When I was little, maybe around 7 and 9 years old, I had a repetitive dream. I could see myself underneath a clear turquoise water, and bubbles were coming out of me. Above me, not too distantly, I could see the surface as a waving glass. And even though my hands were pointing up, I would not reach the surface on time and I and in my dream I would run out of air. Every time I had that dream I would wake up suffocated and panting.
The story that I am about to tell happened just a couple of weeks ago and it has taken me all this days to process it, as it has shocked me very deeply. What started out as a day to have fun at the river in San Marcos, TX, for me ended up being a close encounter with drowning.
Thank God, I am alive and writing these lines right now. Completely uninjured. But as I was being swept through the three rapids at the Guadalupe river in San Marcos, I knew that I was just a fraction of a second from starting to let water inside my lungs, with possible life-threatening consequences.
My husband Helton and I decided to visit San Marcos and took a tube ride along the river. It wasn’t my first time tubing the Guadalupe River, however. The two previous times I had gone through the rapids on the tube without any mishaps.
But on mid June of 2016 the river was high and the currents were strong. It had rained a lot the past months in Texas, making the water flow from the Edwards aquifer very abundant.
The trajectory before the rapids was a pleasant and beautiful one. The long, green, grassy leafs of the wild rice at the bottom of the river waved graciously under the moving water like the flowing hair of a siren. The turtles gathered along the river banks resting over natural piers of wooden debris and watched us as we passed by. The river was cradled by tall green trees that reflected over the quiet surface adding to its emerald tint. The dragonflies with their bright-purple heads danced around us and every so often would give us the honor of resting over our hands and let us admire them more closely. In the silence, one could hear the animated conversations of the cardinals, only interrupted by the celebratory cacophony of other groups of people on their tubes speaking in different languages. Spanish. Farsi. English.
I have never been a good swimmer. Even though I can somehow float and propel myself using my arms and feet, I get very nervous when I don’t have a bottom. Still, I took the risk as I was with Helton and I had the security of the tube. Seeing people of all ages around us added to my sense of security. Kids, dogs, older people, all seemed to flow harmoniously through the current.
I knew there was an area of rapids, but it had been more than 4 years since my last visit to the river and I could not remember the details about them, so I asked a lady around how did she feel about the rapids and she said:
- "Oh, get off before you get to them. Don’t take them. I’ve made the mistake of taking them and I’ve regretted it."
I told Helton that I didn’t feel comfortable taking them and that I was thinking about getting off. I asked what he wanted to do. He said that he wanted to go through them. I waited and when I finally devised the rapids approaching I prepared to get off. I tried to find my bottom, and proceeded to untie my tube from Helton’s so that he could go on his own.
But while trying to decide where and how to get off, and while trying to untie the tubes and ask the people that was standing around where was the best place to get off, I saw my self off the tube, and dangerously close to the top of the waterfall. The waterfall itself was probably about a meter step. Though the current was strong, everything seemed calmed on the up side of the fall and there were people standing at the edge, so I felt that I could somehow get off walking. Helton went off down the rapid on the tube.
I was trying to walk, and the river the river was deep. Unknowingly, I got too close to the water funnel and in the blink of an eye, the mass of water, attracted by the gravity, swept me into the fall without me having any control whatsoever. As I tried to reach for the hands of the people standing on each side of the place where I was being swept away, they didn’t understand my terrified call and just saw me go down without doing anything.
I fell through and rolled under the mass of water, and from the bottom of the crystalline water I could see the turbid torrent falling above me and bringing in white bubbles of air into the water as it was falling. As much as I tried, my body couldn’t do anything else but let the current dictate when, how and where to move. I tried to reach for a surface that didn’t come fast enough. I said to myself: wait.
I was running our of air.
Finally I felt the surface of the water on my face and was able to take a very short breath. I felt relief but as I was getting ready to get a second and deeper breath, I felt swept off again by the second rapid, which took me again deep into the bottom of the river. And hanging to that little bit of air that I took, I found myself again trying to reach for a surface that didn’t seem to manifest yet.
And suddenly, a third rapid.
My heart was beating very fast. At that point I had already ran out of air. I felt that any attempt to breath would have been fatal. And I was getting close to not being able to hold it anymore. I was nervous and exhausted from fighting with the current.
And that was the moment when I remembered the so very many times of extending a note to its last bit of air while singing, and even so, waiting a little bit longer.
And at that crucial moment of feeling close to let go, I just imagined myself singing. And said to myself: A little bit longer.
Immediately I relaxed, just like I do when I am doing those long, long notes, even almost without air. I tried to push the bottom of the river with my feet so that I could ascend to the surface, and in a few more seconds that seemed very long I was already reaching the top. The current was still very strong but I was finally off the rapids, and I was able to take refuge behind a rock. And pant. And shake. That rush of adrenaline would leave me paralyzed and exhausted for the next 5 minutes.
Helton was a few feet away down the river waiting for me, holding my tube which flowed away without me, and not knowing anything of what I had just lived.
The following days I didn’t know how to process such intense experience. It was supposed to be a weekend of relaxation. Instead, I felt powerless to the forces of the river, and even though I came out of it physically whole, I know that I was fractions of a second from having a very different story. Or no story at all.
And I felt vulnerable. Powerless. I experienced calling out for help and not finding it. Maybe because nobody understood that I was feeling in danger. That I was in panic.
And the only thing that I can think of is that being a singer saved my life.
That, and the grace of God.
Raquel Cepeda | Houston Jazz Singer
Photo on the top: William Guaregua
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