I’ve only been kayaking once this summer, on the Duck River south of me. Maybe I can get in another adventure or two before winter. I don’t think about being on the river without being reminded of one expedition with my son Cory and his girlfriend Leah when the river was completely blocked. Below is part of a chapter from my book Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing.
Eleven months after the Nashville area thousand-year flood of 2010, we took our boats out on the Harpeth River in Franklin for a short ride. We put in at the Rec Center, and we’d take out at Cotton Lane, which was in my neighborhood. The Rec Center put in was steep—stairs that went straight down—and I didn’t like it one bit. The river water was high that day, though, so it was easier to get in the boat.
Cory held my kayak while I stepped in. I had to turn circles and work to keep my boat stationary while he and Leah put in. We paddled, took pictures, watched birds, practiced skills, and fussed about all the garbage in the water. The Harpeth was trashy before the flood, but afterward, it was filled with junk—an old rusty car, plastic chairs, tires, plastic bottles and tin cans, and natural debris like fallen trees and somebody’s cornfield that got washed away.
We moved downstream in the twisting, coffee-colored flow, by the bridge on Hillsboro Road, and then through the southern part of Fieldstone Farms, my neighborhood of two thousand homes. I’d been looking at houses to buy and would’ve liked one that backed up to the river. I could go out in my back yard and put the kayak in. But that dream ended after the Flood of 2010. Those houses were filled with river water, and I’d never trust living there.
We were nearing our take out, and I kept looking ahead for the bridge off Cotton Lane. We’d get out just before the bridge and carry the boats up the embankment. If we missed it, we’d have to . . . paddle backward.
Then I saw something ahead. A strainer? A big strainer.
“Strai-ner!” I liked shouting it out to show that I knew the word. “Look at the debris way ahead,” I said. I kept trying to see an opening that we could paddle through. “Is it . . . blocking the river?”
I saw Cory’s eyes look left, then right, and his eyebrows tightened.
“You stay here,” he said. “Keep your boat way back here. Paddle in circles, paddle backwards. Don’t get anywhere near that. We’ll go check it out.”
They paddled to the left bank, then across the river, which was moving faster up there and making a whooshing sound, over to the right bank, then back toward me.
“It’s blocked. There’s no way through,” Cory said. Leah nodded.
“What do we do now?”
“We’ll have to take out here, climb this bank, walk around the blockage, and put in on the other side. We’re almost to Cotton Lane, so it will be a short run.”
I looked at the embankment. A dirt wall. Straight up. Maybe twenty feet. Or thirty.
“I don’t think I can get my boat up that cliff.”
“Leah and I will get all the kayaks up, then I’ll come back down and help you.”
“I’ll be fine. You worry about the boats. I’ll get up by myself.”
They took me up on it. What had I gotten myself into?
We scrambled for the boulder-lined water’s edge. I was last to get my kayak nosed in between rocks so I could get out. I stood and put one foot out on a slippery rock and tried to keep standing without sliding. I had one foot still in the boat, and the boat started moving downstream. I was doing the splits, and I tightened every muscle in my thighs to keep my legs from moving further apart and to hold my boat. Cory reached for me and grabbed my kayak.
I watched as they climbed, Cory with two boats, and Leah with hers. He got to the top, threw the boats up, and pulled her up. It was a difficult climb, even for the younger ones.
Then it was my turn. I could see the two disappearing into the woods with the boats.
“Y’all don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” I yelled after them. They didn’t seem to be worried.
I started scaling the dirt-mud cliff. I pushed a Chaco sandal into the earth and clawed into the dirt with my fingers. There was a clump of weeds, and I grabbed hold. The plant began coming out of the earth. I had to pull at one plant, then grab another. There were no saplings or sturdier plants to use in my climb. I got halfway up and looked back down at the stones below and the water moving fast. I looked up at the top of the hill, and there was a contemporary house nestled under trees not far from me. It had walls of windows. I imagined someone inside looking out at this poor, crazy woman struggling up the straight side of the cliff, fearful of her being dashed onto the boulders below, and wondering if they should call 9-1-1. I wished they would.
I began to fail myself, thinking I needed a rescue squad to come pull me out. I was unsure about going higher. I looked back down at the water moving fast over the jagged rocks. I knew I had to do it. There was no other way out. I took a deep breath, took on new strength, and pushed myself upward, grunting with each foothold. I grabbed onto any little green thing growing out of the mud wall, watching and groaning in fear of the earth releasing it.
Then Cory was there at the top.
“Come on, Mama!”
I sank back into weakness. “I can’t do this!”
“Yes you can. You’ve got to.”
I could feel my face hot and red, I dug my feet in, tightened my leg muscles, I pulled at the clumps of green, and got to where he could reach me. He held down a hand.
I reached up, and he pulled me to the solid surface, and I clawed into the dried grasses on top to secure myself. I made it, and as I lay there on my stomach, arms outstretched, I wanted to cry from the emotion of it all.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a peaceful run. We were spent, strained, hot, sore, and hurting, and we still had to put in and take out again.
I would realize later how much like grief this little outing was.
I was moving along gently down life’s way, following the peaceful sounds of the river and tracking through the choppier places, gliding over riffles, runs, and pools, and suddenly, there was a strainer. The water could move on through it, and I couldn’t. I was knocked out of the flow.
I was at the bottom of a ravine looking for a way out.
I couldn’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under my fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out in pain and agony and pulling myself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until the dirt was smeared all over me, and I clung to weeds with shallow roots and tugged some more and waited for those fragile stalks to give way and drop me down again because I didn’t know if I could make it out. But I kept trying, I kept looking at the top, and I saw a hand reaching down for me.
A hand. Reaching down. For me.
By this midsummer date, pretty much everything is dried up, brown, or dead. Hot August bears down too hard, too hot, and saps the life out of every delicate plant. I stand in scratchy grass watering by hose instead of sprinkler to soak stressed roots, supply nourishment, and summon growth.
The pencil bush I planted last year has dried up, the little dogwood is limp, and the new pink and white hydrangea looks spent. I sense them all fighting against the elements. The vegetable garden I hoped to eat from all summer is gone—shriveled and browned to nothing but stalks. The little Japanese maple I bought in April and placed in a big pot on the deck dried up in a day’s time as a fiery sun beat down and the heat took its toll. To save it, I dug it out and put it in the ground on a shady side of the house.
Usually, by this time of summer, I am away for vacation or visiting family, and the yard goes to waste. Good things get compromised, and evil things like crabgrass and Johnson grass and wild vines move in. The balance gets out of whack quickly.
It can happen to me, too.
This is a reminder that the tender things in life need care. Life is hands on: daily culling out the unwanted and giving nourishment to the good. I can’t stand back and just let things happen. It changes daily. Ugly, thorny weeds grow faster than blooms. Harsh extremes sap freshness and greenness. The sun bakes everything and curls it all down to the earth in surrender.
I need an innerspring.