Anniversaries are fascinating and complex. They have the potential to bring us back in time to a very moment or experience with such stark clarity. Rarely with all the ebbs and flows of everyday activities are we so acutely aware of our past.
Through reflection, you can remember what you were doing at that very moment years before. These memories can be positive, negative or even a blend of the two—whether it be the birth of your child, the moment you lost your loved one or the day of an accident. You can be brought back to a moment in your history and have your mind flooded with images and your heart filled with emotions, again some joyful or painful.
I had an anniversary recently: it was the 21st anniversary of the night I came face to face with the edges of death. Although the memories of that night never really go away, I have learned to live with them. Typically this date passes and I share it with very few.
This year, however, was different. Instead of sharing it only with my closest and dearest, I opened it up on Twitter to reflect on the bravery of the man who saved my life, and in doing so I brought other people back with me.
The wider share of the experience prompted discussion, reflection and the invitation to share my story here on PTBOCanada. I am sharing my story as a testament of hope. Hope for parents, for families, or for any person who needs to hear that your life is not defined by your current situation.
This story is also being shared as a gesture of thanks and recognition to the man who rescued me as no good deed or act of bravery should be forgotten. So, in honour to Joseph Todd and to the countless others who need to hear a story of hope, here it goes.
As a 16-year-old teenager, I was completely lost. My days were dark and my future seemed to be something I could never catch. Yet, I was found clinging to the edge of the ice of the Otonabee River in the darkest hours of February 7th, 1996.
I had dropped off an acquaintance in Lakefield and was trying to make my way back to Buckhorn in a blizzard. My family had only recently moved here from the Toronto area.
I ended up turned around and was driving on the lonely stretch of River Road between Lakefield and Peterborough. My driver's license was weeks old, and the road conditions were treacherous for any driver.
Somewhere in the glow of headlights bouncing off walls of snow, I recall hearing a loud bang and feeling the dirt from my floor mat hitting my face. Moments later, I felt my vehicle being swept away by a mighty force that my brain could not process. And then I felt it—a sudden and aggressive wave of water struck my face and engulfed the vehicle in mere moments.
I took one last gasp of air and my vehicle became a watery tomb.
The cold water pierced every part of my body and soon it was filling my lungs. I remember feeling my lungs burning and wishing that my body would surrender quickly. My body felt like it was trying to float, yet my seatbelt kept me trapped tightly against the seat. My thoughts did not linger long with fear of the situation. Rather, I embraced that thought of my mother, Lesley.
To this day, I still recall feeling deeply saddened that we were going to be apart. I did not want to die like this. In that moment, I recalled how my mom used to joke that "Robyne can get herself out of anything—homework, chores, and even difficult and trying situations. Robyne is a problem solver".
My mind made a decision and my heart followed suit. I was going to try to live.
Step 1: Get out of the seat belt—I wiggled myself out.
Step 2: Get out through the window—I didn't even try to open the door, I fought my way out the window. I recall wishing my hands could hit the window harder. Finally, my fingertips were able to feel the top edge of the window and I was able to pull it down and swim through.
Step 3: Get to the top of the water—the water was completely black and my vision was blurry. I could not tell which way was up. I remember looking at the vehicle and being surprised that the lights were still working.
The headlights casted light on the most eerie and frightful scene of what appeared to be a neverending sea of green water peppered with debris and sediment. I was completely disoriented in the deep, black, frigid waters. The vehicle was being pulled downstream and sinking only slightly each passing second. I waited momentarily trying to problem solve. Then an idea came to me. I let the final drops of air slip through my lips. My brain knew to follow the bubbles.
When I reached what I thought was the surface of the water, I felt ice. I felt the waves of exhaustion pulling me down. The current was too strong. It was pulling me aggressively downstream, dragging me under the ice, just below the surface. I remember trying to spread my arms out to try and grab a hold of anything. I needed air.
My winter coat and boots felt like they were casted in cement. My body was fighting the edges of despair and once again part of me wished my body would surrender and for this to end. Yet, the other part knew I just had to get to the edge. Just one thought at the time.
