Monday, June 6, 2011

In Everything . . .

I haven't written in awhile. I could excuse myself in a number of ways, but the truth is I haven't felt like it. The plan was to write a post about our family trip to the Buffalo River which took place the first week of June. I even began mentally composing it the moment we arrived. It should have begun:

"I love coming to these mountains year after year. After better than 16 trips to and through the Ozarks, they almost feel like a second home. Each time I travel through, it's different. I've seen these mountains as a frozen world covered in a snowy blanket, and I've seen them alive with life as Spring draws to a close and Summer prepares for its grand entrance. This year, the cicadas are present and many, and as we exit the vehicle, we are met with their welcoming screeches which come at us in boisterous, rolling waves."

The post was supposed to begin this way, tell a lovely story about Micah's first float on the river, and end with a pleasant sentiment. But tragedy struck and sucked away all of my desire to tell that story. Smaller, yet significant, traumas bookending the trip left me a little dull and lifeless. I didn't quite have a case of writer's block. It felt more like writer's hangover. I had become drunk with the heavy and strong drink of bad things happening and the possibility of other bad things happening, and I couldn't quite get my head clear enough to sort it all out. After a little time--time to view the events of the past few weeks with some distance and biblical perspective--I think I'm finally ready to tell the story. I no longer feel any apprehension about sharing the story because the news and papers had no problem sharing the story, and did so incorrectly, might I add. Besides, they left out all of the good parts. So here goes--

I love coming to these mountains year after year. After better than 16 trips to and through the Ozarks, they almost feel like they belong to me, a second home. Each time I travel through, it's different. I've seen these mountains as a frozen world covered in a snowy blanket, and I've seen them alive with life as Spring draws to a close and Summer prepares for its grand entrance. This year, the cicadas are present and many, and as we exit the vehicle, we are met with their welcoming screeches which come at us in boisterous, rolling waves. I missed the undercurrent moans, forewarning me of the day to come, but I was unable to miss that the day was hot and alive.

The group joining my family was a lovely mix of old friends and new. Souls I had loved as a young child when my family attended Central Baptist Church were mixed with newer friends and brand new faces. Derek Crockett, who I had wanted to marry when I was 3 years old, had his two boys along with him. James Liner hugged my neck, and told me how much Micah reminded him of me as a toddler. My parents' long-time friend, Leo Honeycutt, was there, and as always, provided excellent food and comic relief for everyone. In all, there were 29 people with us, and the mix of people was perfect. However, the meeting of new faces would have to wait until later. Micah and I were exhausted after the long trip, and needed an early bedtime in preparation for the even longer day on the river.

The next day dawned bright and clear. The water was the prettiest I had seen it in a long time. The sunlight pouring from the heavens revealed pleasant shades of blue and green in the deeper pools, and the water was just right for carrying a two-year-old on his first float. Micah excitedly climbed in the canoe with expectant cries of "Catchy fish! Catchy fish!" It promised to be a very good day. (And allow me to interpose here that it truly was.)

The young boys and teenage girls splashed and smiled and tried to tump each other's canoes. The adults relaxed and laughed as they tried to ease into impossibly cold, mountain water. Micah enjoyed dipping his hands in the water off the side of the canoe, taking turns in our laps, and throwing rocks from the canoe into the water until he finally, after a serious effort to fuss himself out of the need of a nap, surrendered into a quiet sleep in my arms.

I watched children and adults alike leap off of Jim's Bluff, and laugh heartily as they surfaced the icy water. It was my turn to laugh when I watched my middle aged parents succumb to peer pressure, and swim out to deeper waters for this photo op.

Later in the day, our group stopped at the trail head to Hemmed-in-Hollow Falls, a beautiful feature on the upper leg of the Buffalo River. Because I was pregnant and Micah was two, our little family stayed behind to enjoy swimming and fishing as we watched the majority of our group disappear into the foliage. Micah couldn't have been happier with our choice. He found the largest rocks he could manage, picked them up grunting, "Heaby," and joyfully tossed them back into the water. He also reeled in a couple of Daddy's catches, and even kissed a fish!

While we were having a good time at the riverside, everyone else was having a good time up at the falls.

When our group returned from their hike, they all made their way back to their canoes. It was getting late. Everyone was getting tired, but we were all in good spirits. The day had been a beautiful blessing.

This is the point of the story where I want to close with a warm, fuzzy, "happily ever after" ending. This is also the part of the story where things from my limited, human perspective go wrong . . .

Brandon likes to be in the back of our canoe caravan because he likes to take his time and fish. We watched the canoes pass safely through a small set of very ordinary rapids one by one until only a handful of canoes were left. James Liner and his young partner had some difficulty with the rapids, and flipped the canoe. Brandon and I didn't see it flip, but we caught a canoe paddle and other paraphernalia as it drifted downstream. Another couple helped them right the canoe, and get back on course. As they paddled past us, I noticed a cut above Mr. Liner's eye. He had bumped his head against something. I asked him if he was alright, and he grinned, saying he was fine. There was no reason to doubt him.

Over the next half hour, Micah grew a little fussy. It was his dinnertime, and he hadn't gotten a good nap that day. Every time the canoe jarred a little against the rocks, he became uneasy. One such bump sent him over the edge into a full-fledged wail, which confirmed my decision that we would stay at the camp the next day so he could rest.

