The Surrender

As told to me by my Uncle Bill, a supremely quiet and gentle man.

“It must have been mid-June the day my brother Tommy and I and Paddlefoot went swimming in the irrigation canal behind our barn. It was so early in the year, that the water was still too high and cold for swimming. But, we went anyway. We thought we were pretty much grown up enough to make our own decisions. Tommy was twelve. I was ten. Paddlefoot went wherever we went because as our dog, that was kind of his job. He was probably the smartest of the three of us. He did a lot of whining and pacing his giant feet around when we got to the ditch bank road. If he was trying to talk us out of it, it didn’t work, because after a bit of pushing and shoving each other, we were both in that cold, fast water.

We’d do cannon balls off the bank and the water would carry us down stream a pretty good ways until we could get to the side and pull ourselves out. I remember how good the sun felt. How  we’d lay down on the sandy ditch bank to warm up before jumping in again.

And then it happened.

I jumped in and the water was carrying me just like it had ten times before. I was trying to swim to the edge to get out, but it seemed like the water was going faster now, pulling me toward a head gate where the water was going out of the ditch into a culvert under the road.  It sucked me into the culvert and the gate slammed down behind me. Cold darkness surrounded me. Panic filled me. I was under the road with both head gates closed. The water was still in there. Quiet. All I could hear was my heart pounding in my head.

I grabbed the bars of the gate and shook them as hard as I could. They didn’t budge. I kicked. I pried. I braced myself against the wall of the culvert and pushed as hard as a ten-year-old boy could push. But nothing I did was making any difference at all. I was trapped. My lungs were on fire. I was so cold I couldn’t feel my body anymore. I thought about Tommy. Paddlefoot. And my mom and dad. I was terrified that I would never see any of them again, so I used every ounce of strength I had left to shake that iron gate. But there wasn’t even a hint of movement.

I realized there was nothing left for me to try. I had no strength left to try anyway. My time was almost up. I was going to have to take a breath. I knew I was at the end, and I relaxed. I let go of the gate that had imprisoned me and the most amazing thing happened. It opened. And with a whoosh of water, I was back out in the canal, coughing and gagging, swimming for my life. It was like the minute I relaxed, the gate opened.”

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Uncle Bill told me this story when I was in my thirties. It was memorable because he was such a quiet man. I was visiting them for an afternoon when Aunt Bert excused herself to the kitchen leaving us in awkward silence. And then out came this story of the power of surrender. I used to wonder if I had hallucinated the whole thing. It was so out of character and seemed so random.

I mentioned this story to my cousins over a decade later on the day of Uncle Bill’s funeral. None of them had heard it before.

I’ve always been so grateful for this strange moment, this extraordinary gift. Whenever I’m faced with something that I’m fighting against with all my strength, I remember…

“The minute I relaxed, the gate opened.”  (William Thomas)

1965

The sun is hanging low in the brilliant blue October sky. The air, just crisp enough to make him pull on his denim jacket as he leaves the house. With his short legged, brown dog at his heel, he turns to wave at her as she stands watching from the kitchen window.  She had started to pull on her boots and come with him – for the first time in weeks.  He had told her to stay. Even though she said she felt better, he wasn’t convinced.  To him, she appeared a bit tired – and more than a little green around the gills as his dad put it.

Besides, he’s old enough to do chores on his own.  He started 6th grade this year. Next year, he’ll be bused to a bigger school than the community school he’s gone to for the last six years, and in just a couple of weeks he’ll go on his first real hunting trip with his dad. Yes, he’s definitely old enough to feed a few cows by himself.

As he turns the faded green John Deere tractor onto the county road, he laughs at the sight of the brown dog bouncing through the sage brush, hot on the trail of a jack rabbit. “You’re never going to catch one!”, he yells.

When the tractor crests the small rise in the road between the house and the barn, he slows slightly and lets his eyes take in the beauty of Autumn.  Red Winged Blackbirds huddle together on the telephone line that stretches down the dirt road ahead of him.  Soon, they’ll join a larger flock and fly south.  The canyons that creep up the dry, brown hillside are lined in brilliant shades of red and yellow.  Haystacks, square and tall, dot the countryside; proof of the summer’s efforts.  He pulls in a deep, cool breath and sighs with contentment at the sight of his world.

Suddenly, in front of him, the little brown dog. Instinctively, he steps on the clutch and stands on the brakes. The tires skid.  The dog is too close. He cranks the wheel hard to the left.

There is sun and sky, a swirling of dust and the sound of a hundred blackbirds taking flight.

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A vague back ache. Or a damn painful back ache made vague by a perpetual  Valium fog. It had been hanging on for the better part of a day; an irritation mostly, but insistent. And now, at the dinner hour, it begs to be addressed.

