Cold Water

I am four years old, in a darkened living room, a grown up party, surrounded by adults. My mother is near me, my father across the room. I don’t remember other children, just the tall legs of adults, some of whom I loved. My uncle’s legs, in my periphery. They are talking and laughing. Smoking and dancing.

There is a sheet draped across the wall, a projector. We are watching a film. A song plays, the chorus echoes: COLD WATER!

Standing, I watch.

My mother appears on screen with my uncle, packing to go canoeing. I shift uneasily, unable to reconcile my mother onscreen with my mother with me in the room. They review foods to bring out to the bush, basic safety equipment: mirrors to signal airplanes, whistles, matches. I remember it still.

They drive out of town, get in the boat, they push off. They hit rapids. The canoe overturns, my uncle is hurt. My mother pulls him to shore, head bleeding, boat lost. She treats his head wound, but he in unconscious. She signals a search plane. She keeps him warm. I look to my mother, my uncle, both safe, both here. I look on screen, at the horror unfolding. My uncle dead, my mother alone in the woods.

I wail. I hyperventilate. I am inconsolable.

Years later I learn there is a subsequent scene in this film where my father’s car breaks down in winter and he passes out from carbon monoxide poisoning by leaving it running while snow covered the tailpipe. He also dies.

COLD WATER!

I remember my parent’s honest astonishment at my traumatised reaction. It remains to this day one of the most dissonant experiences of my life.

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