“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together today to look into the face of the river.”
— Mary Ruefle
The week-long heat wave has finally broken, but before it broke, I forced my partner to go with me to the Sandy River, twenty minutes from our house in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday. By forced I mean I woke up on what was to be the last day of one hundred-degree temperatures, and despite my ailing stomach, I said, “We are going to pack a lunch and go to the river today early, beat the worst of the heat.” He is not a river kind of guy, which is wild to me considering he was born and raised in Astoria Oregon on a little hill of land wedged between the Young’s Bay River and the Columbia River, with its mammoth mouth stretching out into the ocean before them. Whereas I grew up in the desert, dry dusky ground, ashy skin, parched lips.
A few weeks ago, I drove him the two hours to Astoria to say his final goodbyes to his grandmother. He was in the room trying to have a conversation with someone who had, quite suddenly after a long battle with stomach cancer, decided to barely speak, no longer get up from her bed, and refuse food. I stood out in the misty rain on the back patio, overlooking my old house which was right next door, thinking about how I used to sit on the opposite deck and watch the raccoons his grandmother used to feed show up in battalions, their babies, their babies’ babies, and with their tiny little human-like hands, scour the wood pilings that led to the pier of her home overlooking the Youngs Bay, its light always glistening or foggy or green, as if Jay Gatsby’s light were casting its loving hope across it.
Back at the Sandy River in Dabney State Park we spend a good twenty minutes using the car charger air pump to blow up my donut floaty. And by this, I mean it was in the shape of a donut, but also the bottom half was decorated like a donut and the top half decorated like a dog. I immediately set it down in the river when we got to our chosen spot, wedged my butt in, and then pulled open the cooler and ate my sandwich while floating in the cool mountain run-off. I had offered to buy my partner a floaty of his own, but he is much too cool for these things.
Instead, he stood in the river all day, performing his masculinity with a beer tucked in its like cozy in hand at all times. He watched as I walked my donut up past the bend, pushed off into the little ripples, and rushed down some minor rapids. He watched as young children swam. He watched the twenty-somethings nearby throw a ball in the water. He watched me float out to where it was dip and tip over backwards, holding tightly to my cap and glasses, then whale myself back on top of the floaty. He watched as paddleboarders, inner-tubers, kayakers, boaters, floated down the river, as it was the annual Barton-to-Carver float, which I hadn’t realized until we got there and had to park 3 parking lots back from where I usually do when I go to Dabney Park alone. He watched a group of people our age, their tubes all connected by rope, float down the rapids singing sea-shanties they had memorized specifically for this purpose, the men with their baritones leading the charge, the woman chorusing in with reprisals, their drinks held aloft, their faces jolly.
His birthday is coming in a few weeks, so yesterday for his gift I ordered us matching t-shirts with our elder dog’s face printed on the front. We know her death is coming soon, on swift wings. Sometimes when she walks, her back legs slip out from underneath her. A few weeks ago, she was still climbing on the picnic table outside to survey her kingdom, but she stopped being able to get down. She started barking at us every time she was ready to get down so we would hoist her off like a little flying potato. Now, she has stopped climbing up there. Instead she climbs onto the cushioned bench chair every morning and rests for a few hours in the sunlight.
Later in the afternoon, I missed two calls from him. My immediate worry was that something had happened to my dog and then irrationally, I thought, I ordered those shirts, as if they were memorial shirts, as if she is already dead, and now the world has killed her. When he did answer, it was because his car had broken down. Our old dog was fine, but now the shirts which haven’t yet arrived are haunting me.
After we got back to the river he sat on the couch, drunk, and talked about all the places she used to be able to go. We talked about how when we used to take her to rivers she wouldn’t swim, because she’s always hated being wet, but she would gingerly step into the shallows and dig at rocks, pull them out with her mouth and drop them on the shore. If I swam or floated out, she’d stand at the edge, the water lapping near her, and bark a shrill sharp alarm at me, as if worried I would drown. He said, “I love this old lady.” And I shook my head yes, “I know,” I said, solemn. I know.
My first time down the little rapids that day at the river, I floated to the opposite side of the river where it was shaded with trees, creating a little lagoon. Tops of large boulders poked out of the water and on them were tiny little microcosms of moss and plants, things that could survive for a time under water when the tides rose. I was trying to adjust myself on my donut by placing my hand down on one of the rocks and nearly stuck my hand in a frog who blended in so perfectly with the rock that later, when I floated over there again to see if he was still there, I nearly did the same thing, resulting in the frog hopping disgruntled toward the edge of its home.
