My wife, Jenny, and I were sitting with our friend, Stan, on the roof-top deck of the beach house she and I had rented in San Diego. We were there for a month to get out of the long, wet Seattle winter; Stan had just come down to visit for Presidents’ Day weekend. He still supervised a few residents at UW Medical Center where he’d been head of internal medicine, but Jenny and I had retired completely several years earlier from the environmental engineering firm where we’d both worked.
It was late afternoon, unseasonably mild, and we’d arranged our padded wicker chairs on three sides of a low table so the expansive view of sand and waves stretched before us from Crystal Pier to Bird Rock. Stan sat in the middle. We sipped bottles of IPA and nibbled off a plate of warm brie, crackers, and grapes while we reminisced about some of the trips we’d gone on together over the years. Jenny and I were careful not to mention Carol, Stan’s wife, who’d been along on all those journeys, too, because she’d left him after forty years of marriage without warning the summer before. So far, we’d shared stories about sailing among the Greek islands, canoeing through the Boundary Waters of northern Michigan, and bicycling between villages in Ireland.
Stan leaned forward, plucked a grape, chewed for a moment, then said, “How about that rafting trip on the Snake River?”
Jenny gave a little snort and said, “Oh, boy.”
“Yeah.” I chuckled. “Talk about adventures.”
We all shook our heads gazing out as the sun crept towards the horizon. On that week-long trip, we’d joined eleven others on a remote stretch of the Snake, traveling on three large rafts commandeered in back by guides giving the paying guests paddling instructions. Each raft also carried a portion of our camping provisions, although I suppose “glamping” would be a more accurate description given the level of luxury and expense involved. The four of us were on the first boat along with the lead guide, who owned the rafting company, and his wife, the trip’s top-shelf chef. Late on our third afternoon, she went overboard in the middle of a raging Class 3 rapid. We watched in horror as she submerged completely among the rocks under churning white water, then popped up and was tossed like a crazed rag doll down a funneled chute. Her upper torso was slammed hard against a large boulder before she finally drifted into an eddy in front of us. Her husband was the first one out to her, cradling her gently over to a pebbly shore. The rest of us followed shortly, tugging the raft behind us, and those in the other two boats joined us moments later.
We’d all introduced ourselves at a canopied luncheon prior to our initial orientation and put-in, so everyone was aware that Stan was a doctor, as well as that an ER nurse and an Army Ranger EMT were also among the guests. The owner quickly scooted aside and deferred to Stan when we came ashore. The woman lay on her back with her left shoulder raised, her eyes squeezed shut into a grimace. She moaned softly and grasped her raised shoulder with her opposite hand.
The owner gave Stan a look of stunned alarm, then told his wife, “You remember Stan, honey. He’s a doctor, and he’s going to check you out, take care of you. The nurse and EMT are here, too. You’re in good hands.”
He stayed where he was while Stan knelt and did a slow, deliberate examination of the woman, asking her questions now and then, and listening carefully to her answers. The other guests stood around them in a loose semicircle, though the nurse and EMT had moved closer than the rest of us. The guide from the rear raft had brought over a large first aid kit and a two-way radio that he’d switched on; aside from its occasional static, the only sound was the rushing water behind us and the quiet exchanges between Stan and the woman.
She kept her eyes closed for the entire five minutes or so it took Stan to complete his exam. The grimace never left her face except when it became a wince after he unsnapped her life vest and touched portions of her rib cage and when she cried out as he ran his fingertips gingerly behind her raised shoulder.
Stan straightened, his bottom against his haunches, and blew out a long breath. He looked first at the owner, then up at the nurse and EMT before telling the woman, “Well, we can patch up your cuts and bruises, no problem there. And you’ve cracked a few ribs – three, I believe – but none fractured, as far as I can tell without an x-ray, so they probably aren’t a danger to any internal organs and your breathing seems unimpeded.” He paused. “But the big issue is that you’ve broken your left scapula. No question about that, I’m afraid, and it can be tricky to repair.”
“Jesus,” the EMT muttered.
He shook his head, and I saw the nurse set her jaw hard. The woman opened her eyes for the first time and began to weep silently. Her husband smoothed her wet hair and fixed Stan with a dumbstruck glare. He said, “So what do we do now?”
“You have to get her to a hospital,” the EMT answered.
“We’re fifty miles from the nearest road,” the owner said. “Thirty miles by river.”
“Call for an emergency transport chopper,” the EMT said. “Now.”
The nurse nodded her head. Stan looked back and forth between the two of them, then turned to the owner and said, “That would seem the most prudent course.”
The owner’s own nod was short and appeared almost reluctant. He said, “I’ll go with her.”
“No,” the woman barked suddenly. “We won’t abort this trip. We can’t.” Her eyes found her husband’s, and her good hand clutched one of his. “No,” she said again even more sharply. “Think of the expense. We can’t afford the refunds.” She shook her head almost violently, then cried out in pain again.
Stan reached down and laid his palm against her hip. “Easy,” he said. “Or you’ll make it worse.”
She shook her husband’s fist in her own and said, “You have to stay. You’re the only one who can set the line through those rapids.”
“I’m not letting you be transported to the hospital alone.” His voice was even, but firm. “I won’t.”
“Then make me a splint or something.” The woman’s pleading gaze moved to Stan. “Immobilize it. We can have someone from our raft squeeze into another so I can have a place to lie sideways, propped and secure. Avoid the worst rapids. We’ve done that before.”
No one spoke for several long moments until the owner looked at Stan and asked, “How bad is it? Does she need surgery?”
Stan cocked his head back and forth, then showed his palms.
“There’s only one way to know for sure,” the nurse said. “Fly her to a hospital where she can get x-rays taken.”
