In 2011 I spent a glorious week in May paddling a canoe one hundred miles with my eighteen-year-old, James. We traveled down the Green River in Utah to the confluence of the Colorado River and beyond. With each passing mile the canyon walls grew higher and deepened from golden to orange to ochre to red. I paddled in the bow; James paddled in the stern. In other words, James guided us down the river and docked us expertly when it was time to have lunch or set up camp for the night. He was the brains of the operation. And I might add, the brawn. He steered us through whirlpools and eddies and a couple of treacherous wind and lightning storms. It’s not a lot of fun when lightning hits the water a few hundred yards away, and it’s even less fun when the wind blows your canoe sideways and you suddenly find yourself paddling in the wrong direction. Two canoes flipped over, dumping people and supplies into the river, but not ours.
James barked orders at me when necessary. I know I frustrated him terribly at times, but he protected me nonetheless. After several years of difficult times between us, I learned to trust my son. I had to. In that situation, he was the expert, and my life was quite literally in his hands. At times I wept with fatigue, and I didn’t take a shower for seven days. Seven days! When our clean water was gone, we filled our bottles with brown, sandy water from the river and flavored it with Crystal Lite. Crunchy water! I’d love to say I maintained a positive attitude throughout the trip, but that would be a lie. It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, and it brought me to the edge of my physical and emotional strength.
I celebrated my birthday on that trip. James had told our guides before we started that he wanted to have a party for me. They made a cobbler for dessert and everyone sang Happy Birthday. Then my sweet son presented me with a gift-wrapped copy of a book he loved—The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. James had packed the book in his backpack and kept it safe and dry all the way down the river, just the way he’d kept me safe and dry. When he gave it to me he said, “I love this book and I think you will too. We can talk about it when you finish.”
At that moment, something deep inside me began to heal. My son will never know what that book, and those words, meant to me until he has a son of his own.
Words from the heart.