The New Year That Almost Didn't Happen
Through the near-fatal accident of a friend, the author gratefully acknowledges God's gift of life.
As I sit and write today,
nearly eight years after that grey morning, the scene is as vivid before me as
if it had happened
yesterday. Racing to the edge of the chasm, I search breathlessly for my
friends, my eyes fall upon two bodies--Cecelia, floating in the surf,
unconscious and bleeding from her forehead; Terry, clinging to the rocks beside
her, coughing up seawater as he screams for help. It is a picture I will
never be able to erase.
It was New Year's Day, the first morning hours of 1980. I was 22 years old, recently graduated from college with a good job and a promising future. I was celebrating the day in the little town of Waldport, on the Oregon Coast, with my boyfriend Terry and my college roommates, Cecelia and Kathy. We were a happy foursome that chilly morning as we piled into the car and headed for the ocean cliffs to do some beachcombing.
Terry and I had been dating
for more than a year and were planning to get married--eventually. I was
in no hurry, though. At 22, I figured I had my whole life ahead of
me. Kathy and Cecelia had been my friends throughout four years at the
university. Roommates since our senior year, we were now out of school and
working, enjoying new found freedom and financial independence.
The weather was grey and stormy as we parked the car on the shoulder of Highway 101, the main coastal road that runs the length of Oregon. We pulled on our jackets and zipped them up against the January cold. Then we started toward the cliffs. Terry was taking us to a favorite beach of his. Cape Perpetua is a place where the always-rugged Oregon coast becomes more rugged still. Rimmed by jagged cliffs, it's a spectacular sight. The ocean rushes in through narrow gashes in the rock, splashing skyward in an awesome display of power, then cascading down in heaps of white foam.
"You two Go Ahead"
We walked together, joking and laughing as friends do, remembering the fun we'd had together the evening before, thinking about the year ahead of us. The rocks were rough and slippery, and Kathy and I soon fell behind. Cecelia and Terry were always the adventurous ones. They loved scrambling on the boulders and exploring the cliffs. I wasn't as surefooted, so preferred to sit back and watch.
Kathy paused to take some pictures of the surf, and I stopped with her, tired of banging my shins on the loose rocks. "You two go ahead," I called out to Terry and my athletic roommate Cecelia. "We'll wait here." Five minutes later, Terry and Cecelia were out of sight. Kathy and I stood and watched the spray fly past us as the waves swelled against the cliffs.
We talked about the new year, about what we hoped to do and accomplish. "Are you going to be the first of the three of us to tie the knot?" Kathy prodded with a grin. I smiled and shook my head. "I don't know," I answered. "I'm in no hurry. We've got lots of time for that." We lapsed into silence, thinking our separated thoughts. I began to dream about the year ahead, asking God for guidance in the decisions I needed to make in the coming months.
Jolted back to the present, I looked at my watch. Terry and Cecelia had been gone for 15 minutes, and there was still no sign of them. "I wonder where they've gone," I said to Kathy. "Maybe I should walk over and check on them." I felt a tremor of uneasiness flutter in my stomach, and I whispered a prayer for their safety as I walked. It took me ten minutes to pick my way across the rocks. I looked back at Kathy. She was calmly watching the surf again. I continued on. I crested a small mound of rocks, and stopped short, there in front of me was a deep chasm in the cliffs. I peered down into it. My stomach lurched. "Oh no," I moaned.
A Tragic Fall
Cecelia was floating lifelessly on her back in the foamy inlet. Her arms and legs were splayed out from her body, moving in the current. She stared, unseeing, at the sky, her face a white smudge against the dark sea, her eyes a glassy blue beneath the red slash on her forehead. Her blond hair floated out around her head. Terry was beside her, half in the water, half out. He was clinging to the rocky precipice, his shirt plastered against his body, his hair dark and wet. He screamed for help when he saw me. "Come and help me pull her out," he yelled. "She's going to drown."
I remember the unreality of the scene, my reluctance to accept it, the instant prayers on my lips, the terrifying fear that I would lose them both to the sea, that I would see her slip away and that he would follow, that I would be too late to help. I don't know how I got down the cliff. Tearing off my heavy jacket as I ran, I didn't think about slipping or falling. I didn't feel any fear for my own safety. I just went.
