When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I nearly drowned in the Illinois River.
Our family — Mom, Dad, me and various assortments of my siblings and their children — often visited the river. Those days were filled with laughter as we gathered around dad’s rarely exposed, pale legs. Untold hours were spent dunking ourselves in the cool river water to hide from biting flies and mosquitoes. And mom pacing a worried trench in the bank.
That day I wanted to follow my older brothers and father across the water to the other bank. Most of the river was shallow where we played, more like a babbling brook as it tumbled over and between the rounded rocks of its bed. Only about a two-foot stretch existed where the water pooled into a slower current and the bottom couldn’t be seen.
Waving off my mother’s warnings, I began to pick my way across the river. The rocks were slick with moss, which made movement slow. I made it about halfway across the deeper portion, water up to my chest, when my foot slipped into one of the numerous drop-offs formed by the rushing river. I pulled in air and went under. When my feet hit the bottom, I pushed myself back up and grabbed more air. I could feel that I was moving downstream, and hoped that I’d eventually hit a more shallow section where I could stand up and get my bearings. That didn’t happen.
I’m not sure how many times I went down and up, down and up. From the bank, it must have looked as if I was having a good time, playing in the water. But I was getting tired.
Eventually, I had no more strength to kick. I opened my eyes instead and watched about a million bubbles slide over my body and flow around my arms and hands. I was filled with what I can only describe as a peaceful resolve.
As the current began to easily move my now non-resistant body, something grabbed my hair and then the back of my swimming suit. In the next moment, I was above the water, coughing, my arms wrapped tightly around my sister’s neck. She carried me back to the bank and handed me to our frantic mother.
Many years have come and gone. My sister and I shared the same roots, but became our own distinct individuals. Through it all — even those times when I wanted to wrap my hands around her neck for another reason — I didn’t forget that she saved my life.
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In fact, that’s where my mind was last Saturday afternoon as I sat with my siblings and the rest of our big, rowdy family at her funeral.
A local pastor performed the service and, according to other family members, he did a fine job. Surrounded once again by the river and watching the bubbles float around me, I didn’t hear it.
During the service I moved to sit behind her oldest son. Born while I was still in high school, I consider him as much my child as he is my nephew. I placed my hands on his and his wife’s backs, willing their grief to flow to me, hoping to ease their pain.
When I’d absorbed what I could, I sat back in the pew, spent. It was then that my 15-year-old daughter’s arm crooked around my shoulders, grasping my hair and urging me to the surface for another breath.