The Weight of Oars

The Weight of Oars 1920 1280 Ann Kathryn Kelly

My brother Sean and I had a routine the summer we spent in hospital waiting rooms. He’d pull his laptop from a bag and work his way through a stack of company emails. For those times he needed to join work-related conference calls, he’d take them from his cell phone in the lobby.

I spent my time leafing through magazines. I couldn’t concentrate on emails on my phone, and the last thing I wanted was the weight of a laptop bag on my shoulder from car to hospital and back. I was carrying enough weight inside my racing brain: headaches, questions, and, as the summer wore on, growing dread.

One afternoon while Sean tapped on his keyboard, I flipped to an article about salamanders. Photos of bug-eyed, four-toed amphibians, captured mid-dart, lined the page margins. Some salmon-colored, others yellowish-green. One had neon spots on a muddy-brown body. Another had what looked like armor along its back. Blocks of text described classifications, when they mate, the habitats and food they prefer.

Salamanders. I hadn’t thought of them in decades. The year I was in seventh grade though, they and their brethren, frogs and toads, took up a month of study in science class. Toward the end of our amphibian track, our teacher, Mr. Taylor, threw down an extra credit challenge. Bring in a live salamander and we’d get the equivalent of one-hundred on a quiz. Treading water in science, I needed the boost and raised my hand.

***

Salamanders thrived in the wooded landscape of our rural Vermont. We’d come across them nestled under logs, slipping in and out of creeks, sunning themselves on mud banks once the annual thaw got underway.

Our neighbor down the hill from us on the dirt roads of Newbury Center had a pond. Mrs. Thompson was a retired schoolteacher living on a chicken farm. Her children were grown and her husband had died years before our family of seven moved to Vermont from Pennsylvania in the middle of a snowstorm in 1977. She had a barn behind her white Cape Cod house and a large, weathered-gray chicken coop in an adjacent field. Bloodthirsty geese—I can still see the strutting gaggle of five—guarded her pond across the road, marching the perimeter like soldiers, one eye ever trained on incoming threats. Fast, fearless, filled with flapping fury, anyone was game to chase down. I hated their blaring bravado.

Mrs. Thompson’s pond was home to scores of salamanders. The first trick would come in maneuvering around the geese; the second, in trying to catch one of the slippery green Houdini’s that would be there one minute, gone in the next eye-blink. I’d need help wrangling one into captivity. I had my shoebox ready, air holes pierced, when I went looking for Sean, my brother closest in age.

He was in the den on the sofa, eating crackers slathered in peanut butter. An open jar sat on the coffee table with a butter knife propped against the lid. He’d made a stack that sat on a plate.

“Wanna help me catch a salamander?” I held up my shoebox. “I need it for Mr. Taylor’s class.”

He turned from the TV to grab a cracker from the plate and looked at me.

“Can it wait ‘til Saturday?” He popped the cracker in his mouth.

“No. I want to get it this afternoon and bring it in tomorrow. I need it for extra credit.”

He turned back to the TV, stretched out his legs, kicked his white Converse All Star High Top sneakers onto the coffee table, shoveled another cracker in his mouth.

I’d learned, when dealing with any of my brothers, that you needed to be a dog with a bone to get anywhere. I was the youngest in our family and prone to getting lost in the shuffle. I walked in front of the TV, rattled my empty shoebox, and waited for Sean to shift his attention from the screen I blocked, and meet my eyes. Seconds passed.

“So? Can you?”

“What’s your grade?”

“C-minus.”

“Mr. Taylor’s good. I liked his class.” Sean leaned over the plate and grabbed two more crackers that disappeared, one-two.

“So? Can you?” I repeated.

“Yeah. You only need one?”

I nodded.

The plate was empty. Sean reached for the plastic sleeve, slid out several more crackers, and picked up the knife from the peanut butter lid.

“Give me a half hour.”

***

We wore down coats that April afternoon when we walked to Mrs. Thompson’s pond. Vermont temperatures quickly dropped in spring and all bets were off past three o’clock in the great white north. I clutched my shoebox with gloved hands and wondered if there would be enough sun left to lure the salamanders. We’d learned in class they’re ectothermic—a fancy word for cold-blooded.

The bank was deserted, not a goose in sight. We kept our eyes on the ground as we walked the pond’s edge, lifting fallen maple branches and scuffing remnants of the previous summer’s grass with the toes of our sneakers, hoping to see a coveted amphibian zip across our path.

Mrs. Thompson’s pond took on different personalities, depending on the season. It woke from hibernation in spring, uncurling from months of icy sleep to become a playground for frogs, their shrill mating calls blanketing the night air for weeks. Peepers, we called them. Whenever I drive past ponds and swamps on spring evenings, it remains my favorite sound of the season; the promise it holds.

In summer, the pond played the part of a murky swamp creature from a B-movie. A dense, pungent odor rose from its depths, a thick layer of mosquitoes hovering over its algae-scummed surface. Cattails and reedy grasses sprouted in thickets, especially where the pond narrowed into a “V” before meandering to the left behind an overgrown bank and emptying into swampland. We’d heard it was chock full of black leeches.

Mrs. Thompson’s pond was its most charming in winter. The pungent odor evaporated with autumn’s crisp winds. As winter deepened, everything smelled pure. When snow clung to the trees and ice slicked the pond’s surface, when pinks and violets streaked across the sky in Impressionist master strokes, her pond morphed from summer’s ugly caterpillar into a beautiful winter butterfly; a perfect backdrop to a Hollywood Christmas classic.

My brothers spent much of their weekends from December to mid-March shoveling the pond to set up nets for ice hockey with neighborhood boys. When a dumping buried it under feet of snow, they skipped clearing the whole pond and instead carved tunnels for speed skating.

Mrs. Thompson kept a small rowboat on shore, metal and by that point mostly gray and rusted, though streaks of bleached blue paint hinted at its original color. Wooden oars laid across two plank seats. We’d struck out on land, so Sean suggested we glide across the pond to see if any salamanders might be hanging out on the lily pads clumped toward the narrows. My stomach sank. I never had good balance and climbing into a rocking rowboat sounded like a crappy plan. I didn’t know how deep the pond was. Guesses varied, from fifteen feet to fifty. And then, there might be those leeches. The legend was bigger than any of us and I didn’t want to find out if it was true.

Sean pointed to the other side. “We’ll take a quick row over.”

Algae wouldn’t bloom for six weeks or more. I looked across the still brown surface, images of sucking leeches and God-knows-what-else crowding my thoughts.

“Let’s look around the grass again,” I said. “We might still find one.”

“There aren’t any on the bank. We gotta try the water. Come on, the sun’s gonna set.”

I eyed the rowboat. Was that extra credit worth it? My stomach said no, but my brain pushed my feet down the embankment.

“Just sit in the middle. I’ll row.”

Sean pushed the oars to the side of the plank seat and shoved the rowboat. The front half eased into the water, the back half still on the bank. He held it while I swung a leg over. He shoved again and as the back end glided into the water, he leapt in.

I gripped my shoebox and tried to ignore the sinking sun and growing bite in the air. We neared the part that narrowed and continued around a bend. Last summer’s lily pads, frostbitten and curling, floated past. Cattail skeletons drooped.

After ten minutes of peering at empty lily pads, Sean pointed the rowboat back. We neared the front bank and he angled it sideways as we drifted against muddy land. Sitting behind me, he stood and threw a leg over. As he did, his other leg kicked back against the plank seat, rocking the boat into the water again. Unbalanced, one foot on the bank and the other in the boat, he leaned toward land and hopped the rest of the way. His last frog-kick did me in. The boat slipped back into the water. The oars? On land—he’d tossed them out so we could lay them back across the seats.

“Why’d you do that?” A pit in my stomach churned, as the boat drifted. I scrambled to the front.

Was there time to jump out? The rowboat rocked and I leaned down to balance myself, hitting my shin against wood. I sank onto the plank and watched the bank and my brother get smaller. The sky was by then more pink than blue. I clenched my shoulders to my ears and huddled into my coat.

“I didn’t mean to, I was slipping,” Sean called.

I wasn’t sure how far the boat had drifted; far enough, though, that we had to raise our voices.

“Here, I’m gonna glide one of the oars out to you. Just lean over—not too much!—and grab it.” Sean crouched and aimed the oar. With a gentle push, it sailed toward me.

I sat frozen to my seat, moving only my eyes like the salamanders we hunted. I didn’t want the boat to start rocking again. The oar slipped past, several feet away.

“Get it!”

“It’s too far! I’m not leaning over and making this thing tip!”

“Annie, I’m gonna float this other one out to you. Now, grab it!” I looked at the first oar, still bobbing on the surface feet away.

Sean aimed the second oar and pushed. The pink sky was deepening to purple.

I reached for the second oar and the boat tipped. I leaned in the other direction on instinct, starting a series of rocking. My stomach plunged into my sneakers. “Whoa!”

I heard Sean groan from the bank. “Jesus, Annie.”

“It’s not my fault, they weren’t even close!”

“Can you use your hands to paddle?”

I peeled off my gloves. Bending from my waist, arms stretched like a bird, I grasped for each side of the boat. I dipped my fingers beneath the brown surface, tried paddling with one hand, then switched sides. It felt like the ice bin in our freezer, the water numbing my fingers.

Shadows were closing in, but I could still see Sean on the bank. He looked over his shoulder, back to Mrs. Thompson’s house across the dirt road. Her windows were dark.

“Annie, I’m gonna run home and get help.”

“No! Don’t leave!” My heart thundered as I imagined leeches gathering and rising from a muddy bottom. Had I heard something over there, something moving through the water?

