White Water Rafting
In 2005, Butch’s sister, Ceanne, gave him an amazing birthday present. She paid for him to accompany her on a white-water rafting trip for summer 2006. This was no Saturday float down a nearby river. It was a multiple day/night float down the Colorado river in Utah. Butch, then purchased a ticket for me to go with them on what would be one of the most fun adventures of our lives together. While I might not have been brave enough to go on a trip like that on my own, I never experienced a moment of fear, certain that Butch would be able to use his MacGyver skills to overcome any obstacle.
We drove together to Utah and spent the night before our trip at our timeshare near the departure point. The preparation instructions stated a weight limit for all personal property we could bring on the trip, of 15-20 pounds. This made it a real challenge to narrow down all the things deemed necessary for comfort on the trip while staying within the guidelines. But when we handed our small bags to the guides for our trip, they were surprised by how little we brought. Apparently, people generally ignore the limits and pack whatever they want. Who knew? We were then driven some distance to the launch point where our float would begin.
The date we had agreed on for our float turned out to be the last trip of the season. A family of four was originally scheduled to join us on our 10-person raft. When their kids learned that there would be no other kids in our group, the family cancelled and booked a trip with other kids. This left the three of us as the only passengers with two guides to ourselves. Our guides were very nice young men who worked on the river in the summer to pay for college. With such a small group to care for, they were relaxed, engaged with us like family friends, and pulled out all the stops to make the trip fun and memorable. The meals were amazing, cooked, served, and cleaned up by the guides as we relaxed.
Butch and his family found humor in everything. He could make people laugh so easily. Once, as we were barely moving over a slow part of the river, the guides were taking turns showing us how to do flips off the side of the raft. I had notepaper and pens in my bag. The three of us began scoring the flips and enjoying the lengths to which they went to create silly flips and spins to get higher scores. We all laughed hard and enjoyed the respite from the whitewater. One night, we stopped to camp at a place where fires were banned due to wildfire danger. Among the many random, just-in-case items I packed, was a supply of snaplights in various colors. While the guides were making dinner, we propped yellow and red snaplights into a cone shape, making it look vaguely like a small campfire, burning away. When one of them spotted our “fire” from their mobile kitchen some distance away, he began running toward us yelling, “No, no, no, no” with a bucket of water in his hand. He realized it was not a real fire barely in time to avoid dousing it, and us to keep us out of trouble.
Being the end of summer, the water was shallower than in the spring, and contained much more of the red Utah clay. We learned the hard way that clay is a great dye. Clothing that began the trip white or light colored was permanently dyed to match the river. While you could bathe in the river, you still came out gritty. There was limited fresh water available, and it had to be saved for cooking and washing dishes. Butch devised a way to have non-gritty water for rinsing off the grit. He took the largest pot the guides had, covered it with two of his T-shirts, cinched it tight with his belt, and poured river water through the shirts into the cooking pot. While the water was still red, it was grit-free. Your hair and body felt clean, even if only briefly. Sleeping grit-free rose to new levels of luxury. One of the days was cooler than expected. We looked forward to being doused in the rapids because the water was much warmer than the air. Butch remembered I had disposable rain ponchos in my stash so we put them on. As the warm river water went into the poncho, the plastic retained the heat longer and kept us warmer overall. These and other of his MacGyver ideas amazed our guides every day.
The trip ended with the best part of all. We climbed into a four-seater airplane. The “runway” was at the top of a plateau. The plane accelerated and we DROVE off the edge of the plateau. THEN the plane lifted up and carried us home. We flew above the canyon, following the path we had floated, reminiscing about favorite spots and fun experiences. The view down onto the river and across the Utah plains was breathtaking. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly. I will always be grateful to Ceanne for the gift of that trip.
Becoming us without them is very much like that rafting trip, only without MacGyver. Widowhood is an invitation to embark on an adventure that no one wants to receive. The life experience we can pack for the journey would fit in a very small bag. Bravery may seem well out of reach. The raft full of people with whom we traveled before the loss, quickly shrinks to the small number who can or will stay the course as we grieve. We can feel as if we are alone in the raft, carried into treacherous waters, without the skills to navigate the rapids. Our guides are often strangers, placed in our lives by providence. We can only hope they know what they are saying and doing while we learn how to navigate on our own. It could be that others will have to worry about food when we lack the desire to bother. Surviving until bedtime may be the best we can do. Every moment appears fraught with wildfire danger. Like the grit in the river water, there is no respite from the grief. It coats every nook and cranny of our lives no matter what we try.
This kind of loss, feels absolutely like driving off the edge of a plateau, where we will surely plunge to the bottom of the river gorge. Much to our surprise, our tiny plane lifts skyward over the long, slow, process of grief. Eventually, we are able to look down on the view of our past together and reminisce about joyful moments and shared experiences. Over time, even the view into the future, across the plains of the time ahead without them contains beautiful scenery, yet to be discovered and enjoyed.