This oppressively rainy March day was only the latest in a string of soggy days that had effectively turned the babbling brooks of the small town into raging rivers;  and took what will to live that was left and washed it away.

As the rain smattered the kitchen window, the wind whistled and the cheery yellow and blue valance danced ever so slightly, even though the window was closed.

This house was aged. Single pane windows quivered against the weather.  The wooden floors creaked under the slightest weight; even the svelte brown cat affectionately called “Coffee” as he patrolled.

This house was shelter at best.  It lacked the warmth and comfort necessary in order to feel like a home. It’s true there were braided rugs, house plants, the faint smell of lemon Pledge and a television set that was on more often than not; a source of noise to mask the emptiness that threatened to suffocate all who lived here. But it hadn’t been a home for a long time.

This back ache. She leans against the kitchen counter and curves her belly in toward the small of her back. Only minor relief. As she stands in her kitchen, listening to the wind blow the rain into the window, she lets go the tears again. They fall to the floor unchecked. They never fail her.  The tears need no prompting, only permission to fall. After a few moments of silent crying, she is openly weeping.  Her body wracked with sobs. And the back ache is suddenly more.  More than an irritation, it’s angry and demanding.

She straightens herself, wipes her face with a dish towel and runs a glass of water from the kitchen faucet.  She pops the top off the small, brown prescription bottle that is never far from reach and shakes out into her palm a small, white pill that will end this pain. And maybe the back ache.

Valium helps her sleep. In sleep there is an escape from this unbearable void that has become her life.  Without Valium, the sadness would consume her. There would be no escaping the guilt and agonizing truth that she is to blame for the death of a boy; a boy with blue eyes and blonde hair; hair that was darkening with each passing year so that at the age of eleven, she thought it the color of dirty dish water.  He brought to this house, practical jokes, salamanders, a love of trains and toy tractors – and joy.

He’s been gone for six months now. Sometimes even with the Valium, she sees him in her dreams. It’s worse to dream of him. Waking is to experience the loss of him all over again. It’s dreamless, drug induced sleep she seeks.  But today, this gray day in March, she wakes on the rough, green couch just as a flash of him enters her mind. He is walking away. But pauses to look over his shoulder at her and give a smile and a wave.  She opens her mouth to stop him from leaving; to say “Don’t go.”

She’s awake. A single tear making its way down her cheek. The house is dark except for the blue glow cast by the television. As if on cue, a small, brown dog with sad, brown eyes rises from his position on the floor in front of the couch.  He is now eye to eye with her. His tail thumps the floor twice and he smiles as only dogs do. He lost his boy, just as she did. And after all this time, it’s hard to tell who’s grief is deeper, hers or this little brown dog’s; who still sits and waits for the school bus every day at 3:30 PM.

She doesn’t reach out to him. Doesn’t stroke his head; only swings her legs over the edge of the couch and reaches to turn on a lamp. A stabbing pain grips her low back.

The back door opens, letting in the sound of March.  The dog’s tail thumps twice more and he rises to greet his master.  As the door closes, no one calls out. No words break the silence of the house.

Before the accident, they were a married couple like any other married couple. This was their home. This is where their life played out; when it was good, and when it was less than what they expected it would be. Since the accident, they are trapped here.  Each trapped by memories of the past, and an inability to leave this house where he was alive. Neither has a reason or the strength to speak about the past, or the future they didn’t ask for or want.  She feels his questions sometimes, in the moments that he sits quietly, watching her. He never asks her to talk about the future though, and she’s grateful for his silence.

He uses pot holders to get his dinner plate out of the oven.  He sits alone in the kitchen to eat; only the sad eyed dog quietly sitting vigil at his feet. The sounds of  rain and wind compete with the quiet monologue of the evening news on the television in the next room.

As she does his dishes, he shares the day’s news. It consists of rainfall in inches, a quickly melting snow pack, and how many dollars worth of grain he sold to the local cattle ranchers over the course of his ten hour day. He leaves out the hour he spent unwinding at the bar. He leaves out the stop he made at the liquor store to replenish the brandy supply he keeps hidden at the feed store.

He does not ask about her day. The dark of the house as he drove into the driveway, and her tear stained face tell him that for her, today was the same as yesterday. The same as every day since their boy’s death.

He had disagreed when the doctor wanted to prescribe Valium.  it seemed like a bad idea, insane really. In the end he hadn’t fought it too hard. She had been inconsolable, overcome with anguish. Valium offered her sleep- and him freedom from her steady weeping. So he had relented. And it has numbed the both of them.  Their pain is still there, but dulled for the sake of survival.  he suspects she takes more than anyone knows. He suspects but doesn’t ask.  That would open him up to the hard questions, too.

