Takin’ a tumble

Ms. Coralee Hoffmaster Johnson of Cerritos, California—this is for you, darlin’.

Cora on the mighty Colorado River, 2005


I know that this week you had planned to find yourself on a small raft on the Colorado River with two of your closest women friends—Connie and Shirley. You, the three widows, who’ve each lost a husband in the past couple of years, had signed up for the biggest, baddest, most beautiful river trip around—188 miles of some of the fiercest whitewater and most incredible scenery on the continent.

A lovely summer day on the Colorado River, deep in the Grand Canyon. (Photo/Dick Schmidt)


You asked Connie and Shirley to join you, the veteran, on this expedition with a well-known river company and expert guides. This would have been your third trip down the mighty Colorado, and it is not a trip for wimps. I know—after your first river trip, you raved about it so much that Dick and I did one, too, with the same rafting company. It was a change-your-life excursion—for me, at least. Dick had been down that river twice before in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and he wanted me to experience it, too. You’re a different breed of human coming off the Colorado after rollercoastering over whitewater and drifting along the lovely peaceful parts surrounded by some of the oldest rocks on the planet. The word “phenomenal” doesn’t do it justice. And in how many places in the world do you get to see dark Vishnu schist and salmon-pink Zoraster granite? Very few.

You and your late husband Bob, with his transplanted heart, signed up for your first Colorado River trip together in 2004.

Cora and Bob Johnson at a campsite on the Colorado River, 2005.


You two went again the following year. And now you wanted to show it to your buddies.

Five days before you were to leave for the river trip, you took a different kind of trip. You collided while playing with Bronco, the neighbor’s yellow lab whom you walk several times a week for exercise and companionship. “I felt a pop in my ankle, and I fell,” you wrote in an email. “I knew right away this was not an ordinary turn of the ankle, and I asked one of the neighbors to take me to the ER.” 

There you got the bad news: You had fractured the tibia tip in your right ankle, which is now encased in a knee-to-foot cast.

“The ER doctor told me that there would be no way that I could take the river trip,” you wrote. “I almost started to cry as I couldn’t believe my ears. What? Me not go?”

We can only imagine your disappointment and sadness, even as you said bravely on the phone tonight, “It could have been much worse.”

And you added, in your usual forthright manner, that this sitting around with your foot up was a “pain in the butt. Literally. I’m sitting too much.” (That made us laugh.) And I said something that was perhaps a bit irritating, too—or at least not something you might be ready to hear. “Out of difficulties like this come gifts,” I said. “It’s the ‘when-one-door-closes’ phenomenon.”

You experienced this tenfold after Bob died, eight years and one month after his transplant. Neighbors, friends and family appeared immediately to offer comfort and assistance as you rebuilt your life as Ms. Cora, not so much Mrs. Johnson anymore. Though you miss Bob, you’ve charted an incredible course into your future. One of your most impressive accomplishments—besides being an ambassador for Donate Life, a national organization that promotes organ, eye and tissue donation—is as a float builder.

"New Life Rises," the 2010 Donate Life Rose Parade float, which won the Theme trophy.

You’ve worked on two Donate Life floats for the Rose Parade. You donated hundreds of hours to help create incredible, inspiring, giganto floral sculptures, even arranging for a “flora-graph” (shouldn’t it be a “Cora-graph”?) to honor Bob’s heart donor, Tim Baptista, on the 2010 float. That float, “New Life Rises,” won the Theme trophy, and Connie and Shirley traveled to Pasadena to be with you for the parade. Viva tres amigas!


Tres amigas (from left): Connie, Shirley and Cora

Now, in this window of healing time, you get to practice letting other people do things for you. “That’s hard for me,” you said on the phone. “I’m the one who does things for others.” And you will. You are. The neighbors who show up to help or bring food are repaying your many kindnesses over the years. Dick is about to travel to SoCal and hang out with you for several days, be your “go-fer” because you are, he says, “a good person of the earth. She’s Cora.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Bronco shows up with a dog biscuit for you.

This is love in action, and it’s good to let it wash over you now and then like a baptism of healing river water.

I say this as one who finds it difficult to practice patience, especially in healing. I, too, am used to doing, not sitting, giving rather than receiving. But I once heard someone say that if we don’t learn to receive as gracefully as we give, then we’re missing a big part of the circle. And we’re not allowing others to reap the gifts of their own giving.

So this is your time to rest and receive, heal and practice patience, acknowledge the gifts as they arrive. Soon you will be back on both feet, striding confident and strong through the world as you always have.

We love you, Ms. Cora, as do your buddies on the river, as you love all of us. Just wait till next summer when, nicely healed, you’ll take to the mighty Colorado again. Third time—like the first two—will be another charm.

About janishaag

Writer, writing coach, editor
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1 Response to Takin’ a tumble

  1. Connie Raub says:

    What a nice tribute to the many “Coralee goodnesses”, Jan. I say “amen” to all you have written and more. Thanks for doing this for all of us. Now the pressure is on for Shirley and me to try to represent the Tres amigas (aka Las Rio Ratas) in a manner fitting our fearless leader. It won’t be easy, we had not bothered to pay attention the all the details of getting to Lee’s Ferry, the putting in spot. We are very sad we won’t have our trusted friend, guide and journal writer with us. There is truth about allowing others the gift of giving. That’s how trust is built and closer bonds strengthened. We are all in this human condition together and it’s always good to share the burdens. That’s what you and Dick are doing. You are both a blessing.

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