Years before the enforced quiet of COVID-19 and years before the devastating quiet of losing my son, we paddled our canoe. It was a quiet time that preceded this other kind of silence. With strokes out of sync, my eight-year-old son and I made up for our lack of team coordination with exaggerated flourish. Turning my head to look back at my little boy, I recognized I was ridiculously happy. Mouth of the river was a distance away with bridge underpass awaiting. As we entered cave-like, concrete domain, I overworked my right hand, and we hit a side of the culvert, wobbling but not overturning our canoe.
“Close one,” I heard behind me.
Mold covered the top of the culvert that seemed much longer than it actually was. Condensation formed on the roof and dripped on us like fetid rain.
“Eww, gross,” Blaise laughed. “I think I swallowed it.”
Nodding, I ducked and heard a large, wet drop plop on my back rather than my head. As we exited the culvert, Goodale Lake opened before us, the small, 50-acre body of water that fed into Upper Little York. A few ducks gathered at far side near tall grasses. You would not take a powerboat over this shallow water, only a canoe or kayak.
“Turtle,” Blaise said, pointing. I saw only ripples displaced.
He shook his head. “A snapper.”
Living on a lake in the country, children quickly learn to distinguish wildlife. When my son was around five, he and his sisters spotted a huge snapping turtle crossing the road, heading for water. They ran inside and told us. Dan gave them an education in staying clear of large snapping turtles.
“They could take your finger off if you’re not careful,” Dan said, gently nudging the turtle across the road with a long, thick tree branch. Going up to their grandfather’s farm was also a treat, where we might see deer, fox, and the occasional coyote. As a result, even as a five-year-old, Blaise knew his wildlife.
Although Blaise had just turned eight at the time of our canoe trip, I took a chance without thinking about risks and climbed into that narrow boat with him. It was not a common occurrence. Far from an expert in a canoe, I scarcely ever went out on the lake in one. I was fairly young, however, and still in that mode of believing in invincibility. Mother and son made their way across Upper Little York Lake and then Goodale with relative ease, only lapping water against aluminum, splashing of a few mallards, and rumbling rush of cars and trucks on an overpass could be heard.
I thought about all the times I wished they had built this highway along the hillside rather than right through the center of this beautiful valley, cutting through the heart of a glacial lake system. Semi-trucks and double trailers shook the earth and caused ripples on the water as they made their way through this idyll.
Blaise was quiet, as was typical, as we reached mouth of the West Branch of the Tioughnioga River that fed into Goodale. But we were excited by the journey in front of us, narrowing of stream, sudden splashes of hidden river creatures. A muskrat or beaver slid beneath our canoe where river was suddenly deeper.
“Right under us,” Blaise said excitedly. Our canoe wobbled.
“Saw him,” I responded, not quite sure what I actually saw. I knew beaver had established along this part of the river, however, their telltale markings of cut trees on either side.
After leaving relative domesticity of small lakes, the West Branch felt wild, like uncharted territory, with houses, farms, cars all concealed by dense brush, trees, and weed overgrowth.
“Just like early explorers,” I said in muted tone.
A great blue heron startled us or, rather, we startled the bird, as it unfolded its prehistoric wings and took flight, lifted out of that cavern of dark trees and fast-moving water. “Heron,” I remarked. Somehow, our paddles fell into sync in a way they had not over Upper Little York, as we glided up river swiftly.
“Fox,” you said as we rounded a bend, only its tail briefly visible, your finger pointing in its direction. I was not certain of what I saw but believed you as you appeared sure of what you had witnessed. We were advanced scouts. Slippery trout odors filled the air around us; soft soil crumbled at the banks; rains on leaves that hung over dynamic river.
I worried a bit that we might come across a coyote since they had re-established in this area. Dense brush along the river would have given them sufficient cover. More signs of beaver as we moved north past freshly cut tree limbs floating. I pointed to downed trees, and you nodded. We had an unspoken agreement. Tranquil, our journey seemed almost mythic from the point of view of our little boat in moving water surrounded by bending trees that blocked out civilization only a stone’s throw away.
I thought of Thoreau who went to live at Walden Pond, not far from Boston, where the great Transcendentalist wrote Walden. In his own words, he went to, “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I, too, wanted to live deliberately and see what the river had to teach us. At a sharp bend, the Tioughnioga deepened suddenly, and we hung suspended, looking into darkness with glints of silver below us, river teeming with trout. “Oh! Big trout,” you said.
“Who would have thought?” I answered.
“There’s so many,” you said, pitch of your voice a little higher from excitement. The trout were so packed together, we could have reached down and caught one with our hands. Then we put our paddles back in the water and headed north.
