It was early December and I walked out of the false warmth of my home into a beautiful crisp northern New Jersey afternoon. The sky was crystal blue and the air was clear, so translucent it felt surreal. Wind scattered bursts of snow from the high plowed banks lining the sides of the street. I was in my youth, about 13 years old, and I was trying to enjoy the day as best as I could given the circumstances. So far I was making a decent effort but soon this would not be the case. I would be freezing, frantic and convinced I was going to die. Being how I felt at that time in my life I was going to be alright with that.
Before I was thrown into a fight for my life against nature, things were not ideal for me at the time. I had flown to my mother’s home in Northwestern New Jersey for my winter break from school in Chicago. I had become accustomed to the process of boarding airplanes, flying to different homes around the lower 48 throughout the year. I had been alternating holidays with my parents since their hostile divorce which occured when I was just 4 years old.
The only issue with the arrangement was that I absolutely detested my mother’s home and my new family who occupied it. It was unbearable since I had left to live with my father when I was 9. My step sisters made sure I was uncomfortable. They were relentless with snarky comments and their cruelty aimed towards me. My step father rarely spoke to me, other than the occasionally grunt in confirmation or head tilt in recognition of my presence. My mother was at the helm of my misery. With her constant jabs and comments about me leaving her custody years ago to live with my father. I hated New Jersey and immediately upon arriving wanted to escape.
My full sister, Amy, once acted as my one and only outlet to the torment. However, she was now 15 and too busy with teenage emergencies to spend a holiday with her lonely brother. She left earlier in the morning with her friends to go do something which was critical for young women. I was alone in a house full of my “family”.
I told my mother I was going out for a bit and received a cold, “Okay.” in response.
I put my coat and ventured into the winter. Finally, I felt the freedom of isolation. The cold had a way of driving the locals inside. The streets were empty and I liked it. In Chicago, people carried on as usual, just with more layers of clothing, during the winter. You had to. If everyone hibernates during the winter we would only get to be outside for a few months or so.
There was snow covering the landscape surrounding me. It was much different than the city, cleaner and with old victorian homes lining the streets it made me feel like I was in the movie “A Wonderful Life”. I understood the irony back then just as well as I do today.
It had been warmer than usually the days before my arrival. The warmth had melted some of the top layers of snow and the recent cold front had frozen the remaining snow into a thick sheet of ice which laid across everything exposed. It reminded me of a fluffy hotel towel left wet outside to freezy on the laundry line.
I lit a cigarette, my attempt to rebel in my adolescence, and walked down the street of my mother’s neighborhood. The golf course in the neighborhood was nestled into the trees remaining of a once massive forest. The fairways were long white placid voids in the landscape. They ran throughout the wooded landscape where house periodicals appeared. The houses were natural to the scene and appeared to have grown with the forest at one time or another.
I came upon a retention pond about a mile from our house and went to sit on a cement structure protruding from the snowy ground. It was dry and I thought it would be a good place to sit and smoke cigarette after cigarette. A good enough excuse to keep me away from the people I was trying to avoid. I made my way through the icy snow, my Converse sneakers breaking through the crusty ice on top of the powder with each step. My feet were getting cold and wet, but I continued to trudge through to my destination.
I sat on the cast cement for a while looking into the sky through the crisp winter air. It was getting colder. There was eerie silence of winter all around. No animals rustling or cars or voices, just the sound of me exhaling clouds of smoke and the brushing of my jacket when I moved.
Eventually I decided to walk to the front gate of our neighborhood which was about a mile or so further down the road of my home. This was merely to have something to do other than be at home. I put out my cigarette and threw it into the drain below where I sat. It disappeared into the darkness beneath the surface of the earth. Looking back, the simple act might have triggered a premonition.
I stood up and stepped off the cement. My sneakers touched the icy surface and I put my weight onto my foot fully. That instant my foot slid out from beneath me. fell onto the ice, sliding down the embankment into the retention pond. Luckily the pond has frozen over and I didn’t fall into the water beneath. My heart is beating so hard from the adrenaline I can only focus on the throbbing rhythm in my chest, pumping into my ears. I lay on my back for a few moments to collect myself. I gathered myself taking a final sigh of relief. I sat up, placed my hands on the ground, pushed myself to my feet and headed towards the embankment to climb the small incline to get back to street level.