The rain gets louder on the roof. She turns from the sink and their eyes meet for the first time since he got home.  He can see that she’s in pain. More than heart break; real, physical pain.

He stands so suddenly, his chair topples over backward, sending the brown dog scurrying out of the way.  As he reaches her, her knees buckle and she lets him hold her up. He  so rarely touches her, she feels like a feather in his arms.  He’s startled at her lack of weight. His heart races as he eases her onto a kitchen chair. She says “We need to go to the hospital.”

The rain drenches and the wind whips as they slosh from house to car. The world is absent of light. No moon, no stars, only blackness holding her in its wet, cold embrace.  She lays curled like an infant on the cold blue vinyl of the car’s back seat. With each pothole hit too hard, and corners taken at too high a speed, she takes in a ragged breath. As she tries to steady herself with one foot pressed against the car door, her mind replays the last time she made a trip to the hospital. In the back of an ambulance with her blue eyed boy. She trembled as she held his lifeless hand in hers. She had wanted to light a cigarette to calm her nerves. Too much oxygen. It wasn’t safe. So she had ridden with him, silently willing him to live.

This ride- in this dark cold car bumping down dirt roads with a faulty heater blowing lukewarm air at high speed- this ride was a necessary lie. She knew there was no help at the hospital. She wasn’t meant to survive this. Couldn’t survive this. God wouldn’t ask this of her, too. These moments spent listening to him tell her of river surges, washed out roads and detours, trying to reassure her, all with a tone of suppressed panic… she takes in these moments as her last. Before this dark, stormy spring night is over, she’ll have cried her last tear and breathed her last heartbroken breath.  And she will see him again.

 

He drove through the hundred year flood of that March night, bathed in the blue glow of the car’s instrument panel. He talked to her about the water, about the roads they would certainly find still passable. He talked into the silence. He asked her questions when the silence became too much, just so he would know she was still conscious. Every now and then she would cry softly when she was in pain.

He didn’t usually let himself ask the unanswerable questions. But this night he wondered how they got here. What was the point of all this?

A year ago they had the life they’d wanted. They’d been married twelve years and had a child; their freckled faced, confident, fun loving boy.  When faced with questions from friends and family about when they were going to have more children, she had always answered that their family was perfect just like it was. What more could they want?

Were they being punished for only wanting one child? What kind of god would create this living hell? He wondered bitterly if the doctor should have put him on Valium.

Unanswerable questions should not be asked. He cleared his throat as if doing so would clear out the horror of the last six months.  “We’re here” he said to her as they pulled up to the Emergency Room door. “I’ll get some help.”

As the car door slammed shut, she turned onto her back and stared up at the headliner.  Tears ran from the corners of her eyes into her ears.  She put her hands over her face and wiped her eyes hard.  Just before the orderlies opened the door and helped her into the wheelchair, she whispered into the darkness “I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough.”

As she disappeared through the double doors, he paced the short waiting room twice and sat down in an uncomfortable and all too familiar chair.

They had waited here. Together with family and a few close friends; they had paced, sat, cried and made promises to an unkind and unjust god.

He had sworn to be a better dad, to be there for his little family. Promised not to sit on a stool at the Office Bar every night after work while his eleven year old son fed cows and chopped fire wood.

That’s where he had been that day. On a bar stool as his son lay dying under the weight of a tractor overturned in a ditch; a little brown dog sitting at his side.

The call had come in for him to meet the ambulance at the hospital. “It’s bad. Don’t waste any time.” his sister had said.

When he’d gotten here, his pale and anxious wife was outside the door- not waiting for him, but greedily smoking a cigarette. Her hands trembled. She paced quickly and was quietly repeating “Please, please, please, please, please…”

 

All of the begging, all of the bargaining fell on god’s deaf ears. It had been too long.  Too long under that weight while his parents had gone about their lives. Too long before help had arrived.

She had collapsed. Had been hysterical then catatonic in a relentless, repeating cycle until the doctor gave her a dose of Valium and sent her home with a renewable prescription; an unending supply.

Had that been a good idea? He wondered again as he sat here waiting for the news that would define his future.  Would it have turned out differently if Valium hadn’t numbed her to the point of apathy and constant sleep? Would she have chosen the future? Would she have chosen a new life?

Just like before, the double doors swing open, revealing a tired looking doctor.  This time he says  “Congratulations, it’s a girl.”

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Tbis is the story of my birth; my entrance into this world. It seemed so unfortunate for a lot of my life. But as my relationship with Divine Love gets deeper, my entire crazy childhood seems so amazing.