I squinted and saw Sean bending to remove his sneakers. He dropped his coat on the ground and took off his sweater. I heard a splash. Seconds later I saw him, my fourteen-year-old brother slicing through frigid pond water. In jeans and a tee shirt. Toward me.

He reached the rowboat in minutes. As he dog-paddled near it, he swiped both oars floating several feet away. He’d kept his head above water but the bottom of his hair was wet.

“I’m climbing in. If it tips, lean the other way.” He tossed the oars in and grabbed one side. It pitched. I pressed my feet into the boat’s bottom and leaned right. Sean heaved himself in.

I felt horrible I hadn’t caught the oars. Ashamed I’d been too scared—of the freezing water and what lurked beneath—to get myself back on land. Couldn’t I have tried?

I wanted to help row us back.

“No, give me both,” Sean said. “Let’s just get out of here.”

When we reached the bank a second time, he told me to get out first. I did, then turned to hold the boat against the mud flat. He climbed out, pulled the rowboat further on land, and laid the oars across the planks. His tee shirt clung to him and he rubbed his arms as he stooped to pick up his sweater. He stepped into his sneakers, sockless, and pulled the sweater over his head. I reached for his down coat, crumpled on the ground. He jammed his arms into sleeves and zipped it. Our house was a five-minute walk up the hill.

Mom was setting out dinner plates on the table, Dad adding logs to the woodstove, when we walked in. My parents took in Sean’s hunched, shivering figure in stunned silence. Mom was the first to erupt.

“Oh my God, where were you two? What happened?”

Sean was out of his coat and shoes, halfway to the bathroom and a hot shower, before my parents could close in around me to hear what happened. I barely slept that night. What if I’d tipped the boat while going for an oar and landed in the pond, my coat weighing me down? I remembered the burning in my fingers. How had Sean been able to swim through that water, in jeans? What if he’d gotten a cramp? Upended the boat while getting in, and we both got tossed?

I never walked or drove past Mrs. Thompson’s pond for the remaining years I lived at home without replaying that evening and everything that could have gone wrong, as dark closed in and oars sailed past. An endless loop of what-ifs pulled at me for weeks.

***

In the hospital’s waiting room, I studied the magazine’s pictures. There was the Slimy Salamander, common in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern United States. The Northern Dusky, lungless and ranging from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The Four-toed, also lungless. The Mudpuppy and the Jefferson. One, a brighter orange, was labeled the Eastern Red-spotted Newt.

Our family had left our homestead in Vermont years earlier. As I turned magazine pages that afternoon I wondered what Mrs. Thompson’s pond looked like, now decades later. Being August, it would be choked with cattails and lily pads. It would stink from algae blooms. Did a new generation of geese patrol, descendants of the terrorizing bastards we knew as children?

Weeks earlier, Sean and I had been in another specialist’s office, hearing that what I had was a cavernous angioma. Classified a neurovascular disease, a cavernous angioma is “a blood vessel abnormality” that can affect any part of the central nervous system, hemorrhaging in periodic cycles. As blood pools, small episodes can be reabsorbed into brain or spinal tissue. My MRI, however, showed more frequent hemorrhaging that over time had compounded my symptoms, deficits, prognosis. The disease, we learned, occurs in 0.4 percent of the population. Mine was deep within my brain, on my brain stem.

I’d suffered from thundering headaches my whole life, a symptom tied to the angioma’s bleeding. We learned that day why my symptoms—some of them strange, inexplicable, like my nonstop hiccupping—indicated pressure on the brain stem. Waves of dry heaving rippled up my throat. Numbness had moved from my left foot and ankle, and climbed into my calf.

“Your MRI shows evidence of previous bleeds, deposits of iron and blood byproducts.” The brain surgeon used his pen to trace a black mass on my MRI scan, splashed across his computer screen. “Remnants from each bleed have formed a ring around the angioma.”

I’d brought a notebook, but couldn’t will my fingers to pick up my pen. My fists, partially balled, laid unmoving in my lap. Sean would repeat to me, as we drove home that afternoon, much of what was said. How radiation often proved ineffective at treating a cavernous angioma. How the brain stem is one of the most difficult and dangerous places to have one. How my surgery would need to be open-head. How we needed to make a decision.

Soon.

***

Sean saved me once from a drifting rowboat when I was convinced shadowy threats waited for me beneath the pond’s placid surface. Twenty-seven years later, he was again with me as we made the rounds at hospitals, collecting opinions.

He floated oars out to me after each consultation, assurances that we’d get through this as a family.

In those doctors’ waiting rooms, feeling stranded in the middle of what seemed another bottomless pond waiting to fold me into its cold, dark embrace, I reached for the oars my brother offered. Grabbed them. I couldn’t let my fear of the unknown—the gamble I’d be taking in electing open-head surgery—prevent me from grasping for the support my family extended; the expertise my team of doctors presented.

Working together, my doctors, family, and I navigated the uncertain waters of daylong brain surgery, propelling me in the only acceptable direction.

Forward.

Header photograph © Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom.

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