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August 25th, 2017: I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and boarded a 5 am flight from Chicago to Tarkio, Montana. On my way to the airport, it dawned on me: I had just signed up to go Whitewater Kayaking with a bunch of strangers, and I had no idea how I was going to accomplish it. I immediately began to regret my decision, and over the next nine hours, me, myself, and I had a very intense conversation about “how” this was going to happen.
I decided to go on this trip after finishing up my second battle with cancer. I had just beaten breast cancer at 23, and it was so hard on me. It left me in a very vulnerable and raw state, and I knew deep down that I needed to disappear to find myself again. The irony was, it wasn’t actually my breast cancer that kept me wanting to jump out of this plane to go back home, it was my first cancer. I was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma when I was two years old, and I lost my right leg to it. Growing up, I experienced the darkness inside of the world and learned that the best way for me to survive was to hide who I was. So, I avoided situations that would force me to expose myself. One of the things on my list was Waterparks and Pools, because I couldn’t get my prosthetic leg wet, and I knew how the world would respond to my naked, partially missing limb. Now here I was on the airplane, asking myself, what would make me sign up to go kayaking with a bunch of strangers, knowing that I would have to take my leg off and expose my residual limb?
As I got closer and closer to Montana, the reality really began to set in. When the plane landed I knew it was too late to go back, and that I would have to be brave and conquer my fear…though I was still unaware of “how” I was going to accomplish this. I got off the plane and met the Lead Staff, “Maybe” and “Pedro” as well as other participants. (I thought their names were so strange.) As we congregated in a corner of the airport, I hid inside my fear, a method of protecting myself. I wanted to observe the group and feel these folks out; they were all strangers and I wasn’t sure how they would react to me. Soon, we boarded the vans, and as we rode to Tarkio I was still hiding inside my fear. I was still trying to find out “how” I was going to do this for a week. I had begun asking myself if I should ask to leave when I got to the cabin. I knew the water was a no-go for me, I had casted that idea out of my head a long time ago, after years of seeing how people reacted to me. I was afraid of experiencing that pain and humiliation again, this time so far away from home.
Ok – I need to pause. I just want to quickly take the time to acknowledge the “magic” in Tarkio. As we pulled up to the lodge, that magic began to come over me. I’m not sure if it was the sight of the water or the smell of the trees, but for a moment, all of my fears went mute. As I walked into the cabin, my eyes were filled with wonder. It was so beautiful, and had an amazing view of the Clark Fork river behind. While we were waiting for more people to arrive, a few of us decided to walk down to the river for a closer view. I’m always down to explore, so I jumped at the opportunity as the water was truly calling me. I watched as a few people jumped in, observing as they swam and floated down the stream. I wanted to get in so badly, but the little girl in my head told me not to. The other participants were so kind, offering to carry me or help me stand in the water, but I told them I wasn’t ready.
That night, I tossed and turned in my sleep at the idea of getting in the water with my leg off. “How am I going to do this,” I asked myself. I couldn’t even get in the water earlier, how was I going to get in a kayak and float down the river? For a moment, I thought to myself again, “I can’t do it” and that I’d have to stay inside with the chefs and volunteers.
I was so afraid of the idea of taking my prosthetic leg off in front of strangers, it struck fear down to my core.
For the remainder of the night, I pondered the idea, thinking of different methods of how I could leave my leg on while on the water. It was obvious that the thought wasn’t possible. If my leg were to get wet it would turn into rust, plus I was wearing a newly donated knee and I just couldn’t risk it.
The next morning it was time for us to get in our kayaks. While they fitted us with gear, and taught us how to paddle , my brain was turning asking myself again “how” I was going to do this. When the time came for us to get on the river I was freaking out, honestly I was. It dawned on me that I wouldn’t be balanced in my kayak with my leg missing, and I accepted that I couldn’t do it. I must have expressed that to the counselors, because next thing I knew Captain O, Pedro and Meat Banana were stuffing an air bag into the right side of my kayak. I tried every excuse in the book of “why” I couldn’t do this, realizing that by doing so, I never addressed the “how” I could. One by one the other campers pushed off into the river, while I stood on the sidelines afraid to take my leg off. But deep inside myself, I understood what I was risking missing out on. So, I took in a deep breath, and said “F-it.” I called over Dougie, who was standing close by, and began to hand her my prosthetic. I was going to do this. At that moment I remembered how many times I have stood on the sidelines while watching other people live their lives, and I refused for this to become another instance.
I took off my leg, exposing my residual limb and breaking my own rules, and jumped in the kayak.
As they pushed me into the river, I took a look back, and saw my leg on the bank behind me.
