The little boy I can’t remember would be dead now but for a neighbor lady who, according to a newspaper article in the Barre, Ontario Sentinel, in 1944, was gazing out her kitchen window when she saw a tiny hand rise up, stark against the gray water. She flung open the door, ran across the slopping lawn, and jumped in, with no thought for the shock of the numbing cold about to assault her.
Somehow, the “middle-aged Miss Marjorie Roberts,” as the newspaper dubbed her, found the right patch of water, fished my small, dead body up from the depths and made her way back to the shore with me in tow. Exhausted and freezing herself, she was unable to climb the steep embankment back to safety. So, she clung to the slippery rocks with one hand and held me fast until help arrived, risking her own life even though I was no longer breathing.
The brain can only survive without oxygen for five to ten minutes before the damage is irreversible. Thus, I was at the mercy of time. I often wonder if this might have felt like a second birth for me, had it not come too soon in the chronology of my young life to be appreciated. I’ve met people since who have had near-death experiences and who remember floating calmly up on the ceiling and watching everything that was going on in the room beneath.
I sometimes wonder how this incident might have affected me. Might it have instilled in me a sense of being trapped in a life I was not actually destined to have?
From as far back as I can remember, I had the sense that I was a kind of interloper in the land of the living. I have vague recollections of feeling, even as a toddler, that I was living in an alternative universe. And then, in grade school, both my grades and the teachers’ comments to my parents on the back of my report card reflected a student who was not always fully present in his local time and place. Flash forward, and as a young man, I recall feeling that society was made up of confident, well-adjusted people whom, I imagined, entertained no doubts about the lives they were living. (Perhaps nothing reveals my lack of connection with that world so much as this belief that everyone else felt happy in it.) Perhaps that early experience initiated a propensity to find life rather strange, as I often experienced the world as remote and unaccountable.
You may wonder, then, did I ever go back and thank Marjorie Roberts. No, I didn’t. It would take me more than thirty years to get to the point where I even thought about thanking anyone for my life. And by then, it was too late to knock on Miss Roberts’ door.
It may be true that youth is wasted on the young, but it’s never too late to feel gratitude. It’s not too late even if, when we finally wake up, the people we want to thank are not here anymore.