I took my eyes off my baby for just an instant. Just long enough for him to be swept away.
“You like helping Mommy in the garden?” My 17-month-old son, Kennisen, tottered through the flower bed at the end of our property, pulling up weeds with his little hands.
Truth is, he was having more fun getting dirty than anything. Maybe it would burn off some energy before his morning nap. Kennisen walked at seven months. It was all my husband, Ken, and I could do to keep up with him. Kennisen was no ordinary kid.
I got stuck on one stubborn weed. The root was deep. Better use a spade, I thought. But I didn’t want to whale away at it with Kennisen right there. “Why don’t I get the wheelbarrow and give you a ride back to the house for your nap?” I asked Kennisen.
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He nodded, looking for more weeds to yank.
I walked through the grassy ranchland toward the house, glancing back every few seconds, even waving once. Kennisen busily plucked strands of prairie grass from the dirt. It was a gorgeous early spring day. I turned to pull the wheelbarrow away from the house and swing it around.
I looked back toward the garden. Kennisen was gone. Just like that. “Kennisen!” I shouted. No reply. He never hid from me. Something was wrong.
The creek! The thought jolted me like a bolt of lightning.
I’d always thought there was little danger out here, in this quiet valley a few miles from the small town of Enterprise in northeast Oregon. Everyone knows everyone, so I never worried about my son getting lost.
But at the edge of our property, the grassland ended and dropped off sharply about 20 feet to a small creek. It seemed far for Kennisen to get to in the second my back was turned, but I knew. I just knew.
I ran to the edge and looked down. The creek was running high, swelled by a late thaw in the mountains. Icy water churned and sprayed as it coursed through the narrow gap, skipping over fallen trees and boulders.
Then I saw it. Half of a tiny footprint on the muddy precipice.
“Kennisen!” I jumped over the edge and tumbled down the incline, landing knee-deep in the snowmelt. I splashed through the water, the muddy bottom pulling off my sneakers. The cold stole my breath.
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“Jesus, help him breathe!” I screamed. I clutched below the surface, pulled up only mud and branches. I kept screaming. I was nearly hoarse by the time I reached the culvert under our driveway.
He must have been swept downstream, I thought, fighting off fear and panic and despair.
I hauled myself out and sprinted inside for the phone. I was dripping wet and shivering, and covered in cuts and bruises. I dialed the sheriff. “Kennisen,” I managed to gasp, “fell in the creek. I can’t find him!”
I slammed down the phone, tore outside and plunged back into the creek, following it through the valley. At one point, the branches and debris were so thick I had to crawl. Then the creek widened before me, but I stopped.
Could he really have floated through that thicket? I turned back. What if I missed him? Lord, save him, I prayed desperately. Only you can save my boy. Please save my boy!
An all-terrain truck sped up the narrow gravel road, then ground to an abrupt halt beside me. Steve, the sheriff, and his deputy jumped out. “Kennisen...” I mumbled, my lips numb, my body shaking. Blood and muck coated me head to toe.
“Take her and go look for him at the house, just in case. If he’s here, I’ll find him,” Steve shouted to his deputy. He threw himself into the freezing water. He started to head upstream, but suddenly turned around. After about 30 yards, he reached the next thicket of debris. Steve reached in...and came back up with Kennisen limp in his arms. My son was all gray and blue. No, Lord. No...