out of reach

Every summer when I was a kid my father hitched the trailer to the back of our olive green Suburban and set out on vacation. My mother spent days preparing food for the trip and packing essentials like towels, cooking supplies and dimes for the shower. Sometimes our destination was the Washington coast or the white hot Oregon Dunes, but one of our favorite spots to land was Sun Lakes in eastern Washington, a three-and-a-half hour drive from home.

I often brought a friend along and we passed the weary journey lying on blankets in the back of the truck playing cards and telling jokes. The drive was hot and arid, winding through desertous terrain, craggy vertical bluffs rising high above the narrow road on one side and cascading steeply down the other into a meandering green-black river. We’d reach the park in the afternoon, and as my parents set up camp my brothers and sister went to jump the cliffs and my friend and I, though we were only ten or so, were free to go off and explore a nearby lake.

Barefoot in our bathing suits, we walked on a rocky path watching hopefully and intently for snakes, our feet and ankles powdered in a fine ruddy dust. The base of the path widened and spilled out onto a small, sandy outcropping at the water’s edge, sprouting tufts of sturdy grasses and a shady poplar tree. We dipped our toes in first. The water was clear and pleasantly warm, having been bathed in the sun for weeks on end. Carefully, we slid out on the smooth, slimy moss-covered rocks, gripping with our toes and balancing ourselves with outstretched arms, as if on a tightrope. Several yards out it remained shallow. Golden-green milfoil tickled our calves as it gracefully waved just below the water’s surface, which was glassy and adorned with the sky's billowy white clouds.

Soon we were joined by a lithe little girl of about four wading on her own, her watchful parents several yards away chatting with another couple. The child slipped on the slick shallow outcropping and plopped, just barely under the water. Time stood still. She remained motionless except for her wavy blond hair undulating and mingling with the milfoil, her arms floating at her sides, her ivory skin contrasting sharply and sickeningly with the dark submerged rocks. She was almost within our reach, but we stood frozen in shock. Within seconds an adult splashed clumsily to her rescue, yanked her up by her arm and held her as she gasped and cried. My friend and I stood by utterly paralyzed and helpless.

I experience these same feelings when I watch Calvin have a seizure. He is just within my reach but there is nothing I can do to help. I can only stand by and watch from where I am, paralyzed and powerless. Only when it ends can I scoop him up, sometimes while he's still gulping for air. I just hope one day he doesn’t drown amidst the surging electric waves that rhythmically lap against his precious brain and from which I cannot rescue him.

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Originally published 2.28.11. 

photo by Michael Kolster

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