The Girl Whose Strength Was Beyond Her Years

When her grandfather falls ill, a fearless little girl comes to the rescue.

cara jumper
Spencer Heyfron/Redux for Reader’s Digest

Cara Jumper loves the giant saltwater pond on her grandparents’ Swansea, South Carolina, property. When her grandfather Coy Jumper bought the land 15 years earlier, he stocked the pond with bass, bream, and catfish, hauled down a little rowboat for fishing, and built a dock from which the grandkids could dangle their legs in summer.

Even in winter, Coy would visit the 5.5-acre pond to feed the fish and check his beaver traps. One January afternoon, with the temperature in the 50s, he piled ten-year-old Cara and her sisters, Claire, six, and Emma, five, into his Pontiac Sunfire and took them down to the pond. He and the girls—who lived with Coy and his wife, Esca, most of the time—tramped happily through the pines, checking traps. No luck—they were empty.

As the sun melted toward the horizon, the air took on a chill, and the group turned back to head home. But as Coy walked along the bank, he was suddenly unable to put one foot in front of the other. Behind him, Cara “noticed that something was wrong,” she recalls. Then she saw Coy teeter and fall backward into the pond’s deep water.

When her grandfather didn’t surface immediately, Cara jumped in. It was too deep to touch the bottom. With one hand, Cara grabbed the bank. With the other, she reached for her grandfather, making contact in the dark water.

Coy was limp. He had suffered a stroke the year before. Now Cara wondered if he’d had one again. Just 80 pounds to her grandfather’s 230, she grabbed his head and pulled his face out of the water. That roused him, but he was still dead weight, hopelessly heavy as Cara tugged him toward the bank. “I can’t get him out,” Cara cried to her sisters, who watched from the bank. She managed to maneuver Coy toward the three-foot bank and pulled him up onto solid ground.

The winter sun had almost disappeared, and they were all shivering. The little girls were scared and crying. Cara knew she’d have to get Coy to the car, a quarter mile away. She helped him to his feet. The left side of his body lagged, but by propping his weight on Cara and pushing with his right side, Coy slowly moved forward. “It took a long time,” Cara says, to make their way back.

Sixty feet from the car, Coy fell. From there, he crawled, dragging himself under a gate, to the car. His granddaughters helped him into the passenger’s side, and Cara got into the driver’s seat.

“I used to sit on my dad’s lap and drive,” she says now. Coy, too, she says, had let the fifth grader drive through the fields around the house. Still, she felt nervous, but she pushed on the gas and steered them the three miles home. “I was trying to get there fast, but I didn’t want to get us hurt,” Cara says. When she pulled the Sunfire into the carport, her grandmother was there to meet them. She had arrived home from work just a few minutes before. “I had just been thinking I’d better go to the pond and check on them,” she says.

“Poppa’s had a stroke,” Cara told her as she walked Coy into the house. From the downward tug of Coy’s mouth, Esca had already guessed what had happened.

Coy spent six days in the hospital recovering from a stroke. Since the accident, he has stopped going to the pond alone. Says Esca, “If Cara hadn’t helped, she might not have a grandpa anymore.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest