Last night my sister did the math. If she lives to be eighty years old, she’ll have five more biennial visits to the family summer place in Maine. Five. Five more family get-togethers on an island we’ve known since we were kids.
We were Zooming, all five of us, from Australia, California, Arizona, Minnesota and Connecticut, and we took in the news with appropriate sobriety. My youngest brother said, “Maybe you’ll live to ninety.” My sister, the Minnesotan, said, “Sure, but who’s going to drive me?” She’s afraid of flying and has big dogs besides. My youngest brother said, “I’ll drive you.” My older younger brother said, “I’ll drive you.” My youngest sister offered both her sons as drivers, even though that’s dicey and we all know it because Australians drive on the other side. I said, “I’ll drive you, but by the time you’re ninety I’ll be eighty-eight.” Not a good idea, we decided. “I’ll take the plane,” I said. “Maybe it’ll be safe to fly by then.”
It feels good to talk about mortality before it starts to weigh you down. Especially in a close family of people who will miss you when you’re gone. I can’t yet imagine life without my siblings, though my older younger brother tried to slip out in his thirties when he was mugged and suffered traumatic brain injury. I feel some relief to be the second oldest in our lineup. The grief of loss has long felt heavier to me than the fear of death. If we die in order, and there’s as good a chance as any that we won’t, I’ll only have to grieve my older sister. Sometimes I try and imagine stepping into her shoes, but it’s fruitless. Her shoes are hers and mine are mine.
I once had the pleasure of driving Heid Erdrich, the poet (though as things go, perhaps better known as the sister of Louise), to Tuba City to teach a poetry class to 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-graders. Crossing the Little Colorado River she said, “There’s a lot of similarity between Ojibwe families and the old Puritan families of New England.” I was interested and asked her to say more. “Well,” she said, “for example, my people gather in the summer in our summer hunting grounds. It’s the time for family reunions, for celebrating those who survived the winter and mourning those who did not. It’s a sacred time, a time for remembering where we come from and memorializing our kin. The old New England families have their summer places where they go to do the same.”
I’m a New Yorker, so not exactly of an “old New England family,” but close enough. We had a few Puritans who drifted up to Massachusetts a long time ago, but the rest were relative newcomers—Scots, Germans and a large handful of hungry Irish who got off the boat and stared at those Irish need not apply signs for several decades before they got a foot in the door. But as soon as the door opened, they followed the same instinct to come together, always just about the time the mosquitoes showed up.
So for all of you with a lake house memory, or a shore house memory, or if you’re experiencing, as I am, the thwarted seasonal urge to get together with family, know that you’re in good company. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the loss is being felt. My solution is to revise my definition of family to soften the feeling of longing. A friend came over the other day and brought me an apron she’d made. Family. Another friend loaned me her grommet set. Family. Another said, “Here’s a loaf of bread. You look like you could use it.” Family. We’re trying to help each other. We’re happy to do it. I talked to my sister on the phone and said, “Look. Five get-togethers is five get-togethers. That’s not so puny. And if you have five, I only have six. If that’s what’s on offer, we’ll take it, right?” “Right,” she said. “We’ll take it.”
On the river there was never any doubt that we might die in the next rapid. But the fact is, river deaths are rare. Death by hiking is much more popular. People fall from cliffs or die of thirst with some regularity in Grand Canyon. Or they suffer a heart attack when flipped into 50-degree Colorado River water. It looks like death by drowning but isn’t. Those who die in the river seldom drown.
I’ve spent unwanted time in the river at least three times. The first was a run through House Rock rapid, my maiden voyage in my own boat. I was on a private trip in November. We were all wet-suited up and the light was closing down and the cold was coming. My boat was a 12-foot rubber Apache, and my passenger was an irrepressible young woman named Delia who insisted on riding with me for the month we were on the river together. She had plenty of choices and I was the only novice, and I thank her every time I think of her, which is often. I dumped her in the first major rapid of our journey, and dumped her again at Lava Falls, the last. Both times we just held onto the upside-down boat, got to shore, dusted ourselves off, and with the help of our friends righted the boat and climbed in again. There’s little comfort in stopping to think about what’s just happened, because rapids keep coming and coming when you’re headed downstream, and you’ve got no choice but to negotiate the next stretch as best you can. And it focuses you to pay attention to water. It’s like writing in that way, totally absorbing and time-defying. A cold swim in a swift river can put you in a trance.
Twenty-five years later, I got to meet the innards of the river again. But unlike the first two baptisms, where I was rolled from side to side and up and around and didn’t spend memorable time under the water’s surface, my swim through Bedrock rapid pinned me to the underside. My boat rolled up onto a large chunk of pink granite in the middle of the river, and did not flip but ejected me. I still have a scar on my foot to prove it. I didn’t know anything for what seemed like a very long time, then my mind woke up just enough to understand the weight and color of something on top of my head. It was, I realized, the river.
I was underwater for no more than a minute, but a minute, as you can imagine, is a certain kind of forever. The current that held me down felt like a pair of liquid arms. I began to feel my lungs aching and I noticed the darkness of the water above me and realized I would have to work, to “bestir myself,” to get to air. Such a simple thing, breathing. Such an essential part of each living moment. I kicked and rose, kicked again and rose. The water paled. I saw light coming through the liquid canopy above me, and oddly, that was the moment I became not afraid but resigned to death. I thought, what an end to a life. What a waste, to die in this river. Instead of increasing my will to live, I was touched with realism as I approached the surface. The surface was still far enough away to be out of reach. I could clearly see the possibility of not being able to reach it. I wanted to reach it, but knew I might not. Sober, was my feeling. Sober, and a little sad. A this-is-it moment without the fuss of great emotion. Great emotion was not part of the ending of my life, apparently. Even as I broke the surface and opened my throat to the air, I felt still and quiet. Joy wasn’t there, nor grief, nor relief. Just the edge of sky, a pale blue line above the canyon wall, like a second river I would someday swim up through.
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