Grief And Joy On Still Waters

Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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I stand somber on the shore, listening to the laughter of ghosts.

I stand silent on the shining shore, with all the half-remembered miles behind me, all the half-seen light gleaming before me.

I stand stranded in a loop of memory on the shores of the Blue Ridge Reservoir, listening to the lapping of the wind-stirred riffles against the great logs floating there.

The logs collected against the curve of the Blue Ridge Reservoir dam have cast me back 50 years, to a moment when my brother stood beside me on another shore, studying other logs. He was my once-upon-a-time best friend and secret sharer of my youth. In my mind’s eye now, we stand poised and hopeful on the shores of Red Fish Lake in Idaho. Knee-deep in the chilly summer water, we hold a frayed length of rope between us. In the endless promise of summer, we search for enough still-floating logs to make our Huck Fin raft.

Now, all these years later, I watch the play of light on the waters of Blue Ridge. I do not move lest I scare off his ghost. I do not stir, lest I spoil the memory of that deep joy. I do not breathe, lest I dispel the illusion that once again everything still lies before us — and Brian still stands beside me.

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Every summer, our family made the great trek to stay on my grandparents’ farm and visited Red Fish Lake in the wilds of the aptly named Sawtooth Mountains.

Back then, great salmon swam in the depths of the lake. We watched the languid scaled monsters 30 feet down, drifting above the great, drowned logs. Mythical creatures, they glided through a dreamscape.

Back then, my little brother and I were inseparable. We lived in the same dream, finished one another’s fantasies, kept our deepest thoughts hidden from the heedless world. We thought we could make our own world, populated with super heroes and code words and logs that would never sink.

But the waiting world outside had other plans for us.

In high school, we drifted apart — as gradually and inevitably as one of those deep-dwelling salmon, drifting into shadow without motion. I should have stirred myself — fought that invisible current. I should have crossed the cold water on a sodden log. I know that now. But I did not then understand the world and so abandoned my knowledge of him. I did not understand that you never can find other brothers, better brothers, new brothers — you have only those that come to you by luck and love. By the time I understood, it was too late — or perhaps I was merely too ashamed and weary.

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Brian was an artist, with no defense against the world. He saw things aslant and sensed the menace in the shadows. But he found himself marooned in a family of driven overachievers, all clamoring to make the world behave, all shouting over one another. So Brian made a frail breastwork of sardonic humor behind which he could hide. He calmed himself with drugs and alcohol. He painted and sculpted and read whole libraries. He worked in construction, stopped one unit short of a college degree, stopped one test short of a teaching credential. He collected snakes and turtles and Indian artifacts and broken bronzes and books.

All the while he drew away from me, from the world, from the unnamed dangers deep in the shadows. Preoccupied with my own delusions, I let him go. Sometimes, I called out his name, faintly. But even then, I did not listen long enough even for the returning echo before turning back to my life.

But now standing on the shores of the Blue Ridge Reservoir, I sense him at the corner of my eye. I can hear his sharp intake of breath when the cold water hits his knobby legs.

I’d come with an amiable group of day-trippers, each outfitted by Jimmy’s Stand-up Paddleboarding. Jimmy Carson had helped us negotiate the Saturday boat jam at the recently widened, but still narrow, path down to the boat launch.

The reservoir holds Payson’s future, since water flowing down a pipeline from that lake will double our water supply starting in 2014. Without the dam built by a mining company, water would flow north through a narrow canyon into the Little Colorado River near Winslow. Instead, a mining company’s dam created a sinuous, miles-long reservoir more than 100 feet deep. The mining company then did a deal with Salt River Project, swapping Blue Ridge for rights to water needed to run mines near Morenci. Payson worked tenaciously for 20 years to win rights to about 3,500 of the 14,000 acre-feet the reservoir holds.

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The Salt River Project nearly drains the reservoir every year now, letting the water flow down the East Verde, which has thereby turned into a trout stream and Rim Country tourist mainstay.

So I’d signed on for the day trip in large measure to finally spend some time exploring the reservoir on which Payson will one day so utterly depend.

The crowd of boaters dispersed quickly from the boat ramp. We headed up toward the dam, so I could renew the Roundup’s file shots of the lake of our future.

Here and there, fishermen cast hopeful hooks — angling for the deliberately stocked rainbow trout or the illegally stocked bluegill, green sunfish and bullhead. The algae bloom that spoils fishing in June as the waters warm had faded as the monsoon cool took hold. All around, the monsoon clouds built up.

We paddled steadily up the lake, savoring the silence, the wind, the reflections of clouds in the water.

When we got to the dam, the rest of the group continued around the bend out of sight, but I beached my paddleboard and climbed up the hillside for a view of the dam.

It was on my return to the shoreline that my gaze fell upon the tangle of logs that had collected against the dam. The sight of the logs floating there summoned the ghost of my brother to stand beside me.

He died a little bit ago — a breath ago. He had a bad heart valve, but he was afraid of the surgery, so he put it off until he was too frail to endure the operation. I saw him once, twice in that long, painfully slow dwindle. California was a long drive, with my own life in shambles and my job a convenient excuse.

I saw him for the last time just before he died. Looking back, it was obvious enough that all the time he had left was borrowed. But I gave him a pep talk about eating better. I told him he had to get up his strength so he could have his operation.

He offered his wispy, sardonic smile in return and made some small joke. He reinserted his oxygen tube and said he was tired, which I grasped as permission to flee back to my bustling life full of manufactured urgency. He was a ghost already, all bones and gasps.

I bent over to kiss him, holding him with my blunt fingers. He brushed my thick forearm with his spider fingers, flesh already fading to bone.

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“I love you, Brian,” I said.

He rubbed my arm, with its bristle of blond hair. “You know,” he said. “You have very dry skin. You should use some lotion.”

I stood up and laughed. He lay back against the couch, barely denting the cushions. “Good advice,” I said.

He smiled then, revealing finally the remembered smile from our secret world.

I should have canceled all my plans and sat with him then. I should have let him sleep then talked about Red Fish Lake when he awoke. I should have called Hospice and sat at his bedside and read Siddhartha out loud.

But I didn’t. I went home, intending to return.

Five days later in the dead of the night, I got the call. They had rushed him to the hospital. He had died in fear, sundered from anyone who knew him. I should have been there — standing with him on the shores of that last deep crossing. Instead, I could only weep deep in the night.

But now in the sunlight, I feel him here on this new shore.

I have no rope to make a raft on which we can ride. But I have my standup paddleboard.

So I launch my one-log raft onto the lake. I paddle out as far from shore as I can go. Strangely, I feel a great joy. As though he balances on the log behind me. As though once more everything lies before us.

I fall from the log. I scratch myself, laughing, trying to climb back on top as the log rolls in the water. When I emerge finally, I put on suntan oil — for Brian.

When the rest of the party returns, we find a cliff. I climb to the ledge and stand a moment, alive with fear. Then I jump, laughing all the way down into the deep, cold water. I laugh as though I have never wept nor lost nor failed those I love. All these things I have done, for deep are the shadows and long are the regrets. But for this moment, I can still finish his fantasy once more and cry out our secret code word through all that long fall.

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