Tears glisten in his blue eyes. “These days I feel all the joy, I’m so happy to be here.”
He spent so much of his life flirting with mortality – from professional rugby to motorcycle racing to extreme kayaking. But when death stared him down, he started chasing something else – joy.
Over breakfast, we catch each other up about what’s happened in our lives over the past seven years.
We met in Panama after my first summer of kayaking on a continuous class II and III stretch of river. It started raining at the put-in and didn’t let up. The river raged a chocolate brown, mud sliding in carrying rocks and small trees. I flipped, missed my roll and swam. He helped me get back into my kayak and asked me if I was okay. I grabbed him in a big hug and buried my face into his PFD and cried, cementing our friendship.
He tells me how a stroke on the river changes everything. He’s paddling into an easy rapid when half his body goes numb and does everything he can to make it to shore.
In the process, he flips.
His face is under a few inches of water but with the half of his body still working, he can’t right himself. He thinks this might be the way he dies.
Then a nearby paddler flips his kayak right-side-up. He lives.
After two years relearning how to use his body, he’s ready to paddle again. He spent the night at his friend’s house on the river, and woke up to the sun shining, the green river flowing. He laces up his running shoes and goes for a run for no other reason than he can.
We hug good-bye and I drive to another river to meet friends. This year I’ve been trying to get back into paddling Class IV and my belly fills with fear every time I get to the put-in.
I tell everyone who will listen that I don’t want to feel this. They tell me that I have to in order to get out there and move to the other side, to transcend the fear I must feel it.
For the first time in as long as I can remember I get into my kayak feeling the pure thrill and excitement replaced the noose of fear I usually feel. Perhaps I’ve felt the fear enough to move through it. Or maybe it’s the morning’s conversation.
The river is a spicy level and turns me backwards before the second drop. I smile, staying lose and bracing into the frothy white. The sun illuminates the water and paddling through it, I begin to shine too.
Between rapids, I admire the granite boulders, the wild flowers in brilliant orange and lavender hues. That’s when I see her.
She’s massive, perching on a boulder outcrop.
I hear bleating sounds and follow it to first one cub and then another.
The bigger cub scrambles up, finding a path around the boulder to his mama’s side. The smaller cub follows, but tumbles down several feet, crying out for help. The mama bear looks on from a distance, patient but not overly indulgent.
I watch the cubs learn how to climb and paddle with a heightened sense of wonder. I finish the river, joy pulsing through every stroke.
I stand at the take-out basking in the twists and turns of the day, realizing that joy is my antidote for fear. A swarm of butterflies surround me and I take a vow to seek joy, to cultivate joy, to live with joy.
Nothing is more important than remembering joy.