Today, you will find my body, wedged between an uprooted tree and a boulder half-buried in the mud of the wash. It is evidence of His grace the Lord that has kept my limbs intact—that I am not battered and unrecognizable like the rest of the flood’s flotsam tangled in the rushes. That I am still wearing my glasses, my gloves, my Sunday best will be oddly comforting for you.
Before you find my body, you will spot my purse lying on the banks and you will allow yourself a moment of false hope. “Maybe Mother dropped it here when she climbed up out of the water. Maybe she escaped and cut across the cornfield to that house over there.” But you will know in your heart that if I had survived the flood and found refuge, I would have sent word to your father at the parsonage. We would have already had a happy reunion where I would have chided you, saying how foolish it was to be worried.
You and your father and the other men will be on horseback when you find me, because what roads there were in this backwoods part of Ohio have been destroyed by the flood, and to canoe along the Little Muskingum has always been a journey interrupted by portage after portage—now made all the worse by the slide and debris: hunks of hen houses, tangled rain gutters, whole roofs off tool sheds. And animal carcasses, poor things — the last thing I saw on earth was a pair of cows draped in the branches of the hickory trees above me. Of course they were dead but they looked so innocent in that cow way, as if they were waiting for someone to give them wings.
I like the look of you on horseback. I remember that day the summer before your sophomore year, when I saw you as a man for the first time. We were on vacation in Colorado. Were you fourteen or fifteen that summer? You were coming back from a ride in the mountains when I saw your hand gripping the reins. A man’s hand, not a boy’s. The muscles in your forearm rippling under your skin. The sun made you squint and in that moment you looked exactly like your father in the days when his smile would take my breath away. My heart leapt when I saw you coming down that rocky path on the back of that roan. “My son is a man,” I thought, shocked, sad, amazed all at once.
Your father loved the Rockies. He was full of pride that you wanted to be a forest ranger—and pride was a rare sin for him. He believed that God and Nature were like man and wife. And that you had been called to a higher cause—a life among God’s majesty, in the same way he had been called when he walked out of the coal mine one day with a vision of himself as a minister.
He told me all about it that day on the quad at Oberlin College—how God himself paid a visit to him deep underground, inspiring him to apply for college. How Providence in the form of a scholarship had rescued him from the harsh legacy of his father and his father and all the fathers before that—a line of coal dust-covered men stretching all the way back to the dark mines of Wales, hacking up blood and black mucus, shriveling up and dying young.
And being the beneficiary of such divine intervention, he would dedicate his life from that day forward to the service of the Lord. You see, he always thought he owed God something, not the reverse.
Maybe that’s why I accepted his modest invitations and later succumbed to his chaste advances. He was a poor boy from a crowded house, a most unlikely choice for me. I stood tall and beautiful, one of only five women at the college, the daughter of the owner of a chain of nurseries, an heiress. My father believed I would marry someone at or above my station so he was most dismayed when I introduced him to Nathan—a struggling divinity student still cleaning the coal dust out from under the nails of his calloused hands.
The sweet irony of my situation must not be lost among the waves of your grief, my son. Here’s why. The day before yesterday your father and I were on our way from church to a private picnic for two. Not the usual potluck or ice cream social; not a revival in a tent — this time, just the two of us out in the open on a lovely June day, the buzzing of bees and the chirping of birds, the smell of honeysuckle. Romance was in the air.
We were celebrating the end to my headaches. The doctor had given me a new pill that had begun to change our lives. The pain was gone, and for the first time in years, I could see straight. I could step out of my darkened rooms to stroll in the sun again. I could enjoy the sounds of the church organ. For the first time in years, I could raise my own voice to join the joyful noise of the congregation singing the closing hymn’s final chorus. Hallelujah. Amen.
It was my idea to pack a lunch and find a spot along the banks of the Little Muskingum. After our meal of deviled eggs, cold fried chicken, and sweet pickles, we stretched out on a blanket and dozed. When the rain came, it was so hard and fast that the drops were like tiny hammers battering our skin—you know how sudden those summer storms can be. But we were laughing—old fools in the rain, in drenched Sunday clothes, losing our shoes in the mud and struggling up the hill to the car.
When the wall of brown water came roaring down the valley and broke through the trees, it sounded like an ocean pounding the shore. In a moment, we were swallowed up, but when I popped my head up above the water, there was Nathan smiling at me. I called out over the din, “I’m fine, dear. Save yourself,” and gave him a little wave. And then a surge separated us and took me swiftly away.
A moment later, it happened. My head—finally cleared of its pain and torment—hit this boulder here and in a splintering explosion of blue light and muddy water, I skipped lightly from one realm to the next. I can bear witness to the truth of what your father always said about the margin between the two worlds being as thin and transparent as a dragonfly’s wing.
In that instant where they say we meet our Maker and the meaning of our existence is revealed, I was shown many scenes of my life. But it was not some distant day of childhood innocence that was to shape my heavenly eternity, but instead it was an image of that very day, that picnic, that rainstorm when your father and I—well past our prime—laughed in the rain and muddied our Sunday best.