A few years back, a woman named Jerriann Massey was floating down a river on an inner tube when she got sucked into a hole on the back side of a waterfall. There, stuck in that hole, a very curious thing happened.
This was in the Texas Hill Country. The river was the Guadalupe, which pours out of Canyon Lake and washes down to New Braunfels. It was August; the water was shallow and limestone brown. Jerriann was along on a big family outing—twenty-four of them in all, including her husband and two children. A great gang. Their inner tubes were tied together with ski ropes into four pods. It was a lazy flotilla, complete with floating coolers and spare clothes for the kids. They had no intention of risking the rapids.
When they drifted down to a spot in the river where some house boulders form a twelve-foot drop known as the Chute, they ferried to the bank and pulled their tubes out of the current. They carried their gear down a trail like pack mules. Jerriann’s pod was the last to make this portage. Her husband was there with his firm hand; he grabbed the ski rope and tugged the pod toward him. The rope snapped and Jerriann’s inner tube spun away, then was grabbed by the current. She was in her bathing suit with a T-shirt and hat, sneakers tight on her feet, her daughter’s sunglasses in hand. She screamed, then laughed.
“See you downstream!” she cheered as the Chute sucked her in.
“Get over here!” her husband scolded her.
But what could she do? Her rump was in the water and her arms were too short to paddle effectively. She did not sense danger.
Jerriann went over the falls like a high diver, inverted, with the inner tube on top of her. She plunged straight to the bottom of the hole, felt the bottom, and pushed off to the surface as if in a swimming pool. She was surrounded by the loudest noise she had ever heard, the crashing hydraulics as the falls bent back on itself in a churn. She surfaced and gasped for air but was immediately sucked back down and tumbled topsy-turvy like a rag in a clothes dryer. She hit the surface again, managed another incomplete breath, then disappeared. This is not right, she thought. I think I’m stuck.
Her kids had already made the portage, putting in thirty yards downstream, in knee-high water. Nathan was twelve; Ashli, nine. They watched their mother flip as she went over the Chute, and then they did not see her at all amid the splashing of hairy whitewater. Imagine watching your mother drown. About a minute went by, when Jerri-ann’s T-shirt washed downstream to them. Then a sneaker was spit out and drifted their way.
They waited for their mother to emerge. They remember a great noise, too, the noise of chaos and panic, but they never took their eyes off that hole. Nathan began running upstream to Mom, but his dad screamed for him to go back, it was too dangerous.
A second minute ticked off.
The other sneaker followed, laces still knotted.
What was going on down there? What was Mom doing?
The third time Jerriann was sucked down, it was completely different. The noise was gone. It was extremely quiet and still, but pitch-black. A vast expanse of space was her impression, but she could not see this space. It was like being in your yard on a night so dark you can barely see your hands. The universe is palpable, just not visible. She could think clearly and hear herself as if speaking. Above herself, she saw a light. “Oh my gosh,” she thought. “I’m dying.”