It was immediately after this incident that we saw them. We saw the three standing, performing CPR first, all from our group--a nurse and her husband, one of Mr. Liner's nieces. Then I saw other canoes from our group banked on the shore, their inhabitants sitting stock still with faces blank. And then I saw him. I knew at once who it was even though he wasn't the right color. I knew at once that he was no longer with us. And while we have no way of knowing what happened for certain, my brain quickly jerked back to the cut above his eye.

Micah wailed until Brandon shoved us to the bank. A small miracle, Micah immediately hushed himself and grew still and content in my arms. Without a word, Brandon joined the party performing CPR. Tears formed in my eyes, spilling down my cheeks. I may have been the only one blubbering there like a baby, and that is a little embarrassing, but I was hyper-aware of the fact that Mr. Liner's son and nieces were watching and what this would mean for my dad who had loved this man for most of his adult life. My heart broke for hearts breaking. Brandon called for one of my Epi-pens. I tossed it to him. It was no use.

I watched five people, Brandon included, from our group perform CPR for an hour while we waited for help we weren't sure would come. They breathed heavy, and pumped hard. I wept. I prayed. I tried to figure out how help would come. There was no place for a helicopter to land.

Micah remained calm and happy though it was well past his dinnertime and nearing his bedtime, so happy that I was sure it was a God-thing. God was good.

Tami, one of Mr. Liner's nieces, remained strong while she called out to him, hoping he could still hear her. God was good.

Eventually, help came trickling in from downstream. God was good.

There was a sense of peace that fell on all of us, and we let the knowledge that James was no longer with us sink in, yet in a silent pact, kept working and praying for the sake of his family. God was good.

Finally, a group of EMTs poured out of a tiny pig's trail that, wonder of wonders, led straight to our beach, and took over. God was good.

A lot of people sit in the camp of "death is natural" because everyone dies. I, however, see death as the ultimate reminder that all is not right with our world. We were not created to die. Death is man's greatest judgement, an enemy. All the while, it is very good to know that God never abandons us, even in death. His presence was near us the entire day, but especially near in the moments of death. I must remember, as we all should, "See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal" (Deuteronomy 32:39), and I must remember that God is good.

The next day, almost everyone in our group departed for home, overwhelmed by tragedy or necessity. I was in mourning, and the words that Tami, one of Mr. Liner's nieces, spoke to someone else expressing their condolences--"It's okay. God numbers our days"--rang louder in my ears than the screeching cicadas outside. It didn't feel okay. I opened the book I was reading, hoping to distract myself from the events of the day before, the images and sounds I will never be able to erase from my memory. This is what I read--

"I know there is poor and hideous suffering, and I've seen the hungry and the guns that go to war. I have lived pain, and my life can tell: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for early light dappled through leaves and the heavy perfume of wild roses in July and the song of crickets on humid nights and the rivers that run and the stars that rise and the rain that falls and all the good things that a good God gives. Why would the world need more anger, more outrage? How does it save the world to reject unabashed joy when it is joy that saves us? Rejecting joy to stand in solidarity with the suffering doesn't rescue the suffering. The converse does. The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring the fullest Light to all the world. When we lay the soil of our hard lives open to the rain of grace and let joy penetrate our cracked and dry places, let joy soak into our broken skin and deep crevices, life grows. How can this not be the best thing for the world? For us? The clouds open when we mouth thanks." --from One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

Out of my sadness and temptation to see this trip as, well . . . the worst trip ever, here was this call to leave behind the despair of death and find life by offering thanks. I recognized this to be not only a call for the moment, but for the long term. I also realized that I wasn't only to offer thanks for the good that had happened, but also the "bad."

"In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God." --1 Thessalonians 5:18 (Italics mine.)

I found it difficult to do so, but I thanked God for everything I could think of--Micah's safety, fish to catch, the hot sunshine, the cold water, rocks to throw, every one of James' smiles, the quick and quiet nature of his death, CPR, EMTs, pig trails and every glimpse of God I could find in the details. As promised, I felt more alive with each offering.

Learning to be thankful for everything is a scary thought for me, a thought that has kept me a little pensive and sober for the last few weeks. What if something even more terrible happens, and I am required to say, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord?" That thought puts a chill in the bones.

The good thing is that God knows where I am, and only asks that I begin learning to give thanks for everything, including the good and the bad, in a place where the good and the small dwell. For now, I can give thanks for fresh blueberries, the rain that poured from the heavens earlier this week, the sun that warms the world, Micah's smile and the gentle kicks of the baby girl growing in my belly.

That's right! I haven't officially stated this on the blog--It's a girl!!!

While these things are all pleasant, everyone has to start somewhere. I'm glad my Father knows that I am but dust, and brings this challenge to my door in a relatively sunny season.

What happened is still hard. I no longer think about it every day, but I think about it often. If I close my eyes and see things I don't want to see, I consciously recall Mr. Liner's smiles and laughter earlier in the day. I remember that he no longer suffers, but lives in a place where the only tears are happy ones. I remember the memories made on the river that day with my family and friends that can't be stolen away by the shadow of death. I remember that God is good, I say a prayer for the Liner family, and I give thanks . . . for everything.