The day before I turned 50, I leaped into the Hillsborough River.
Nothing was chasing me except the clock.
I have watched the Hillsborough River snake through my back yard for more than 6 years now. I have always wanted to jump into it. You have to pick your time slots carefully, however, as the river is home to many things that might be considered hazardous to humans. Only twice have I seen water moccasins, but the alligators are a regular occurrence in warm weather. The weather hasn’t been warm lately and the alligators have been sleeping in the woods for several weeks now.
The risk was very low.
As with any stunt I plan, I made sure there was at least one person to pull me out by my hair if needed and one person working the camera. Because, you know–proof. Today I had Jenna working my phone and Brady operating his new drone and Andrew was there to pull me out. Todd was also there, but in general conscientiously objects to things that could end badly or be viewed as a compete waste of time. I’m glad he’s that way, really. We’d all be dead otherwise.
Earlier in the day, when I was planning my jump around his conference calls, he shook his head at me and said, “Do you even have an exit plan? How are you going to get back out of the river?” Well, of course I have an exit plan, I emphasized to him as he walked away from me and went back into the house. I immediately went down to the deck to make an exit plan. I tested the water depth with a pole and dug my water shoes out of a bin in the garage.
When it was finally time to leap, I didn’t have time to pace nervously on the deck for long, as Brady announced that he didn’t have much battery power on the drone. If I wanted the drone to capture it, I needed to jump. So I did. I jumped where I had planned to jump and entered as I had planned to enter. The only thing I had not taken into account was the water temperature. It has been in the 30s at night, even here in Florida, and not climbing out of the 50s some days. It never occurred to me that this would make for some chilly, black river water.
When I was completely submerged, the water hit me like little needles and crawled all over my arms and legs before I even began swimming. By the time I was at the storm wall, to enact my foolproof exit plan, nothing was working. My arms and legs were stiffer than carnival food and I wasn’t getting out of anywhere very gracefully. Andrew walked over to the edge.
“Do you want some help?” He leaned over and extended his hand. I didn’t want help, actually. I wanted to follow through on my little bet with myself.
“No, I gotta do this on my own, man. I’m almost 50. I can do this.”
I kept trying to hoist myself out. Hoisting and flopping. Had they dropped the water level at the levee in the last 30 minutes? What was the deal?
“Do you want some help now?” He asked again, with a tone of voice that sounded a little like an eyeroll.
“No, not yet. I think I got it. I need to do this.” I turned my back to the wall and tried to make my triceps work for me. So frozen. Goodness. I have got to start working on my upper body strength.
I got out.
I’m thankful the drone was turned off before the exit plan got started good. That might have been awkward on film.
After it was over and the kids had gone inside, I sat out on the back deck and dried out, letting the 73 degree sun drape itself around my shoulders for a while, and reflecting on the past year. When I first decided to do a 50×50 list leading up to my 50th birthday, there was no pandemic. People were hugging. Schools were in session. Restaurants were open. Gyms were packed. I made my list based upon what I knew of the world then.
When the world changed, my world changed too. My perspective shifted. The parameters I needed to work within were different. What had been important to me in February and March of 2020 was bottom of the pile by June. I didn’t care about getting articles published in magazines. I didn’t care about readership. Or money. Or public opinion.
I cared about my family. I cared about my friends. I cared about safety. I cared about forming connections in a community were we needed to be distant. I cared about my health. I cared about growth. And those are the things I got to work on. I don’t know if I got to 50. I wrote some notes–some that I had been putting off for 30 years. I started running again. I lost a few pounds that I am convinced I could find again with 5 minutes alone in a corner with a Cinnabon. And I poured myself into the people that hold me up. People who tell me that jumping into rivers is a little bit stupid, but who hope I survive in spite of it. People who ask me if I have an exit plan. And people who will be extending their hands to me when the exit plan fails.
I’m on the threshold of the half century mark at the end of a year that tried its best to shrivel all our strength and keep us from climbing back out, however ungracefully.
But I’m out. And the sun is shining. And it feels pretty good.