Sometimes it helps to talk about it
I heard the splash in the same instant I realized that I was falling. It takes only a fraction of a second to fall five feet and the night was utterly black. With no visual component at all, my brain hadn't immediately registered the sudden change from vertical to horizontal. I heard the splash as I felt the water and realized that I had fallen off the road into the brook.
"How are you?" is not usually a real question. It's a polite second thing to say after the other person has said hello. But you may have noticed that after a big scare, people need to actually tell you how they are, even if you didn't really mean to ask.
A headmaster I once worked for hit a deer on a divided highway at night. He was going about 75 in the passing lane, and the deer jumped over the hood of a car to his right and crashed through his windshield. Powdered safety glass temporarily blinded him. It turned out that he wasn't hurt except for some minor cuts, but his car was a total loss. He told me the story the next morning at breakfast in the cafeteria. Almost immediately I heard the story a second time, when two teachers sat down with us. As I left to go to my office, he was starting to tell a new arrival.
All that day I heard people ask, "Did you hear that Bruce hit a deer last night?" and the answer was usually, "He just told me about it."
Because my office was next to Bruce's and because I was often at the same meetings, over the next few weeks I heard dozens of repetitions of the tale of the jumping deer. I'm certain he wasn't telling the story just to get attention - Bruce is not the kind of man who wants or needs to be in the spotlight. He never embellished the story, as attention-seekers often do, but always told it the same way and almost in the same words. He knew he'd had a really close brush with death, and his way of dealing with that was by telling and retelling the story - to anyone who would listen. Putting his fear into words brought it under his control.
Last summer, as I raised my head from the blackness of the brook to the blackness of the night air, my first thought was not anger at myself (that came later) but an overwhelming gratitude at my good fortune. "Wow," I actually said aloud, "that was [expletive] lucky."
The Tiasquam "River" is only a foot or two deep there, but that would have been enough water to drown in if I'd hit my head or broken something crucial on the rocks or tree branches. Somehow I'd landed clear, flat on my right side. My glasses were askew but still on my face, my hat had drifted off somewhere in the darkness, and (I discovered later) I'd skinned my elbow on the stream bed. Except for a soaking in smelly swamp water, that was it. Very ... very ... lucky.
I probably shouldn't be telling you about it. The story does not reflect well on my intelligence; it was bad judgment piled on foolishness on top of stupidity. I had not carried a flashlight, though I knew it would be an overcast and moonless night. I had not taken a ride home with friends, though that had been my original plan. I had chosen a shortcut by way of that road (a driveway serving several houses) on a night so dark I could only feel the way with my feet. Even though I could hear the rushing brook loud all around me and knew the bridge has no guard rails, I was confident that my feet were telling me where I was on the familiar road. Having made all the other mistakes, I should have been groping my way across the bridge on my hands and knees.
There was no way to keep secret my bath in the smelly waters of stupidity. The embarrassing story spread quickly from my wife to family, and from family to friends, neighbors, and strangers. A woman stopped me on Music Street to ask incredulously how it could possibly have happened that I fell into the brook. A cousin asked if perhaps I had been drinking (I hadn't). The driveway road association discussed me at their next meeting and put up little sticks to warn other dolts about the brook. At least one resident is talking about guard rails.
And then because the little scrape on my elbow became swollen and ugly, other people asked how I had hurt it in the first place and why it developed such a dangerous infection. So the cat is out of the bag.
I've been telling the story over and over. Like my friend Bruce, I find some catharsis in the words, an incantation to drive away the shudders. Even though a flop into a shallow brook is not as spectacular as a deer falling out of the sky, I had a really close call - and it helps to talk about it.