The next morning we spent sightseeing in the town and made it back early in the afternoon to meet up with Team Craíc to see a old castle situated on the bank of the river Corrib. Two roads lead to the castle, and we chose the shorter one, which turned out to be a terrible mistake.
We ended up on the opposite side of the river from the castle with no way of crossing. It then that John proposed a grand idea. “I suppose we could swim across.”
“Ha! That would be crazy,” I retorted. But then he seemed to seriously ponder crossing the river, walking around in circles.
“It’s totally doable. Oh, hell, it’s cold!” We all laughed, thinking it was a total joke. But then Malcolm started to seem interested in doing it.
“Well if you can do it, I can do it.”
I chimed in.
“Oh no. If you guys do it, I have to do it too.”
The girls laughed and commented on how crazy the idea was. A few more minutes of nervous laugher and heavy contemplation later, John started to strip.
“Oooooh no!” the crowd gasped.
“Oh crap,” was my response. Had I been Irish, the correct saying would be, “Feck it, it’ll be grand.”
John was already halfway in, commenting on how incredibly cold the water was and half-heartedly repeating “Well, it’s not QUITE so bad,” which convinced no one, and, “I’m not getting any warmer.”
Malcolm started to strip, and that was it. So did I. The girls laughed on, unbelieving. And then John jumped in, shooting forward with a strong breaststroke. Malcolm followed him as I timidly dipped my foot in and immediately withdrew.
“Oh my God! That’s so cold!” But in front of me the other guys were already off. If they could do it, so could I. Maybe. Or maybe I shouldn’t… Nah. It’ll be great.
“Well of course, it’s cold,” Grandma ridiculed.
“Well, they’re okay…”
“I swear, if something happens to you…”
“I’ll be fine! Here goes nothing!” And I jumped in, mustering up all bravado. The second I hit the water, it was like my body was shrinking to half its normal size and my lungs thought I was dying.
“Aahhhhhhhhhhhh!! Hahahahahhhhhhhhhh!!” I laugh-cried. “Oh Jesus! Oh Jesus! Oh, shit!” The liquid ice might as well have been… Ahem. Well.
The first few meters, I couldn’t control my breathing. I had never experienced such all-consuming cold. I panted and panted, unable to breathe normally for no real reason, and then I flipped over and went into a breaststroke, but making sure to keep my head above the water. I was dizzy with numbness only halfway across and the blood from my extremities was evacuating to my core to warm the parts of me that we’re keeping me alive, except that it made it incredibly difficult to swim. Rolling back over on my back wasn’t much better because the river rushed over the back of my neck, sending rapidly cooled blood directly to my brain, leaving me feeling sick and light-headed.
I won’t call it a near death experience, but I don’t want to play down fact that I felt and understood my mortality at this moment, now, with only a few meters left to swim. There was legitimate fear I was not going to make it. I thought about what would happen to my grandma if I died, what would happen to my boyfriend, and my mom. But after that one moment, I realized I had to focus on making it to the shore and stopped thinking altogether.
The current had picked up and I was floating downstream. As I continued to slow down from decreased muscle functioning, the landing point seemed to be getting farther and farther out of reach, until the very last push as I climbed up just after the other two. Slowly, deliberately, not wanting to show weakness, I stood and panted (possibly uncontrollably), laughing.
“John, I don’t think I’m going to make it back over,” Malcolm pointed out. Oh, thank goodness. I wasn’t the only one.
“I’m not either. I thought I was going to die.”
“I was having some real trouble there on the last bit.”
John just kept walking and was trying to talk us down, but I was freaking out.
“Look, John, I’m blue!” Malcolm laughed. He showed his hands, which were indeed blue, but I tried to make it sound not so bad.
“Well, maybe you’re just Britishly pale.” Maybe that was the wrong thing to say.
So there we were, running around in the grass and approaching the castle feeling a mixture of invincibility and severe vulnerability. We saw the castle, which was not even impressive (for what we did see of it), and there were broken glass bottles over the inside so we couldn’t explore it because all we had was our wet underwear.
