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Down by the Riverside


Yankee Jim Canyon, Yellowstone River, Montana

     You don't want to be following us when we're driving down a two-lane highway that goes alongside a whitewater river. Ed and I will be craning our necks to look at the rapids and plotting how we would paddle through each one. Then, when a bridge over the river appears, we will slam on the brakes and pull off to the shoulder. Walking out on the bridge, we'll look down at the bouncing water to continue our discussion of which rock to dodge and which downstream "V" to ride.
     You see, we're following in the tracks of a beat-up brown van we once saw with two equally-abused kayaks tied on top. The van sported a bumper sticker which said, "This vehicle stops at all river crossings." It was a parody of the decals you see on the rear door of busses and other service vehicles warning that—just to be safe—the driver will brake at every railroad crossing.
     So many fine miles we've spent driving alongside whitewater rivers or standing on bridges above them, looking down. The Nantahala River along Highway 19, for example, on our way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City, North Carolina. The New River along Highway 20 near Hinton, West Virginia. Or, the Yellowstone River along Highway 89 in Montana through Yankee Jim Canyon. Now, at this stage in our lives, we'd have no business paddling Yankee Jim—we'd get trashed in the Class III-IV stacked rapids.
     But it's still fun to look.
     During one visit to North Carolina, we stood on a bridge to watch some Olympic kayakers weave back and forth through the training gates set up in a slalom over a rapids on the property of NOC. The helmeted and spray-skirted young men and women were like demi-gods to me. I used to pore over whitewater guidebooks like I studied Bible commentaries, hoping to find some secret knowledge, some key to success that would allow me to ferry my canoe through gnarly rapids with the same insouciant ease. Such skill, to me, was a taste of immortality.
     Our car stops at all river crossings.
     In some camp songs and gospel hymns, crossing a river is a metaphor for entering the afterlife. Going to heaven. Receiving eternal life. Whatever phrase you want to use. "The Jordan River is chilly and cold," one song goes, "chills the body, but not the soul." Michael, row the boat ashore. The image is that of crossing over to the other side, that unknown place after death.
     We have to use metaphors because no one really knows what happens when you die. In recent decades, advances in medical technology have allowed us to hear reports about tunnels and bright lights from people who've had near-death experiences, but for most of human history, poetry has had to suffice.
     When we first started hearing about COVID-19 deaths, when horrifying reports came from Italy that bodies were piling up because the morgues were full, I told myself, "You, too, could die anytime." But the reality of that truism didn't really sink in until last summer when my good friend, Barbara Lewis-Lakin, died at 67—not of COVID, but of cancer. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about death. The death of my loved ones. My death.
     Perhaps these obsessive thoughts are an attempt to inoculate myself against the bare fact that death comes. If I worry enough about it, maybe it won't happen.
     As a pastor, I'm no novice at death. I've sat in hospitals and nursing facilities and hospice units and family homes with people who are dying. One man, unmarried, middle-aged, who had hidden his cancer from his parents until it was too late for treatment, took his last breath at the very moment that I spoke the words from the 23rd Psalm, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Though I finished gamely with the rest of the verse, "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me," we all were spooked. His mother reached forward and gently closed the eyes in his yellowed face.
     I remember sitting with another man, Dan Brown, a stout, square-faced beer salesman who'd served on a Navy destroyer in World War II. Dan told me about a great sea battle in October 1944 that they called "The Battle of the Tin Cans" because a few U.S. destroyers held off five Japanese battleships. Dan had a large, elaborate anchor tattooed in blue on his right forearm. He told me proudly that nowadays young men with spiky hair wearing chains and studs would come up and admire his tattoos.
     Once when Dan was at home on leave from the Navy, a hostile neighbor was speaking belligerently and strutting around his front porch showing off his muscles. Dan said to him, "You want a piece of me?" The neighbor backed down. Dan was a fighter.

     Underneath his tough exterior, though, Dan was also a lover. He'd been married twice, first to Nora, then to Ruth, and at age 85, still had an eye for pretty women. One of the first things that people in the church told me about Dan was how faithfully he had cared for Ruth when she got dementia. Every day he went to the nursing home and ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with her—for three years—until she died.
     In his last week of his life, Dan told me that he kept seeing Nora, Ruth, his parents, and his deceased sister Louise, standing in the corner of the room. "They're waiting for me," he said. I'd heard something similar from other parishioners—that their loved ones had come to help them make their passage into the next life.
     When my mother, Mary Smith, died in April of 2019, the last word I heard her speak was "Ma." She, too, was staring off into the distance at something or someone I could not see. I first assumed she was calling out for her mother, Rosalie Inwood. But she also could also have been speaking to Ma Peterson, a woman she'd met at a religious camp meeting and who'd been a significant spiritual mentor when she was young. It comforted me, anyway, to think that my mother was being welcomed into heaven by people she had loved.
     So, maybe it's safe to follow Ed and me after all. Though I'm in no hurry to cross over, I hope to be greeted by those who've gone before me. Likewise, I hope to be among those who welcome my loved ones when it's their time to go to the other side of the river.
     And you, when you need it most, may you hear someone calling to you, "Come on over. The water's fine."

"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you… I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." John 14:18,3 (NRSV).
Playlist: "Moon River," Peter Mayer, Elements, 2001.

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