Tipping the canoe (and my 4 year old, too)


Last Sunday night, Lily, lying in her bed, told me, “I thought Nevie would sink to the bottom, and you wouldn’t be able to find her.”

No, Lily hadn’t just awoken from a nightmare; instead, she’d spent the day at her grandparents’ cottage in Irish Hills – and watched as her mom, her 4 year old sister, and her uncle got tossed out of a canoe and into the lake.

I’m not sure why or how it happened. The kids had been taking canoe rides with one or two of the adults for a while at that point; 7 year old Lily was paddling a red kayak around the dock, learning how to steer it; and Neve was campaigning hard for one more pass in the canoe, though her 4 year old cousin Kara backed out at the last minute because the wobbly vessel made her nervous.

Joe begged off, having just taken kids out onto the water two or three times, so my brother-in-law Chris volunteered to steer in back, while I oared up in front. Neve settled on the seat in the middle.

After a few minutes of paddling out onto the lake – Sunday’s slow-forming storm clouds had started to gather, and the wind was picking up – Neve said she wanted to go back, so we turned and headed back toward the dock.

And in the midst of paddling, I suddenly felt the boat throw me over. I was shocked, but I also remember thinking, reflexively, “The second you surface, look for Neve, reach for Neve.”

That’s what happened. We were out far enough that my feet couldn’t touch bottom, but I spotted Neve just a couple of feet away, her purple life-jacket bobbing her on the water’s surface, a mass of long, dripping hair hanging in front of her face, her mouth spitting out water.

I had a life-jacket on, too – though I remember thinking, while strapping it on, that I did so more as a safety-show for the kids than because I might need it (ah, pride) – so I pulled Neve toward me; briefly considered trying to put her back into the canoe (and decided it would be difficult and she might fight me); and started awkwardly kicking and pulling us toward the dock, which was still many yards away.

So much is happening at moments like these. I know I was talking to Neve, telling her we were OK. I noticed that the dock, where Joe and his sister, Emily, had just been standing was now empty, except for 4 year old Kara, and that two sets of arms were wind-milling through the water, toward us. I thought about my brother-in-law, and how I’d left him behind to deal with the boat by himself.

Joe arrived at my side and took Neve from me, placing her on his chest as he swam on his back. She wasn’t crying, but she looked dazed, and the fact that she wasn’t her chirpy little self worried Joe as much as it did me.

“You’re on a burping boat!” Joe said breathlessly, after he belched, looking to get a smile from Neve. No dice.

Soon, though, he reached an area where he his feet could touch bottom, and he walked Neve the rest of the way to the dock.

All four adults, fully dressed and dripping head to toe, stood over shivering, balled-up Neve, wrapped in a polka dot beach towel. 4 year old Kara said, “I was right!” while we chuckled and re-hashed what happened, still processing the whole thing.

There’s a weird atmosphere when you rationally know that you really weren’t all that far out, and that all the standard safety precautions you took kept the situation from being much worse than it actually was – yet you still feel like you’ve dodged some kind of bullet, or passed some test.

It was late in the day, and dark clouds seemed to be moving in, so we borrowed any dry clothes we could find in my in-laws’ cottage, cleaned up the kitchen, and packed up.

On the drive back, we decided to stop at U-M’s hospital to visit Joe’s dad, Roger, who’s been suffering from a rare form of skin cancer for the past decade.

This past year, he’s been constantly in and out of the hospital. His skin is now so porous that maintaining a normal body temperature (he’s always cold) and resisting infections have become constant battles; and though he’s been matched for a bone marrow transplant at Stanford, he can’t begin the 6 month process until he’s been free of infection for a month – a stipulation that’s been looking increasingly impossible.

Lily geting a s'more assist from her Grandpa Grekin in the summer of 2014

Lily geting a s’more assist from her Grandpa Grekin in the summer of 2014

Throughout this time, Joe has often gone to visit and spend time with his parents in the hospital, while I’ve generally stayed at home with the girls. At first, this was because that’s what the rules dictated – Joe’s dad had spent time in the ICU, which doesn’t allow kiddo visitors – and then it just became the pattern we followed.

Once, in early summer, when Roger was home and he and Linda were celebrating their 50th anniversary, we had to warn the kids, “Grandpa doesn’t look the same, and that may be scary for you. But he’s the same person. Just talk to him and you’ll see.”

The girls handled it well, but that was a few months ago, and things have gotten worse since then, so I knew that seeing him in the hospital might be a bigger shock to them. Linda had told us he was awake and lucid on Sunday, so it seemed a perfect time to visit. (On some days, Roger had suffered bouts of delirium, and had tried to pull out the various tubes now attached to his body.)

We parked, and though Neve was her running, giggling little self, Lily seemed more subdued than usual.

“Are you nervous about seeing Grandpa?” I asked, taking up her hand as we walked toward a hospital elevator.

“A little,” she said.

“I understand. He doesn’t look like the Grandpa you remember, I know. It makes me a little nervous, too. But he really wants to see you, so try hard to be brave, OK?”

She nodded, and we finally came to Roger’s room, where he sat up in a chair, his head covered with a wool hat, his body covered in fleece and blankets. He looked thin and cold and uncomfortable, scratching behind his neck with both hands often, but he also smiled at seeing two of his young grandchildren – a rare treat these days.

By coincidence, Joe and I were marking our 12th anniversary that day, and a story I’d written had appeared front page center of The Ann Arbor News. (Entertainment-related stories don’t usually merit such attention.) So we all chatted about these things; about the dinner Joe and I had enjoyed the night before at Lelli’s to celebrate our marriage; about the canoe crisis at the cottage, and about Lily starting to learn how to steer and handle the kayak by herself.

At the end of our visit, Roger asked both girls to come to him. He cupped Lily’s head, and then Neve’s, with both of his skin-tortured hands and kissed them firmly, as if to mark them, and somehow translate all he felt in his heart for them into a single gesture.

We buckled the girls back into the car, and as I drove us all home, I kept thinking about the canoe accident, and how emblematic it felt.

For we all have moments in life when we’re suddenly, without warning, thrown under water, and we lose our bearings and struggle to catch our breath.

And just as I knew, even in those shocked seconds of submersion, that Neve was my first concern, and that I had to get her to safety, I knew, too, that those now closest to me in my life – including the ridiculously functional, loud, joyous family I married into 12 years ago – have swum out to me in moments of crisis and made sure I got to shore, even when I stubbornly insisted I was capable of going it alone.

When my mom died (Roger and Linda traveled to attend her funeral); when the newspaper announced it was closing its doors, and I thought my dream job was gone for good; when those I wanted to be part of my family’s life instead pushed us away – all these things had blind-sided me with pain.

But then Joe, our family members, and my friends have draped an arm around me, started kicking, and said, “We’ll be OK.”

So as hard as this year has been for my in-laws, I try to keep swimming out to them, as often as I can, just as they have done for me.

I may not have the power to always get those I love to shore – sometimes things lie beyond our abilities, as expressed in Lily’s nighttime fears (she’d thought the purpose of the life-jackets was “to keep your clothes dry”) – but all I can do is fight hard, be focused in the attempt, and follow my own advice to Lily: Try hard to be brave.

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