“You’re right, of course,” Stan said. He glanced up at the nurse and EMT. “But I don’t believe this break will require surgery. In my professional opinion, anyway.”
“But the pain,” the nurse said. “It’s going to be intense, especially the next 24 hours.”
Stan nodded, considering, before he said, “I only brought extra-strength Tylenol and some ibuprofen. How about you two?”
The nurse shook her head. We all looked at the EMT who was shaking his, too, but in an exasperated manner. “I have some codeine in my own first aid kit,” he finally hissed. “I always carry it…just in case.”
“Bottle’s almost full.” The EMT’s forehead furrowed. “Damn it, you’re not really considering this, are you?”
“Well, if surgery isn’t required and we can manage her pain, all they’d do at the hospital is splint her or maybe fit her with a shoulder immobilizer. If we could fashion something like that…” Stan reached for the first aid kit, opened it, and rummaged through the contents, removing several ace bandages and other supplies. As he did, the woman continued to whimper and moan quietly. “This would probably do for a splint,” he said, it seemed, almost to himself. “And we might be able to turn my knee brace into a rough sort of immobilizer. We have all those inflatable pillows we could use to secure her in the raft.” He looked up at the owner and asked, “If we stopped now right here, camped overnight, and waited to see how she was doing in the morning, could we make up the lost time on the river over the remaining couple of days and steer her clear of most of the rapids?”
“Yes,” his wife answered for him. She tried to lean up on her good elbow but failed and collapsed back onto the shore. “We could,” she growled. “Do it.”
“I want to go on the record right now that I oppose this,” the EMT said. “Strongly.”
The nurse said, “I agree.”
We all looked from the two of them to Stan.
“You’re the doc,” the owner told him. “Your call.”
Stan nodded again. “I think it’s worth a try. If she’s not doing okay in the morning, we can call for a chopper then.”
Under his breath, I heard the EMT mumble, “This is fucking nuts.”
I glanced around at the rest of the group. Most were staring at Stan or the woman. Jenny was looking down at the ground. Carol just shook her head, her mouth in a grim, tight line.
Things went into motion quickly after that, the nurse and the EMT assisting Stan without enthusiasm, but with no further comment about the decision. While the rest of us set up camp, a couple of guests with restaurant experience took over cooking duties. The owner stayed in the tent with his wife; Stan spent most of his time there, too. Some guests seemed to avail themselves to more of the boxed wine than previous evenings, and others not. After dinner, everyone turned in early; no laughing or singing around the campfire that night.
The next morning, the owner’s wife declared that she felt better, that she was fine. The facial expression she presented was determined, almost fierce. She even used her free hand to move some inflatable pillows herself to the back of her husband’s raft. Stan got her arranged in it with the help of the EMT and the nurse, and we made a slow, careful launch with Carol switched to another boat. The woman was uncomfortable, that’s for sure, but she managed. And the rest of trip went just about as well as could have been hoped. The other two rafts still shot most of the good rapids after the owner described the line to take for the younger guides, and the guests rotated in them so we all got to share in the excitement. Conversations remained a bit tepid – restrained, I guess, almost cautious – but pleasant enough, especially as the trip progressed without further incident. On the last day, the owner radioed ahead for an ambulance to meet us at the take-out, then headed off in it with his wife as soon as we’d beached the rafts. Two vans driven by college kids brought us back to our cars, we said our goodbyes, and that was the end of the trip.
From our spot on the rooftop deck, the sun seemed to have grown larger the closer it got to the ocean’s edge in a rainbow sherbet sky. The three of us hadn’t spoken for a while watching it, each in the midst, I suppose, of our own separate thoughts.
I broke the silence by turning to Stan and saying, “I always wondered if you ever checked on that woman when we got back home. I mean after she was brought to the hospital.”
“Indeed, I did.” He looked at me with a small smile.
“And she was fine. No surgery needed. Made a full recovery…ribs, too.”
“Good,” I nodded. “Guess you made the right call, then.”
“I didn’t agree with it,” Jenny said quietly. “I didn’t at the time, and I don’t now either.”
Stan and I looked over at her. She stared impassively straight ahead, squinting a little into the setting sun. Stan had begun to blink rapidly. He said, “You never told me that.” He paused and frowned at her profile. “Why didn’t you?”
Jenny paused herself, then shrugged. “Wouldn’t have mattered. You weren’t listening.” She turned to him, her face still expressionless. “Carol felt the same way. We talked about it when we were alone that evening.”
Very slowly, Stan shook his head. His mouth hung agape. Jenny’s shrug brought back the memory of Carol coming over to our house after she’d left Stan to let us know of her decision. She stopped by right before starting her drive down to San Jose where she was moving to be closer to their son’s family. Of course, I was in utter shock; Jenny, not so much. Carol told us that there had been no infidelity, no big fights, not even an occasional argument or disagreement. She said she was just unhappy and had been for a long time. I asked if Stan had suspected anything, and that’s when Carol gave the same sort of shrug my wife just had. She told us he claimed he didn’t, but she thought her discontent was plain enough to see. Jenny had nodded.
Now Jenny pointed out towards the ocean where only half the sun’s orb hovered above the horizon, the sky there all ablaze. She said, “Let’s watch for the green flash. I’ve heard about it forever but have never seen it.”
Stan and I looked at her, the flush of sun soft on her cheeks. Stan said, “I wish you’d said something. One of you. I really do.”
I cringed at the pain in his voice. Jenny took a sip of beer, then gestured with her chin towards the horizon. “Let’s watch,” she said. “They say if you see a green flash, you’ll never go wrong again in matters of the heart. Maybe we’ll see it. So come on…look, both of you, before it’s too late.”