From: Portland Magazine
Many years ago I was fishing in the Wilson River with my brother-in-law. It was autumn, salmon season. The air and the river were cold and you could smell the sea. Yellow and gold and bronze leaves darted and swirled and spun in the crystalline waters at our feet. Morning mist hung in the hemlocks and firs climbing the mountains. Everywhere there was mottled light.
I heard the sound of plastic hitting rock and I looked over and saw my brother-in-law lean over to retrieve his lure box from the river, and then he slipped and fell in, and the river yanked him away. He groped frantically for the rocks and jabbed his heels desperately into the riverbed and after a second or two he actually stood up, the pounding water fanning out behind him high and wide as a peacock’s tail; and then the river grabbed him and pulled him straight down into its bosom and he vanished.
I dropped my gear and ran as fast as my waders would allow, ducking and shoving through alder and vine maple and devil’s club, and I clambered up on the boulder where he had been seconds ago but there was nothing in the river but his hat.
I screamed his name again and again and again and again and again. His hat whipped away down the river.
Please God help please God
I read that water desperately, anything, a ripple of him, any hint of his life, any hint of his body, his color, his face.
Please God please
I don’t know how much time went by, a minute, two minutes, and then I noticed a thick tree branch jammed in the backwater at the head of the gorge. A sparrow lit on a ledge above the branch and then launched upriver just inches over the riffles. The branch rolled a bit and I realized it was his leg, and I screamed his name, I screamed and screamed, but his head was underwater, and he was dead.
Please God help me
I ran downstream to the footbridge and ran across and climbed down to a dozen feet above him and yelled and pleaded. I went a little mad maybe. I wanted to throw rocks and sticks at him, pry him loose, throw some of my life at him and into him.
I ran up to the highway and waited forever with my heart pounding. There was a moment when I felt, with every fiber of my being, that his spirit, his soul, was rising out of the canyon. I cannot describe how sacred that moment was, how absolutely sure his soul was departing his body and rising up over the waters.
He was the happiest man alive, my brother-in-law. He had said so hours before. He and his wife were expecting their first child in two months. They had just purchased their first house. He had finally landed his dream job. His beloved college football team was going to the Rose Bowl. He was going to fish for salmon with new fishing gear that he had waited years to afford. He was beaming.
A water ouzel landed a few inches from his body and jumped back and forth into the river, catching breakfast.
Cars stopped. Finally there were eight men. Some had been fishing for salmon at the coast. Some had been crabbing in the bay. One was a New York City fireman on vacation.
We went to get the body. The fireman tied a rope around his own body. We lowered him down to the body. We dug our feet into the sand and gravel for leverage and hauled the fireman and my brother-in-law out of the river. By now search-and-rescue teams and emergency medical technicians and the deputy sheriff were there. They cut his boots off and tried to resuscitate him but he was dead.
We carried him up the steep uneven trail to the highway. An ambulance roared thirty minutes to the nearest hospital. I could not speak. A doctor pronounced him officially dead. I was led into a chapel. A minister came and sat with me and we prayed aloud. I wept and wept and wept until I was exhausted.
I cannot articulate how much pain I have felt and seen in the fourteen years since I saw my brother-in-law die in front of me. I loved that man, and I weep over the scars his sudden death caused his wife and child and clan. I cannot articulate the dark swirl of emotions and feelings and agonies in me since that moment. I cannot explain how hard I have tried to live up to the kind and generous and compassionate words people have said to me about his sudden death, my utter helplessness. I cannot explain how many thousands of hours I have asked God why my brother-in-law was taken so tragically, why I was chosen to witness such a horror.
I have never written about his death before, and I struggle to do so now; but after years of struggling and healing and praying, I tell you my story. I was witness to a moment of incredible holiness, and I can no longer lock that up inside of my heart. I saw a man’s soul leave his first temple and rise toward his next temple. I saw him depart from this planet.
I will see his face and hear his voice again, and that will be a joy I cannot understand. But I know that it will come.