I have been saved for four months, and I’m reveling in my new life. The Edge is starting to feel more like my church and less like Liam’s. His friends are starting to feel like mine, too. As proof of this phenomenon, his sisters invite Tara and me on a camping trip with them.
There are 15 other girls and on the last day, Liam arrives with two of his guy friends. We all drive out to a spot where they want to go cliff jumping.
“I want to go cliff jumping with you, Tonia!” he says.
“Oh, right… How is that gonna work? You know I can’t swim, right?” I laugh.
“Come on!” Liam urges, as if the inability to swim is a minor obstacle.
“No way,” I insist.
When we arrive at our destination, everyone scatters. All the girls begin swimming to the middle of the lake….and climb up on...something...I can’t tell what...to sunbathe and talk.
Tara is back at the campsite, but I want to be here. I want to join in. And now here I am, stuck on shore while everybody else is being social in the middle of the lake.
I generally don’t mind my CP. I don’t love it, but it is part of me whether I like it or not. Times like this, though, when it is obvious I can’t do what everyone else is doing, I hate to stick out. I pace the shore, feeling left out, sad, and frustrated.
“Hey, Tonia!” Liam greets happily.
“Hey,” I say, trying to smile.
“You wanna come out to the floating dock with me?” he invites, like anything is possible.
“I can’t swim,” I remind him.
“I know. It’s fine. Just get on my back and hang on. I’ll take you out there.”
“Really?” I ask. “Are you sure you can? I mean, I’m kind of heavy…”
“Oh, you’re not heavy,” he scoffs, laughing. He squats in front of me, so his back is toward my front. “Just leave your crutches here.”
So, I put down my crutches, and I grab onto Liam. He walks to the edge of the lake and wades in. The water gets deeper and deeper, and he starts swimming, checking in with me every so often.
“Yeah,” I respond, exhilarated.
This is the coolest thing I have ever done.
I imagine we’ll get out to the dock, say hey, and turn to swim back. But as soon as we get there, Liam is thinking through a way for us to climb onto the dock.
This is getting better and better! I think. I can do everything they can!
LEAP OF FAITH:
We’ve barely been on the dock when people begin jumping off and into the water.
My self-doubt begins creeping in again: Of course, the minute I get here, everybody wants to leave. It figures.
“Oh, sweet! That looks like fun! Tonia, do you want to?” Liam asks, squinting at me in the bright sun. It is the perfect day...but Liam clearly does not understand the reality of my situation. Maybe he doesn’t have friends with disabilities. He probably doesn’t, other than me. None of my friends have disabilities, except for the ones I met at summer camp five years before.
“No,” I say. “What do you mean? How?” There is no way. He will see that, and then we’ll swim back to shore.
How am I going to get back in the water?
“Just hang onto my back like before, and we’ll jump off.”
Oh! Just hang onto my back like before and we’ll JUMP OFF? Is he kidding?
Somehow, we go from that comment, to him standing at the edge of the dock with me hanging onto his back. He is almost ready to jump when a thought occurs to him:
“When we hit the water, you have to let go of me, okay?”
“No!” I insist, clinging tighter to him, my only option. “I can’t swim! If I let go of you, I’ll sink!”
I had almost drowned at thirteen. I knew this drill.
Tonia + water - life jacket = NEVER AGAIN.
Except here I am. Surrounded by water, with no life jacket.
How else am I going to get back in the water? A few seconds, and my resolve is already weakening.
“Tonia, you have to let go of me or we’ll both sink. I won’t let anything happen to you. All the girls are down there in the water to help, too. We’ll get you, okay? Trust me. You just have to let go.”
“Okay,” I say eventually. Warily. Mostly, I agree because I don’t want Liam to drown because of me. But I still am not 100% confident in my instincts once I am submerged in water and unable to get a breath of air. (When a giant wave in the Gulf flipped my innertube, sending me underwater years before, I had fought with everything in me to be rescued. Which meant all 74 pounds of my overstressed, high toned body of solid muscle was trying to pull my sister down with me.)