Piece by piece and step by step, I was trying to survive for that moment. I let the current pull me again and I tried swimming towards the centre of the channel which was open. My hands scrambled to grab the edge. I felt the flesh of the palms of my hands being torn as the ice ripped through my frozen skin.
I had made it to the edge of the ice crust where the ice met the open channel. I gasped my first breath of air and the air felt like a million razor blades tearing my lungs apart.
I remember putting my face back in the water and blowing out bubbles into the darkness. Once I was able to catch my breath, the pain set in. Every cell in my body was throbbing and screaming. I recall the waves of exhaustion and a nagging feeling of sleep taking over me again. All I could see was waves of frigid water rippling over the ice and loud cracking sounds that seemed to suggest the ice was about to let go.
Then I heard it.
A faint sound coming from the darkness.
Someone was out there. My mind was screaming out to the faint voice but nothing was coming out. I tried relentlessly to make noise. Finally my voice, completely unrecognizable to me, made sounds. I could tell someone was coming closer to me, yet they still seemed so far away. I heard the voice tell me that they were coming out to get me. I felt a surge of panic.
The ice was so thin and I didn't think it could support our weight. I cautioned them to stay back. The voice explained to me that they were going to throw a chain out to me. I remember feeling the pull of the current tugging at my legs and my arms had little to no strength left. I no longer felt bitterly cold despite being in a frozen river. I felt searing heat in my limbs and confusion. The chain finally landed after several attempts in front of me.
I managed to wrap the chain around my forearms while kicking my legs trying to get my torso on the ice. The ice kept breaking. The cold had made my hands feel foreign to my body as I tried to hold on to the chain. I remember three strong pulls, breaking ice and then I was lying flat on the ice. I still couldn't see the person who saved me from the river. The voice just kept coaching me to crawl along the ice towards their voice.
I felt a hand reach the collar of my water logged coat and he pulled me towards him: "Help is on the way. I am Joseph".
That was just over 21 years ago.
A lot of life has happened since then. I was able to firmly grasp the once allusive future and make it my very own. I am still very much the same person as I was back then, but I am a better version of myself.
The dark days of adolescence are very far behind me, yet I keep this miracle close to my heart. I was given a second chance at life that night. I have a profound appreciation that each one of us have our own unique story. These stories are important to learn from and to share. Life can be hard and we may feel alone. At times, we may even feel like giving up.
I believe deeply that our truest self is revealed in moments when we can either give up or get up. These moments shape our authentic capacity to be resilient. I have created my own personal masterpiece out of the brokenness of this period of my life. I have experienced significant heartbreak and disappointments since my accident. New beginnings are not always smooth. Knowing that I can overcome insurmountable obstacles is part of who I am.
I also believe that our parent’s voices and lessons can guide us in our darkest hours. Today, I live my true vocation of being a mother to three fantastic people—Hunter, Ava and Jaxson—and a wife to Jeff. It was definitely not a linear route after my accident, but I was able to successfully complete several university degrees with the support of my parents.
I have the privilege of being part of the Trent University community. I have spent over a decade working at Trent, supporting all forms of teaching and learning in the School of Education, the Department of Psychology and the Centre for Teaching and Learning. I take enormous pride in supporting my students pursuing their dreams, especially those students for whom the academic landscape was not originally designed.
Education has the power to transform lives. Education was how I was able to find my future. Each day at Trent, I walk over the Faryon Bridge and look down at the very Otonabee River that almost took my life. I do have a profound appreciation for nature and the power it holds.
I do not need an anniversary to remind me that my life is possible because Joseph Todd rescued me that night. Upon reflecting on his actions, I am left with a heart full of gratitude for his courage. I am also humbled by his lack of judgement. Joseph did not know if I was someone who was worthy of his bravery or deserved rescuing. He put the need of a stranger above his own safety.
As a testament to Joseph’s action, I will spend the rest of my life looking for opportunities to put fear and judgement aside and find a way to be of service to others.
No act of bravery should ever be forgotten.
—By Robyne Hanley-Dafoe