I take a step onto the ice of the embankment, climb my way out of the retention pond, walk to the main gate and head home. I spend the rest of the day in my room away from my family.
The following day I return to the pond in order to smoke more cigarettes and remove myself from the same unpleasant situation as the day prior. I felt good for once. I walked along the edge of the pond rather than sitting on the cold cement. I was daydreaming about returning home to my friends, to hockey games in Lincoln Park, Navy Pier and of course my father.
I was almost halfway around the pond when I took a step and fell on my side. Somehow I ended up sliding head first towards the ice at the bottom of the incline. I slid over the edge of the pond and right then upon hitting the frozen surface I heard a cracking sound. The ice gave way and I fell into the water. I was completely submerged for a few seconds. I thrashed trying to reach the surface but I was beneath a sheet of ice. After what seemed like minutes I found the small hole through which I had entered the water. I found the bottom and planted my feet standing up out of the icy cold drainage water. The water was up to the top of my chest and I was surrounded by ice, my feet stuck into six inches of muck which lined the bottom of the pond acting as a home to fish, turtles, frogs and other unknown creatures all long since gone to their specific mud huts for their icey winter slumber.
I tried to get a handle on something but could not. I tried to plant my feet to spring myself out of the water up onto the ice but was essentially stuck in place from the quick sand like substance holding my feet. I was planted into the ground like the Cat Tail which lined the edges of the pond.
I was completely overwhelmed by the cold water. My body was tense to the point where I couldn’t move. I began to shiver uncontrollably and fight with my body denying its wish to curl into the fetal position. I felt the urge to tighten up, closing my body into a ball to save warmth rapidly escaping into the water. I did not allow it to happen, I just clung to the edge of the ice.
I was terrified and had no idea what to do. I tried to yell for help but it came out stifled, like a stuttering screamed whisper,H-h-h-h-he hehehelp…”.
I felt frozen in place. I was trying to think of a way to get out of the water. Everytime I tried getting a grip to pull myself out I would just slip on the ice. The pain in my feet became excruciating along with my fingers and hands. Pain of thousands of needles piercing my skin began in my extremities. I was getting scared and frantically started grasping and clawing my way out of the water. My efforts did nothing but keep my blood flowing into my extremities. I tried to move but it became harder and harder. My hands and feet no longer hurt. My legs and arms were soothing as well. I realized they were all numb.
After a few minutes in the water I became tired. The numbnest came on accompanied by a dull ache which was turning to warmth. I propped my elbows onto the ice and fought the urge to just stay still. I tried to move my body around but it was difficult.
Finally, after what seemed like a day, a car appeared down the road. I felt a sense of excitement along with relief. I told myself I needed to get it’s attention somehow. I took the deepest breath I could and submerged myself beneath the water and grabbed a handful of mud and grass. I could not close my hand around the muddy solution, it sat in my mangled fist. When the car got close enough I tried to hurl it to get the driver’s attention. My muscles were so tense the make-shift ball barely made it five feet in front of me.
It was disheartening and I began thinking I was going to freeze to death as the car drove down the road. The thought of dying there in the water so close to civilization was somehow acceptable to me at the time.
No thoughts of “I wish I could tell so and so I love them” or “I am so young I don’t want to die” or “God, please get me out of this and I will never do such and such again…” came to mind. I just thought, well to be honest, I didn’t really think anything at the time. Other than I was so freaking cold in that water I just wanted it to be over with.
Suddenly I hear a man’s voice yell, “Hey! Hey! Get out of the pond!”
Looking around, I felt a surge of energy through me. I saw a police officer standing on the edge of the pond on the opposite side, his arms crossed over his chest. I wanted to yell something witty and sarcastic but what came out was a pleading, “I tried but I can’t!”