I realized I had figured out the “how”. I won’t lie, the first day out in the kayaks was a hard day for me– it felt like learning to walk for the first time; my balance was off and I didn’t have my directions right and kept spinning in a circle. I remember at one point, I felt like I had to go back to the shore and that I couldn’t do it. My eyes began to fill with tears as I began to think this would be like all the other times I couldn’t do something because of my missing leg. But, I refused to accept it, I took a deep breath, and readjusted myself shifting the weight in my hips to even out in the kayak. While taking it one step at a time, I paddled my way to the larger group, and as I was getting closer, I realized I was doing it.
Over the next few hours, we played games that strengthened our kayaking skills, and practiced rolling so that we would know how to turn our boats from being upside if we flipped in the river. I hated rolling, the idea of hanging upside down underwater was unappealing to me, and when it was my turn to try I cried. I cried for two reasons: one, I had just gotten my hair done before coming on this trip, and two, I was afraid I’d fall out and wouldn’t be able to get my head back above the water. With the counselors close by helping, I rolled, and for those three seconds I was upside down in the water, I felt the fear washing away, I flipped back over to find the group of strangers cheering for me from the shoreline. With a big smile, I wiped the water and tears from my eyes as my heart began to fill with joy, as I realized these strangers were here supporting me along this journey. I became more comfortable on the water. My kayak and I were becoming friends, it was beginning to feel like an extension of me. When we got back to the shore, I was filled with pride as I conquered the day and was ready for what came next.
The next morning , we lined up to get back in our kayaks. I don’t think I’ve ever taken my leg off as fast as I did… I had to get back in the water. I was one of the first to get pushed off the bank. That first full day on the river, the water and I became close friends and I began to love it. Throughout the week, I conquered the river doing things that I never thought were possible, from racing with Meat Banana, to paddling the meat grinder rapid, and even jumping off a 20 foot rock, I began to defy the limits that I set for myself, as I was morphing into a whole new person.
My trip to Tarkio was magical, the words in this post don’t fully describe my experience nor do they even come close. I had many magical moments there, some were about myself and others were the people around me. I learned to trust people again, as I allowed people like Cheddar Bunny to carry me and help me out of the water, I stopped being so self-conscious about my leg and learned to accept it as a part of me.
The woman I am today, would not exist if it wasn’t for this trip. It started a healing process which would later allow me to be comfortable with having one leg. During campfire one night, I told a story about a woman who lost her eye, and how a statement by her daughter helped her let go of the fear and pain, to become comfortable with who she was. I thanked the other campers for being there and sharing that moment with me, as they were a large part of my healing process. If it wasn’t for the kindness they showed, I would have never been comfortable to be vulnerable. I never had a safe space to heal as a child, and Tarkio was my safe space.
I went on this trip, hoping to heal from having breast cancer, instead, I healed from losing my leg, the greater battle of the two. All of my problems weren’t solved within that week, but it was a starting point for that healing to take place. Recently, I took the biggest step of my life, and decided to stop wearing the cover on my prosthetic, a huge challenge for me, since I always tried to hide my leg. This step became one of the best choices I’ve ever made. It reminded me of taking my leg off for the first time in Tarkio, I knew that since I was able to take that step, I could make this one, and I did. Just like I said F-it in Tarkio, I said it again, walked out the door and forced myself to step out of my comfort zone, stumbling across a new one.
Today I live as the woman I never thought I could be, unapologetically me with a missing leg and stolen breast.
I’ve found so much love and admiration for myself, and I owe it to First Descents and Tarkio, for giving me the push I needed to finally break the mold I put myself in as a child, and step into a light that allowed me to grow into the woman I am today.
I want to give a huge thank you to my fellow campers who was there for me during that week, to Khalessi, Double, Wrong turn, Huckleberry, Substantial, Maybe, Doogie, Ratatouille, Kinja, Bald Eagle, Sir Cuddles, TBD, Crash, Locksa, Skinny Hips, Marinate, Danu, Eclipse, Hitch, Punisher, Crawdaddy, Captain O, Banana Meat, and Pedro, I truly appreciate all support that you gave me during that week. Each of you, in one way or another, has helped push me into becoming this person, I’m so happy that FD put me inside of an amazing group of people, all of whom became a safe space for me. I have countless stories of my time in Tarkio, and the growth that took place inside of me there. That river has magical powers that changed my life forever, and one day I hope to return there to thank it for the gifts and powers that it shared with me. I came to Tarkio as a lost soul desperate for healing and direction after cancer, and left as a newly found woman who was ready to tap into her full potential. Today that woman is alive and well, conquering her biggest fears and the world around her. By not allowing something as small as a missing leg to steal the joy from her life, she has discovered a new life, free of boundaries and limitations, living as the woman she never dreamed she could be.
My name is Christine Jon’el, I am a Project Coordinator for Young And A Survivor Network (YAAS!), living in Chicago, IL, and I am a two-time cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with Stage IV Rhabdomyosarcoma at age 2 and Stage II Triple Negative Breast Cancer at 23, and with the Li- Fraumeni Gene Mutation. My Hobbies include eating, laughing, and out living life by enjoying each and every experience it has to offer!