And then I realize I want one.
I ask for a tattoo of an S, for Sarah and for Stephen. Jeneen leans over my leg and starts piercing little dots into my skin. Whenever I squirm or kick with pain, she whispers --I'm sorry, baby- and presses her thumb against my skin to blot the bleeding. I tell her about Stephen and point to his photo on the wall. She lives in Idaho now, in the town closest to the North Fork of the Payette where Stephen drowned. She's interested in him and his death and that river.
She leaves us a few days later and goes up to Glacier to visit her brother, Corey. A good Vermonter, we call Corey. A true mountain man, bearded and handsome and quiet, living at the base of Mount Baker with his fiance. There is a little band of us Woodstock, Vermonters living in the Northwest, and it makes us feel safe. Protected.
Friday, June 28th, marks the two year anniversary of Stephen's drowning. I'm on a plane from Minneapolis to Seattle, the final leg of a whirlwind two weeks of travel. I reach down and trace the black S on my ankle.
As I do this, run my finger along his initial on the airplane, Jeneen's brother Corey is drowning beneath a waterfall somewhere in Oregon.
I discover this the next day, when I'm picking up some groceries at Whole Foods. Colleen works there. I've come to buy some kale and to say hello. She sees me and becomes hysterical. --he was just, he was just swimming, she's says. I don't know what she's talking, surely she's talking about someone else, one of my paddling friends, but how would she know this before I did? I lead her to the break room, murmur things, get her to slow down. I press a tissue against her face as if her tears could be staunched with direct pressure, like bleeding.
Corey was swimming with his fiance. They were on vacation, visiting the the spot where they first met. He jumped in and got unlucky, was pulled under the waterfall. I think it makes more sense to me than it does to Colleen- the tricky hydraulics, the holy power of recirculation, I've spent years contemplating these things, imaging them, paddling like hell to avoid them. Still. It's so random, so irrational. Corey? He's not a kayaker. He was with Danielle. They were on vacation. It was such a nice day.
We get in my car, I'm driving her home. Jeneen is on the phone, I can hear her ragged breathing. --We're only twelve hours away we tell her. --Do you need us? We try to make our voices sound soothing. I look at Colleen. --Let's just go get her.
We drive to Idaho in one shot. It takes twelve hours. We try and stop in Boise, let's be sensible after all, but every hotel we show up to is full. At one spot, the Vacation Holiday Motel, with its alluring colored neon sign, I approach the dark front office and find it locked. As I turn away, a wooden panel slides open, revealing a man's bare chest. --We got no rooms, lady. Says the man attached to the chest.
We find this, for some reason, hysterical. We keep driving, pounding soda, cackling with outrageous laughter. We get to Ketchum at 4:30 in the morning, pulling up on a side street. As I climb out of the car to stretch my legs I can hear early morning birds chattering in the trees.
We sleep in the car. I'm in the back with my sleeping bag, Colleen squished in the driver seat with a sweater wrapped around her legs.
The morning comes two hours later, hot and quiet and still. We sit at a cafe and wait. Colleen is nervously biting the end of her fingers. I've picked the side of my face into a red, raw gash. We swat each others' hands away -stop picking -stop chewing. And then Jeneen shows up, weepy and reed thin. When I hold her I can feel every bump in her spine.
She has always been skinny, and mysterious in a way that makes men drop dead at her feet. Since middle school we've joked that we don't want to be photographed next to her. -We look quite well-nourished next to you, Colleen would say, and Jeneen would laugh it off, -Well, you know, I don't always want to look like the corpse bride.
Corey drowned on Friday afternoon and by seven am on Sunday we're propping Jeneen up on the sidewalk in Ketchum. After a day and a half of no sleep, no food and pounds of tears, she feels extra small. She feels like a flower petal about to come loose.
We buy her a smoothie. -Try and take small sips, we say. -Even if you feel nauseous. It's important.
Jeneen drinks her smoothie. She drinks some coffee. She says she wanted to leave and go back to Washington with us. Back to Seattle and then up to Glacier. She wants to pack and leave now.
We struggle to match our desperate desire to do anything she wants with some degree of common sense. --As soon as we've had something to eat, a little more sleep, a shower, we promise --then we'll turn around and go home.
I call a girl named Kira and we go to her house down the road. I've never met her in person, but we have a lot of strange things in common. She is a kayaker, and she taught English at New River Academy after I left. We have a dozen close friends in common. I call her with the confidence that all of this overrules the fact that we've never met in person. I'm right, of course. She is welcoming and sweet.
She lets us in, post surgery, her arm in a sling from a kayak accident, and offers us a shower and two sunny rooms to take a nap. Colleen disappears into a bedroom. I sit and talk with Kira for a little while, woozy with exhaustion, and then crawl into bed. I sleep for an hour.
We are in Ketchum for not even half a day. We arrived at 4:30 am and we leave at 3:30pm that afternoon. It is one hundred degrees outside, with no chance of shade on the highway. I stretch out in the back seat, hoping to sleep before I drive, but the sun blazes directly into the car. All three of us get sunburned as we drive. I fall partially asleep, listening to Colleen telling a story. --We wanted to mail the tumbleweed home, so we took it to the post office, but it was going to cost like, 80 dollars. Jeneen says -wouldn't it have just showed up completely crushed? and then I'm mostly asleep.
Jeneen cries a lot, but not at random. Certain things trigger her tears, which are mostly quiet. The stream of telephone calls from friends, to which she is unearthly polite and appreciative, always make her cry. To each person who calls she says --I've been thinking of you, I hope you're all right. She is composed and gracious beyond reason. Certain landmarks jog her memory and make her cry. The site of Mount Hood. The sad song I stupidly put on makes her cry before I snap off the radio and burn with shame, apologizing profusely.
Night finally arrives, and with it the immense relief from the sun. The highway cuts through swathes of open landscape that have grown greener, softer, as the golden brown scorch of Idaho gives way to rolling foothills of the Walawas. She wants to drive. She drive slowly, and I wonder if, subliminally, she wants this trip to last longer, this car a safe bubble before reality sets in, the two childhood friends next to her, breaking off piecing of muffins, trying to entice her to eat. Later on Colleen will shake her head and say, -nah, she just drives slow. she's gotten pulled over before for driving slow.
In the close comfort of dark, I ask if she wants to talk about Corey. She does. I ask her if she's experienced death before, and offer hesitantly, gingerly, side stepping- -- I don't mean to compare my experience to losing a brother, I don't want to suggest- that I've seen a lot of it and could maybe answer some questions.
But what do I think I can offer? The suddenness and closeness of her grief is too overwhelming to fathom. A brother on vacation jumps into a waterfall and doesn't come up. A brother who is planning a wedding says, 'look at this!' smiles, waves, jumps, dies.
Still, Jeneen seems to appreciate at least my trying. --It's okay, she says as I stutter. She says-You can just say what you want to say. She says, --this is helping.
Then I ask, terrified at the risk I'm taking, if she wants to know about drowning. She does.
--It's much more peaceful than it looks, I offer. -And it's so quick.
She is crying, but she says thank you, and I am so utterly relieved.
--I've actually been thinking about Stephen, she says, and the tattoo.
-Did you know that Stephen and Corey died on the same day? I ask. She didn't know.
As we enter the Gorge, Jeneen starts to sob. I climb into the back seat and put a hand on her shoulder. --Nights are tough aren't they? I say. She nods, tears dripping off her nose. She's holding her phone, the glowing screen displaying a photo of her and brother. They are on a ferry, it was a few days after Jeneen visited me, after she cut an S into my ankle. She went to Glacier and Corey cut a tattoo into her arm. Then they took this ferry, this picture.
My hand on her shoulder feels useless. She curls suddenly against me, and cries and shakes into my chest. I comb my fingers through her fine black hair.
We arrive in hood river at 1:30, pulling up in the driveway of my friend Lee's house. There are three girls who live there, all serious kayakers, famous, their faces laced with scars and stitches. In the dim lit living room, a handful of boaters sit around the kitchen table planning some type of mission. They have maps and notebooks. They know there has been a drowning, although they don't know the details, and they turn sad faces towards us as we walk in. But they are well versed in the thing, as anyone who kayaks at that level has known someone who has drowned. Maybe not at the family level, (maybe, maybe not) but they understand the mechanism, at least.
In just a few hours the sky is lit up with dawn and it's raining. I wake up Jeneen, lead her inside to the couch. She took something to sleep, a Benadryl, and she's groggy with its effects. She turns her face into the cushions and falls back to sleep. I lay down on the floor next to the coffee table.
Three weeks before I'd lay in the same house, in this same exact spot, under entirely different circumstances. Will was there, and Dave from Asheville. We drank an enormous amount of gin mixed with strawberry lemonade, out of huge plastic tumblers. I'd thrown up in the front lawn. I'd been so discouraged, after that trip, that I stopped writing for an entire month. I think about that as I lie on the floor, watching the blanket as it barely rises and falls with Jeneen's breaths.
It is a brief 50 miles to Portland. - I feel panic, she says as we glide off the highway and into her old neighborhood, and I, suddenly forgetful, lost in whatever we'd been talking about, ask brightly, -Why?!
We help bring her bags up to the apartment. She sits down on the bed. We hover near the door. Our role is over. The next wave of people, Corey's friends, will be arriving in a few hours. -Maybe I should try for some mascarra before they show up? She asks, brushing a hand across her face. We say nothing.
She waves from the window as we pull away. We honk the horn.
On the grid locked trip back to seattle, we become intensely irritated. We've driven thirty hours and 1400 hundred miles with only two very brief interludes of restless sleep. We're sick of each other. When Jeneen was there we had someone to pour our attention towards, and in her abscence we return to our own physical discomfort, the stifling heat of the car, the work we are missing, the rent that is due. Colleen's keys are missing, we'd accidentally thrown them out when we repacked the car at midnight. The car is littered with cans and empty chip bags.
We flip through radio stations as I do silent calculations in my head. In one week I've been in North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. I've logged an absurd amount of work hours, spent an even more absurd amount of money, and written nothing, not a single word.
In that week I'd read four books, cover to cover, in the time afforded to me on all the airplanes. The books were all on the same topic: death and bereavement, people swimming through sudden and seemingly insurmountable pain- both parents at once, the wife two minutes after the baby was born, the husband and the daughter within three months of eachother. I kept reading those books even as I wondered why I was reading them, why I couldn't choose something lighter. I even went to a bookstore in Orlando with the intent of buying something more uplifting but walked out with Joan Didion's My Year of Magical Thinking.
I wonder if I'd been preparing myself somehow, arming myself, for this event.
This time, unlike all the other times, I was able to be there.
In the back seat of the car I'd pulled Jeneen onto my lap, gripping her thin shoulder, and said --It's going to be okay, you're not alone.
To be honest, that first part may be something we just tell each other. It's not for me to suggest that it will all be okay. But you are not alone, that much I can guarantee you. You're never alone.
****I want to make it clear that I had Jeneen's permission to write and publish this piece. Some of you may be concerned about her privacy during this time. We talked about what it would be like if I wrote about this trip. Jeneen was encouraging and supportive. "I want people to talk about this how they need to talk about this," She said. Generous, gracious, thank you.