, their faces drawn into creases of concern.  I hung onto the bank, part of me still in the water, waiting anxiously; knowing that time was slipping away.
          Mr. Smith surfaced with Ray’s wet, limp body.  Deryl and Mom helped drag him over the rocks on the bank and onto dry, hard ground.  A man, who had been fishing down river, ran to call an ambulance.  Two more strangers appeared and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Deryl must have gone after the station wagon and parked it by the riverbank.  I don’t remember getting into the car, but there I sat, wrapped in a blanket, watching the terrifying scene before me.
          “Oh God, please don’t let Ray die!” I prayed over and over again.  I stared at the limp, unconscious body lying on the ground with Mr. Smith and the two strangers working furiously to restore Ray’s breathing.
          An eternity later, the white ambulance, with its flashing red lights screeched to a halt next to the river.
          Mr. Smith rode with Ray in the rescue vehicle.  Deryl drove the Smiths car. Mom drove our station wagon with Mrs. Smith, Nollie, Bronco, and me.  The rest of the world passed by our car windows unaware that we were involved in a life and death trauma.
          “Ray will be alright,” Mom assured Mrs. Smith, “He may have to stay in the hospital for a few days, but we’ll help with the hospital bills.”
          I felt a spark of hope, as I listened to Mom’s words.  But, Ray’s mother never uttered a sound; she sat tense and silent.
          Our station wagon pulled up behind the white ambulance parked at the hospital emergency entrance.  Ray’s Dad was standing on the sidewalk weeping.  The car door stood ajar as Mrs. Smith ran to her husband.  He shook his head negatively, and she fell into his arms sobbing.  Ray was dead.

          I lay on the couch, my arm covering my eyes.  My head felt hot.  I wanted to hide and never open my eyes again!  Every time I thought of Ray, I winced.  My heart and mind hurt from the realization. Every part of me wanted to scream...”NO!!!”
          Are you still running a fever?” Mom asked attentively.
          I moved my arm and she felt my head.  I had acquired an infection from ingesting the dirty river water.  We both knew I had come close to death.  Ray and I had swum into a river hole.  In eight feet of water, (I was told)  I had unconsciously, pushed myself up from the bottom of the river, over and over again.  Mom said it was a miracle I was alive.
          Knock knock
          Deryl opened the front door, and Mr. Smith entered the living room.  He was pale and gaunt.  Grief was written on his face.
          “How are you, Gloria?” he asked with concern.
          As he looked at me, with his kind eyes, I felt guilty.  Here was the man who had saved my life, but I had a hard time looking at him.  How could he care about me, when he was hurting himself?  How could he make the effort to see how I was, when he was suffering so much grief?  Why didn’t he hate me for living, when Ray was dead?  I should be dead, and he should have his son alive!  Somehow, I felt that I should comfort Mr. Smith and tell him how sorry I was that Ray had died, but instead my voice sounded cold and heartless...”I’m okay.”
          He talked with Deryl and Mom for a few minutes, told me goodbye and left.
          His concern for me brought hot tears and a choking tightness in my throat.  I fought the emotion and buried my face under my arm so Deryl and Mom wouldn’t see the tears.  I hid behind my barrier, trying hard to shut out the pain and grief.
          Questions that had been bombarding my bruised mind began again...”Why did Ray die?  Why was I alive?"  Ray was a much better person then me, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he was in heaven.  Would I have gone to heaven?  I pondered the question for a long time...no...I wasn’t sure I would have gone to heaven.