I was taken back by the fact the officer thought I was willingly in the frigid water. Even at thirteen I understand the idiocy of the demand being made to me. I still to this day wonder if he actually thought I was in that freezing water because actually I wanted to be. Or if it was just a habit for police officers to make obvious demands on children they see in danger. Telling the child to remove themselves from the perilous situation.
The police officer began to make his way towards me, slowly, much slower than I would have liked at the time.
I made a half hearted attempt knowing it was futile. Frustrated and scared I yelled, “See I c-c-can’t! Y-y-y-you d-d-don’t think I t-t-tried?”
The police officer took his radio off his shoulder and said something into the microphone. He clipped it back onto his shoulder and began walking more briskly now towards me at the edge of the pond. After what seemed like an hour he made it to me and looked around for something to hold onto. A neighbor who had been passing by called to him, “Do you need help?”
“Yes, get over here!”
The two men grabbed hands and made a rather short and underwhelming human chain. The neighbor was at the bottom and the officer was holding a tree branch with one hand and lowered the passerby down to me in the water with the other. They two men strained and stretched far as they could and I did the same, I reached my hand up but it was only a gesture of wanting to live nothing else.
There was still about three feet separating our hands. The police officer broke a branch off the tree and handed it to the other man. I grabbed it and they were able to pull me out of the water. When I was almost out the man slipped falling onto the ice, but was able to hold the police officer’s hand and the branch at the same time. I inched out of the remaining water dragging myself along the ice.
I was out of the water shivering uncontrollably in wet clothing. The police officer asked me what I was doing and what I was thinking. I wanted them to be rhetorical but he was staring at me waiting for my response. I did not tell him I was smoking cigarettes because I was afraid I would be in trouble. I just shrugged and shivered, eventually he shook his head in frustration.
The ambulance showed up shortly after and they examined me onsite. I had first degrees frostbite on my toes and fingers. The skin was glossy and turning white in areas. I was in early stages of hypothermia. My body temperature was lower than what was within the safe zone they told me. I believed them, the water was really cold.
The paramedics said if I had been in the water much longer I would have died. They told me to remove my clothing in the rear of the ambulance and I was wrapped in large heated blankets along with a silver emergency blanket as I lay on a gurney on the way to the emergency room.
I was nervous for them to call my mother and was terrified of her reaction. I knew my step sisters would make a mockery out of me about how stupid I must be to have falling iinto the pond.
I was admitted into the hospital with mild hypothermia and frostbite. My mother eventually came to the hospital to check on my status. She was angry at me and asked me if I was trying to ruin the holiday for the family. “Of course not Mom. It was an accident.”
I felt hopeless and just wanted to go home to Chicago. My mother went to make a phone call and I was left alone, which brought a sense of relief. Relief which was short lived once she returned.
The doctor eventually came in and explained my status to my mother. The electric blanket and hot water bottles had regulated my body temperature. The frostbite was mild and there would be no lasting damage to be phalanges. I was kept in the hospital for evaluation for a while. I spent the majority of the time playing video games, which was difficult with the frostbite and watching television.
After two days, the doctor said I could be released with her permission. She immediately signed the paperwork and rushed out of the hospital doors with me in tow. I didn’t even get a wheelchair ride to the front door, which I was bummed about.
When we got home I took a hot shower and called my father. When he answered the phone I could tell he was concerned. It made me feel better. He asked, “Ryan, are you alright?”
For the first time on the visit to my mother’s house I actually did feel alright. “Yeah Dad, I’m fine, but I want to come home.”
“Soon enough kiddo, soon enough. Your step mother and I miss you. Please try and have a good time at your mother’s house.”
I lied and said I would try. I lay in bed that night in mild pain from the incident. I stared up at the ceiling unable to sleep. I thought with everything that happened, having to return to this house was the worst part. I should have stayed in the hospital or in the water for that matter. I could hear my step sisters laughing in the hallway. I only heard mumbles but could tell they were making fun of me. I pulled the blanket over my head and tried to sleep. I eventually dozed off.