I have not thought this through.
We are here, and there is no other way back to shore but to get back in the water. And apparently the only way to get back in the water is to jump.
I close my eyes as Liam’s feet leave the dock.
We hit the water, and to my shock, I let go of him on instinct.
This time, I try to swim, but it’s ineffective, even in the calm water of the lake.
This is it.
I’m going to drown.
This was really stupid.
Hands find me in the water. Several pairs. And I feel myself being brought to the surface. Liam is there, and I hang onto his back again.
We swim back to shore.
I find my crutches and everyone gathers to hang out on the beach. Tara is back, and I am sopping wet and giddy.
“Tonia jumped off the floating dock with me!” Liam tells her, so exuberant that he beats me to the punch.
She turns to me, her face a mixture of no-nonsense sternness and shock that’s earned her the nickname of “Mom” among our friends. “You did what?” she accuses.
“Yeah,” I confirm, grinning from ear to ear.
“Oh, come on, it was fun!” Liam ribs her.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Tara insists angrily.
“Can you take a picture of us?” I ask obliviously, as everybody gathers for a photo op by the lake.
“You guys are so bad,” she says, snapping the picture. “Seriously, you are in such big trouble.”
|[Image is: The photo Tara took of me after I jumped. It is sepia toned. I'm inexplicably in both a hat and my bathing suit, standing with my crutches and a big smile is on my face.]|
The truth is, I was lucky that day. I was lucky my friends were strong enough to rescue me after my total desperation to fit in eclipsed my common sense to the point where it put my life in danger. I was newly nineteen. I was old enough not to do something I knew was dangerous.
So, the blame for this rests - first and foremost - on my own shoulders. However, with several years of hindsight I can also say that my hesitations, and my outright no’s to Liam should have been respected and honored, and they weren’t.
Now, why did I choose to share this story?
It doesn’t have much to do with church, or faith...except it does…
The draw of church and of faith was the acceptance I found in the arms and the hearts of the people I met there. I came to The Edge six months previously, hurting. I was in need. I needed support. I needed people. I needed love.
Salvation put me on the same spiritual level as my peers. While I knew I was “younger” in my walk with the Lord, we were all headed for the same place, and they wanted me with them as we journeyed through life together.
They wanted me with them.
Liam wanted me with him, and he always seemed to know when I was feeling left out and found ways to include me. At the time, I thought there was nothing greater anyone could do to show me they cared about me genuinely.
As an adult, I can tell you that what would have been great is for me to have felt confident enough in my place with my friends to feel happy making macaroni and cheese on the beach with Tara and another friend, not risking my life for a few minutes of ridiculous fun.
When I think of young loved ones with CP doing this or similar things just in the name of acceptance, it makes my blood run cold. Because our lives don’t just have value if we can do what our able-bodied friends can do.
It is not worth it - it is never worth it - to risk your life in the name of fitting in.
Those friends I was so worried about impressing and keeping? I am not in touch with a single one today.
You know who I live with and see every day?
Tara. Who knows what it’s like to have CP. Who knows what it’s like to feel left out. And who valued my life enough to call me on out when I was incredibly irresponsible with it.
Friends are not really your friends if they push you to do risky things. Friends are not really your friends if they do not hear and honor your hesitance. Even friends you meet at church. Even friends who are doing nice things by trying to include you. If they don’t fully grasp or want to learn what it means to have a disability, but expect you to grasp what it means to be able-bodied, think twice.
Think twice before putting your life in their hands.
I trusted everyone else that hot summer day. I trusted that Liam would not knowingly put me in danger. I trusted that the other girls would be strong enough to save me. I trusted God to protect me. But I was reckless and irresponsible with my life, and because of my abysmal sense of self-worth, I did not listen to the one voice I should have honored:
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