A Water Education
“Emerald, that was a really moving essay about your dad,” a friend commented after my reading of a piece published in a department literary magazine a few years ago. “But now you have to learn how to write like that WITHOUT someone dying”. I laughed, appreciating his honesty and took his words to heart. I try to find stories in the sometimes mundane, generally non-terrible parts of life. Reading back through posts, however, I realized this piece never made it onto the lens. I’d like it to be a part of this informal “portfolio”. Reading the essay again I realize I sound young – but hey, wasn’t I (still am…)? I keep those overly descriptive adjectives and almost cliche sentences in, because they remind me who I was that first, freshman year in Missoula.
Yesterday on the Lochsa, for the first time, I forgot to look for the “grotto” where we spread Dad’s ashes. I roll out my paco pad next to the bank of the river, letting the Idaho stars wink goodnight and the roar of flooding water seep into my dreams – and I’m not sad. I squeeze myself into the back seat of a shuttle rig with the friends sweet enough to loan me their oars, show me a line through the rapids or invite me into their raft – and I don’t feel like we are missing one boater. I know I’m nowhere close to being up to par with many of the boaters around me, and I don’t feel like I’m letting anyone down because of it. When a bit of sadness hits me, it’s when I’m driving home from Les Schwab, waiting at a stoplight downtown and a song he used to sing comes on the radio station and suddenly I’m sobbing and trying to hide it from the concerned looking grandmother in the Camry to my right. But the river is only joy now – and a gratitude for the people that visit and love the Lochsa too.
A Water Education
For Jim LaFortune, 1959-2010
We drive south through jade-green wheat fields, and turn east at the putrid paper mill that marks the Clearwater River. As we follow semi trucks and sedans along winding curves, a quiet bubble in my bones turns into a trickle, tickling my stomach and kidneys. By Dworshack Dam the trickle is a stream, flowing urgently around my chest. At the first sight of the Lochsa River some part of my water-laden body responds, sensing home. The small, steep river tumbles down from the mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, swollen with snow and the promise of spring. At sixteen years old, I’m not quite sure what love is, but I suspect it feels something like that stream around my heart, exploding into a class four rapid.
My father and I don’t speak as we push our boats into the water. I’m nervous, my legs thrumming and my hands sweating. My father smiles, face upturned to the midday sun. This river isn’t just water following gravity over rocks and around fallen cedars, it’s a live being, and I ask for some beginners luck and sympathy in her grasp. Although never spoken aloud, a part of me knows that over the years of running rivers, my father has taught me to do this. The best boatmen don’t fight against the river, they work with it, simply adding suggestions with their oars or paddles.
By the third drop, the river and I are in conversation. Sunlight dances in the swirling green eddies and disappears in the white froth of waves and holes. Elation runs down to my neoprene clad feet as I slam into wave after wave. I smile, I laugh, I grin like a damn fool, abandoning my teenage awkwardness for untainted joy. The river is teaching me that the natural world is more powerful and essential than I will ever be.
I chose to go to college in Montana because the mountains and rivers whisperpromises in my ear. I have a crush. I want to further this alternative education, even as I immerse myself in textbooks, lectures and homework assignments. The Lochsa River is only two short hours on winding highway. My father and I will meet halfway come spring, in our real shared home.
A week into my freshman semester, my mother calls me. She sounds exhausted and scared.
“Dad has a brain tumor, and it’s likely terminal.”
I buy myself a piece of chocolate cake and find a secluded spot next to the Clark Fork. I’m not yet acquainted with this river, but I ask her to hold me anyways. I close my eyes and let my heart fill with the whisper of water rolling over rock and gravel. The only thought I can pick out of my stunned mind is, Please, please let us raft the Lochsa one more time. Just once.
I’m not religious and I don’t know who or what to pray to. So I pray to the rivers. I pray to the languid afternoons of my childhood spent digging and building on the sandbars of the Salmon River. I pray to the river otters devouring a salmon carcass on the banks of the Rogue River. I pray to the steep, rhyolite walls of Green Dragon Canyon on the Owyhee River. I pray to the awe and wonder of watching the Selway River consume full sized trees like they are matchsticks. I pray to the deep emerald-green pools of the Lochsa River. I summon all the water education I have acquired over my eighteen years of life. Please.
Despite the diagnosis, statistics and scientific reasoning, spring returns with my father in tow. He has brain cancer. He will not get better. He will not live to meet his grandchildren nor watch his wife’s hair turn gray. Yet he will raft the Lochsa one more time.
Again, we are silent as we push our boats into the water. My boating skills have grown and I’ve spent the previous summer raft guiding. I no longer need to study my father’s every stroke and pull of the oars, but I follow anyways. He has been having trouble finding the right words and finishing sentences. His skin looks gaunt around his eyes and his daily afternoon naps are growing in length. Yet he can still speak to the river. He isn’t rowing, he is dancing, and every wave and swirl is another partner. He still smiles, face upturned towards the sun.
On a rainy night in November, I wake to the creak of my door opening.
“It’s over, Emerald, it’s over. He’s gone” is whispered through the darkness. A quick kiss on the forehead and the door clicks shut. I lay awake, staring towards the black ceiling. I take a short breath in, exhale out. The months to come will hold their share of tears, the water of our home rivers flowing down my face instead of through my bones. More than once I will collapse onto the kitchen floor head in hands. But at this moment, in the dark of my childhood home, all I feel is the familiar bubbling, the whisper of water and cedar trees. The warmth of the sun heats my face and my father, smiling, guides his boat over a rolling wave.
In the spring I will again cross the mountains to the Lochsa River. I will let the wind grab my father’s ashes from my hand and scatter them into the green water beneath my boat. Yet I suspect he is already there, waiting to teach me more, to further my water education. I still consider myself a lucky daughter, despite losing a father. I had not only the education of a parent, but also the education of the wild, free-flowing rivers of the west.