A few more strokes up river, everything changed. From dream-like, gentle movements to bursts as our paddles struck surface, our awkward movements relentlessly exposed our fears. We had surprised a group of heifers that broke through their fence. Whether out of curiosity or some other instinct, heifers charged us. Trampling tall Brome grasses at the edge of banks and plunging into the river, heifers snorted then stopped for an instant, looking directly at us.
Whether they were sizing us up or reacting to surprise, they went with curious instinct and quickly moved into the water toward us. I felt my heart beating. We tried paddling backwards. In that suddenly shallow part of the river, heifers and bullocks were gaining.
You looked for your mother’s direction and protection. “We’re getting out of here,” I yelled, hoping to scare the clamoring animals from slamming into us.
I hopped out, nearly tipping our canoe over. The gravel bottom made it easy to gain footing. We both had to get out of the canoe and lift it over a few rocks before climbing back in and working hard to get free, huffing young bulls almost upon us. Hot breath on our backs. I am not sure what they would have done had those heifers and bullocks run into us. They are not normally deadly or dangerous, but their rushing bulk and weight presented a threat. I could see us getting badly hurt in the commotion of charging bodies. However unintended, I was responsible for putting my little boy in danger. Guilt washed over me mixed with relief.
You glanced at me with a look that said, “Is that what you planned?” Then you, too, suppressed a smile. We made it, of course, and started laughing out loud once back on the pond. How strange, I thought, my angst from close encounter with some young heifers. I was immensely grateful for our narrow escape. Luck was with us.
As I wrote this scene, I found myself back in our aluminum canoe with my brave little boy. I can no longer hear his eight-year-old voice, but I see his face and feel his moods. He must have thought his mother was a little crazy, but he never criticized me. He never even mentioned our semi-dangerous encounter to his dad.
“It was fun,” he said in answer to his father’s questions.
Only a child, he was a confident explorer, nothing in his healthy aspect, calm voice, or beautiful face betrayed his heart’s early warnings, the peril that awaited in his undetected Marfan Syndrome. Not all of my son’s journeys had such adventurous unfolding, and I found I was less effective at protecting him than that day in the canoe all those years ago. The years of his dive into alcohol abuse and drugs were far more perilous. Even that menace, however, did not approach the unknown threat of his heart.
Blaise still appears to me suddenly. His death has not stopped me seeing him. I was reading and then paused. Sitting in an old leather chair with a broken foot rest, I had been reading an Ann Patchett essay about escaping daily, busy life with her too many visitors. Patchett flew across the country to Los Angeles to hole up in The Hotel Bel-Air where she would write in contemplative, uninterrupted peace.
I tried to picture myself flying across the country to my reserved rooms in this old Hollywood glamour hotel to write. My smile is ironic as I think about how much time and quiet I have in my house now. We have lived with “shelter in place” orders due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It has been too quiet. Now, with Blaise gone, silence has become eerie, and I long for his footsteps, the quick “hi, heading to work. Love you.”
When I look up from Patchett’s anthology of essays, I momentarily see Blaise standing in the dining room, collecting his wallet and keys, as he had so many times before. His back is turned to me. He turns his head slightly. We don’t speak, but the fractions of a second image of him is so real. He asks for nothing. Within a blink of my eyes, he is gone again. Light ever changing as the sun works its way through cloud cover to produce sparkling undulations across the lake, reflecting through windows, wavering images along walls of my house. Tricks of light. All part of this disappearing act.
Gulls in the distance take off from the water, not in unison but haphazardly. They appear as scattered leaves that have left their colors behind in damp earth, leaves already half-decomposed, turning into leaf mold, but caught in sudden updrafts, whirling overhead. Gulls turned to leaves, leaves turn to regret. How I perceive the world is now colored by loss of my son, by quiet that is deeper than quiet.
Even a good life full of love, satisfying work, and relative comfort is too hard a journey sometimes.
There are so many things I want to ask my son, but I am no longer able to do so. I tried to refrain from questioning him too often to avoid being the annoying mother. I actually worked at not bothering him because I was afraid my questions would feel like an inquisition. Of course, now, I wish I had asked him every question. I wish I had pressed for more answers. I wish most of all that I had hugged him one more time on that last day.
Although Blaise lived at home, there was always a feeling that he was about to set off on a voyage, but his boat remains tied to the shore. For all his desire, he could not untether that skiff. His life was finite and shortened, but the enigma of my son, of his longings, his many loves, and the great love he evoked in others, these seem infinite. Even in death, life seems infinite.
Author/educator Nancy Avery Dafoe writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and has twelve books through independent publishers. Her poetry won the William Faulkner/Wisdom award, and her fiction won the short story from the New Century Writers competition, among other national and regional honors. Dafoe is a lifelong resident of central New York and member of the CNY Branch of the National League of American Pen Women, currently serving as second Vice President of the professional organization.