The icy power of the water hit me like a blow to the stomach. It knocked the breath from my body. I waded in beside Terry, gasping from fear and cold. Together, we pulled Cecelia's still body from the ocean's grasp. The water fought us every inch of the way. The waves tried to pull her back. We struggled to carry her sodden form a few feet from their reach, then we collapsed together on the rocks.
Terry sobbed beside me. "She was trying to cross the chasm on that log up there," he said. " I told her not to. She slipped and fell. I couldn't do anything. I've got to get help." He scrambled to the top of the cliff, leaving me with Cecelia's limp body beside me on the rocks. I watched him as he waved frantically to Kathy, "Cecelia is hurt, Take the car. Call an Ambulance," he screamed into the ocean's roar.
Hanging on to Life
The breath rasped in and out of Cecelia's grey lips. They were flecked with saliva as they moved with the constant murmur of her groans. I spoke to her, not because she could hear me--only to be touching her life with my voice. I called her back to her friends and family. I prayed out loud--for her and God to hear. I wrapped my soggy coat around her and encircled her with my shaking body. We shuddered and breathed in unison. Our bodies groaned together.
Terry didn't come back down to us. He stood on the cliffs above, wretching seawater onto the rocks. He'd been in the surf a long time and had gone under more that once. I hollered for him to come down and sit beside me, but he didn't respond. He stared at the log, the log that Cecelia had fallen from. He seemed to be in shock. I was consumed with fear for him. I called him again--to come so that I could hold him with Cecelia, so that I could somehow keep possession of both their lives. But I had no power over either one of them. I had no power over life or death, I prayed again, whispering entreaties while Terry wandered, wraithlike, around the edge of the chasm.
And so I sat on the sharp stones, rocking back and forth in cold and fear, hugging Cecelia against my body, talking, praying, moaning with her. I was completely helpless. I realized then how automatic my Christian faith had become in the past few years of college and work. Life had been too easy, too comfortable. I hadn't had any crises to remind me how insignificant I was. I'd assumed that the future was secure, that things would work out according to my plans. I had asked God to guide me, but I'd forgotten to thank Him that my life was ultimately in His hands.
Life--A Gift From God
I realized on that New Year's Day that every moment of life is a gift from God. I realized that there is no tomorrow without Him. that every breath I take is by His grace. That New Year's Day, I prayed more fervently than ever before, "Dear God, give us Cecelia's life back," I begged. "Keep her breathing until the ambulance comes. And please keep Terry safe. I love him so much."
I remember the interminable wait for help, the stiffness moving into my body, the need to quell my riotous thoughts into dull unthinking silence. Finally Terry came back, "They're here," he whispered. "Thank you Lord," was all I could whisper back. I remember the relief I felt when the ambulance attendants appeared and began to lower a stretcher down the side of the cliff. I willingly turned the task of keeping life in Cecelia's body over to others more capable that I. Back on the road, I held Terry's shaking body against mine, feeling the wonder of the life beating in him.
In His Hands
That was eight years ago. Terry and I have been married since the fall of 1980, and the Lord has blessed us with an exciting life of serving Him. Kathy is working as a psychologist and plans to be married soon. Cecelia has recovered for her concussion, her broken wrist, and the months of headaches that followed the accident. She's a healthy wife and mother now. She has no recollection of that New Year's Day, or of the six weeks that followed. But she loves the Lord, and she has a tiny baby daughter to remind of life's miracle.
I write today, remembering a new year that almost didn't happen. I thank God for the life He gives--not life in the coming year or in the coming months, not even life tomorrow. I thank Him for the life He gives this very minute. And I thank Him that I can commit my future to Him.
"Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.'"
Written by Karen (Obinger) Whitehill
Karen is a freelance writer
and member Temple Baptist Church, Portland, Oregon. This article was
written by Karen. It appears on pages 4-6 in the January 1988 issue of the Standard, the
magazine of the Baptist General Conference. It was copied by me, with her permission.
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