“Holy shit. I’m going to go get a ride back. This is crazy. There’s no way I’m making it back. I’ll literally drown.”
“I’ll just need a moment,” John said, walking back to the bank. We followed and waved back to the girls, posing for a picture I hope someone actually took for proof of what we did. After some running around, I caught John just as he was going to take the plunge again.
“Tell my grandma just to meet me at the hostel. I’m going to go find a way back because I want to live. Good luck.”
The area between the river and the next house was just a yard next to what looked like some small farm land. I walk-jogged in front of Malcolm, discussing the effects of our hypothermia (looking down, I could see my knees were totally blue and dark purple as they knocked back and forth uncontrollably) until we reached the first house. It looked like an old mansion, and despite there being clothes on the rack outside (which I was very tempted to take) there was no one home, so we walked to the next house.
As we approached, a young woman in sweatpants and a sweatshirt came out from a glass patio.
“Can I help you?”
Making sure not to approach too quickly (“What must this look like?” I kept thinking), I said helplessly, “This is going to sound really strange, but we had this horrible idea to see the castle over there by swimming across the river. But it was so cold there’s no way I was going to make it back across. I’m soooo sorry, but is there some way you might be able to find a ride for us, like, maybe call the police? Or a taxi? Or something?”
Malcolm had caught up by this point. “There was another one of us, but he just swam back. He was in the marathon, the ultra marathon. But I think we–” we both laughed– “it was going to be a bad idea.”
“Um, yeah. Well, I can call a taxi,” she said slowly. She turned around and stopped, looking back. “Do you want a towel?”
“Oh, that would be wonderful, thank you.”
Malcolm and I exchanged stupid looks at each other, acknowledging the situation, shivering and laughing in the crisp final days of winter in western Ireland in boxer shorts. Color was starting to return to Malcolm’s everything but my knees were stubbornly bruise-colored. A few moments later, she brought us towels out.
“You’re lucky you didn’t drown,” she started. “With the weir open there’s a strong current, and people have died before trying the same thing.”
“Oh my God, really?”
“Yeah, well it’s really cold and the current can just sweep people downstream really quickly depending on how many gates are opened. I called a taxi for you.”
“Has anything like this happened to you before?”
“A few times. We’re actually trying to get a guard put up over there,” she said.
“Oh shit, I’m so sorry.”
“No, you guys are alright. At first I thought you might be drunk. But you’re much better than this French guy we had…”
“He was really drunk and we found him in our guesthouse.”
“No. And we couldn’t get him to leave, because he was absolutely convinced it was his.”
Finally, standing inside the glass patio and wrapped in towels, we were beginning to warm up. All I could think about was a warm shower and a hot cup of coffee.
Eventually a taxi driver showed up, not knowing was was about to come his way. We thanked the woman for her help, and she offered to let us keep the towels. Getting into the taxi car, the driver just laughed.
Grandma was quite pissed, but was over it by the time she got back to the hostel. We had beaten her there, thankfully.
All this had happened early enough in the day that we had time to eat, shower, and get dressed before going out again, but the rest of the day wasn’t nearly as terrifying. We saw the Spanish arches, (old stone-and-mortar arches by the Corrib in the old port part of town) and spent way too much time at the city museum (the most interesting part of which was the hands-on magnetism station).
Grandma found the museum so boring she went outside shortly after entering, and I found her hanging out with Stella of the steps, steeped in a conversation about the more meaningful things in life. I wondered if what I felt at that moment was how parents feel when their children land a spot in an orchestra, or score a goal at their first soccer game. It was like I was watching my grandmother grow up, sitting under the bright sun and contemplating for the first time what it meant that she had spent so much of her life in only one place.
“We have to go,” I said. Team Craíc’s finally activity was walking to a pub a few blocks away. We hugged and took pictures and left, and I could immediately tell Grandma was disappointed we were leaving.
“They just made me feel so at home. All these young kids hanging out with an old woman like me.”
“Well, it’s like John said,” I said, feeling the same way (including the old lady part). “You’re only as old as you feel.”