One regret I had while falling through the ice in 6-degree weather as the sun set last Saturday was the lukewarm chicken cacciatore I had cooked the night before. My last supper before almost dying while walking the dog in the woods behind our house wasn’t hot enough, and nobody complained – a sad acknowledgment of my fallibility, a characteristic made more obvious by the bone-chilling water flooding my boots and rushing up my legs to above my waist.
What mattered most while mostly underwater in the pond on the coldest day ever recorded in March was that key relationships with my family and friends were healthy and intact and that the last words uttered to my children were kind. I was glad I had recently called my mother – and oddly felt a tad lucky that just weeks prior, I happened to watch a video online called “How to survive a fall through frozen ice.”
“Frozen ice” is obviously redundant, and as I lunged toward land in a horizontal position, hauling what quickly became 300 pounds of drenched winter clothing with me, the video tip “don’t take off your clothes” seemed rather obvious too. What kind of fool would strip naked after suffering the humiliation of falling through the ice?
Then again, tip No. 1 in the video, “Don’t break the ice,” seems pretty obvious too, in retrospect.
Dramatic and breathless classical music is a decent soundtrack for crashing through a 4- or 5-inch-thick white frozen crust into frigid black water. The ominous crescendo of violins and what sounds to the untrained ear like a French horn in the video, as the cute cartoon boy donning green mittens and a blue woolen hat adorned with snowflakes falls through the ice and makes his way to safety, perfectly matched the pitch in which the wet coldness entered me. On shore, a frenzied rhythm of shock and spasm immediately popped me up off the ground and sent me running like mad toward home.
Shouting “help!” and “help me!” over and over was not something recommended in the video, and it proved to be useless. The echo of my terrified voice only confirmed we were alone, but Marley rose to the occasion and helped by being semi-obedient for the first time in her 8-year dog life. Instead of running away from me as I sloshed along on the slippery path shedding water, waving my arms and talking to myself like a lunatic, Marley was at my side in a joyful canter, barking “make way” and seeming to thoroughly enjoy being my hero.
There’s a reason animals don’t come in denim, I remember thinking as my legs began to stiffen. Marley hadn’t read the recent story about the 97-year-old twins from Barrington, Rhode Island, where I grew up, who recently fell on ice in frigid temperatures and froze to death – probably stuck to the ground by their designer jeans. If Marley slipped and fell escorting me the mile or so out of the darkening woods, her canine legs wouldn’t adhere to the frozen ground – in fact, she was probably warm as toast running and barking and helping. I know because the sheepskin in my mittens and boots was soaking wet but nonetheless generated a welcome modicum of warmth for the tips of my fingers and toes as I gingerly ran – in contrast to my legs, which were stiff as poles encased in frozen cotton, with the potential to stick like super glue to the Earth’s arctic surface. How tragically ironic would it have been to survive a polar plunge, then capitulate to my favorite Lucky jeans?
Where there used to be a bridge at what looks like the midsection of an hourglass-shaped pond, now there is none – by design. The walking trail has been rerouted and an old loop discontinued, but old habits die hard, and on some cold days Mother Nature provides an ice bridge for people who like to walk in circles. It’s true I stepped on the ice last Saturday heading in the wrong direction, knowingly defying the wishes of tireless volunteers who maintain this pristine public space – good people trying to redirect foot traffic for a good reason – but it’s even worse than that.
Pride goes before a fall, which explains how I convinced myself I could walk across ice where others could not. You see, when I first arrived at the spot where I hoped Marley and I could quietly cross the pond in violation of the trail map, somebody before had already attempted it and failed. Their foot-sized hole was only about four feet to the left of where I subsequently made a body-sized hole.
Hubris is what I should have been regretting as I sank. Lukewarm chicken cacciatore is not a sin.
To my consternation and mild comfort, though, there are multitudes of sinners like me. I know because the day after my baptism by ice, I went back to the spot in the woods on the pond where I almost died and saw a third hole – smaller than mine but larger than the first – made by someone trying to cross from the other side. I hope they saw the video.
Cynthia Dill is a civil rights lawyer and former state senator. She can be contacted at: