Trouble on the Housatonic

I looked downriver. I didn't like what I saw: white water, crashing over rocks.

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- Posted on Nov 17, 2010

Guardian angel rescues mother and son

Justin was stretched out on the couch watching TV. "How can you enjoy being cooped up on a day like this?" I asked.

He shrugged, the nonverbal equivalent of "Whatever." Justin was at that age. Moody, private. I had no idea what went on inside his head. "Well, it's beautiful outside," I said. "I want to do something. Maybe take the canoe out on the river."

"What's stopping you?" Justin said, his eyes glued to the television set.

"It'd be a lot easier if I had a hand. Come on, we haven't hit the Housatonic in ages. That 16-foot canoe is just gathering dust out in the back. Let's put it to good use."

"Mom, the Housatonic is probably polluted. I'd rather watch TV."

"You're exaggerating, Justin." Once upon a time he would have jumped at the chance to have fun. He used to beg me to play with him or just to do stuff together. He'd burst through the door and say, "Guess what happened at school today," and then launch into one of his rambling stories. No more. Justin still talked. But only when he wanted to. Things had sure changed since his dad and I split up.

"You used to love canoeing," I said, trying not to sound like I was making an accusation.

"Oh, all right," he relented. Probably just to get me to stop bugging him. Out on the river there would be no distractions. Just the two of us.

We unearthed the canoe and loaded it on top of the car. It was a quick drive to our put-in point. "Make sure your life jacket's on tight," I told him as I steadied the canoe on the riverbank.

"It's fine," he snapped.

Can't I say anything right? That was one of the toughest things about being a single mom: I always second-guessed myself. I've got his best interests in mind. If only he knew that.

We pushed off. "The river's pretty calm today," I said. Justin didn't have much experience paddling, and it showed, but that day the going was easy. And the water didn't look polluted. No way Justin could complain.

"Sure is nice out here," Justin said.

"See? Aren't you glad you came?"

"Yeah, I am," he said. A slight breeze ruffled Justin's hair. His paddling grew more steady. So did his talking. "And this past week in Sunday school..." he went on. My son, telling me a story again? Letting me in on his life? Maybe my plan was working.

We rounded a bend and the canoe picked up speed. A lot of speed. I looked downriver. I didn't like what I saw. White water, crashing over rocks. Justin couldn't handle that. Frankly, neither could I. "Justin, we've got to get off this river. Now. There are rapids ahead."

The canoe was close to the riverbank. "Paddle hard!" I said. No use. The current was impossible. On shore, a tree caught my eye. A huge branch hung out low over the river, like some kind of giant outstretched hand. "Justin! That branch. Grab it. Pull yourself out." He reached. He missed. I got hold of the branch and the canoe flipped under me.

"Justin!" I screamed, and let go of the branch. The cold water sucked the breath out of me. Under I went. There was so much silt I couldn't see a thing. I popped back up and gulped air. I saw the paddles bobbing nearby and grabbed them. Then I saw Justin waving. We were both near the river's edge.

"Swim!" I fought to keep my head above water. I couldn't lose sight of my son. I treaded water and watched him swim to the edge of the river. Somehow he made it. He pulled himself up onto dry land. I flung the paddles toward him. "Take these. I have to get the canoe." No way was I going to let several hundred dollars float away without a fight.

I set out after it. Justin, hollering, ran along the river beside me. I made it to the canoe. With my free hand I tried to pull myself back upstream, tugging the capsized canoe with me.

But I couldn't fight that current, which raged even stronger now. I was heading for the rapids and the rocks, water roaring in my ears. I was spinning around. Oh, God...I braced for the worst.

All of a sudden I slammed back-first into something. Something soft and cushioned that took the shape of my body and held me back against the current. Water roiled all around me. Even so, I felt safe and warm, as if cradled in the palm of an enormous angelic hand. I caught my breath, still gripping the canoe tightly, and thought about my next move.

What had I been thinking? My son was safe on shore. He needed me—more than we needed a stupid canoe. And now for the second time, nature seemed to have stretched out a hand to help me.

"Mom," Justin called. "Swim to me. Come on. I know you can make it."

I unclenched my fingers and watched, waiting for the canoe to disappear downstream. Instead, it shot straight toward the riverbank, where it got caught in some tree limbs and stopped.

I aimed toward where Justin stood and started swimming. My arms felt a little rubbery. One last burst. Then I felt solid ground. I hauled myself out of the river and collapsed on the bank.

Justin ran to me. "Are you okay?"

"I think so," I said. "What about you?"

"I'm fine, Mom," he said, but his eyes betrayed his concern.

"Really, I'm okay," I told him. "I just need to rest a while." Justin held my hand and squeezed.

I don't know how long I lay there, Justin's hand in mine. I wished we could stay like this forever. But we had to get home. That meant portaging till we reached a spot where we could paddle back to the other side of the river. We dragged the canoe out of the water. "You take the front," I told Justin.

We carried the canoe through a thick patch of nettles and thistles. Both of us wore shorts, and the weeds stung at our bare legs like a swarm of bees. The canoe seemed to get heavier and heavier. "How much farther?" Justin asked.

"I don't know. Just keep going."

What a mess of a day, I thought. No wonder Justin doesn't want to do anything with me anymore. I've really blown it now. Tired, wet, we trudged on. We reached a spot downriver where there was no more white water. "We've got to go back across." Justin looked scared. "It'll be okay," I said.

"Wait, Mom. First, let's pray." We dropped the canoe and plopped down on the grass. "God," Justin began, "thanks for keeping us safe. It was pretty scary out there, but Mom stayed cool. I don't know what I would've done without her. Now, please help us get back across the river in one piece. Amen."

"Amen," I said. I put my arms around Justin's shoulders. Seems he hadn't drifted so far from me after all. "Ready?"

"Yep," Justin said.

We lifted the canoe (I swear it felt lighter) and slipped it back into the Housatonic. I watched Justin paddle. His stroke was strong and sure. He was going to be okay. We both were. We had another hike ahead of us, but for once I didn't second-guess my decisions.

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