I rolled on to my belly on the floaty and laid, mere inches from the frog who was facing me, staring into its magnificent yellow eyes. Its throat distended over and over with its breath as my belly did the same. Across the river my partner stared at me, wondering what I was doing. I stayed there for a long while, locked in contact with this frog, hoping beyond hope that what it felt from me wasn’t terror, but shared wonder.
When I finally floated back across to my partner, now waist deep in the water, we watched a young boy climb up the craggy cliffside near my frog lagoon and launch off the rocks down in to the water. My partner bewildered, and I expressed how it wasn’t any more sketchy than jumping off the Youngs River Falls outside of Astoria, where we used to launch ourselves as reckless teenagers, but he said, “I never jumped from the falls.” And I remembered the fear I felt at doing so, the rush, the ice ice cold coastal water and the feeling of my lungs as they expanded when I shot down toward a dark murky bottom that I would never touch.
When he exited his grandmother’s bedroom for the last time, his eyes milky in the way of someone who is making themselves not cry, he lifted his mask off his face and slammed an entire bottle of water. His sister came out, stepped in to the arms of her mother and sobbed. He turned his face from her.
For weeks now, I’ve been hearing stories of his grandmother’s life, both from him and his cousin who lives twenty blocks away and sometimes comes by. My favorite so far is how she used to teach elementary students and raise her children because I can imagine that same no-nonsense attitude and dry wit she carried with her into her last days, and how she Dear Johned her first husband while he was stationed in Vietnam. It was the 50s or 60s, I’m not quite sure, and during this she managed their cattle ranch on her own as well. I once told her off, early in our relationship, at her own kitchen table when she tried to say she was sure she had seen my dad once kick at my dog, a man who is, hands down, the best man I know and endlessly kind. I said, “My dad has not now, nor ever, hurt a dog, and I will not have this conversation with you again.” After that I could feel her respect for me grow.
At the end I didn’t go back in to her room to say goodbye. These weren’t my goodbyes to make. I will have plenty of my own to make, as the years go. Afterwards, I took him to visit his best friend quickly, then out to eat and drove us the long two hours home. “How strange”, I said, “that we’ve been together almost eleven years, and this is the first major death in either of our families in that time. How lucky we’ve been.” I imagine to him, it didn’t feel a lot like luck, but he shoulders his grief quietly, performing this duty all alone.
Floating a few feet in front of him in the deep green of the river, having swum and floated and rode the waves and frogged my legs where no one could see across the river and back again for hours, I said, laughing, “See how happy I am, in my natural habit. I’m a water creature and you’ve been holding me hostage in your cement jungle.” Underneath the water, my legs are kicking.
When he says, “I’m not a water creature,” I think maybe he just doesn’t know that he is; after all, weren’t we all water creatures once, in the belly of our mothers’ bodies? He was born on the edge of marsh lands, raised where blackberry brambles tangle around dune grass and cattails, where herons quicken their steps before scooping fish from the muddy shallows.
Later, when we get lost on the trails back to my jeep, surrounded by tall horsetail reed grass, I drive him crazy by repeating that we are lost in the bamboo labyrinth, the inaccuracy of my plant naming a mosquito buzzing near his face. Crossing a stream, five mosquitos bite him, but not one lands on or near me. Later still, our eldest dog lounging at his feet in the grass, he says to a friend, “I’d do the float. It looks like fun.”
One night after I come home from work our eldest dog can’t put weight on her front leg. Because her front legs are pencil thin, like little sticks, she is unable to stand. My partner says, “I don’t know if she is going to come back from this,” and we both begin to cry. We spend the evening, boxing her in with love on both sides, crying on and off while the UFC fights play in the background like some kind of morbid track record over what feels like the last night of her life. We give her an extra dose of pain meds, both imagining we are going to have to take her to the animal ER in the morning and watch her breath go out of her for the last time. When she wakes up in the morning, she is again putting weight on her front leg, hobbling around in that unnatural gait she has in her old age, hips swaying unnaturally, like a drunkard.
The miracle of more time is gifted to us after I spent the night previous devastated that, instead of spending that weekend with her on the couch, I had instead worked and took my partner to walk behind the South Falls waterfall at Silver Falls State Park where we stood and watched water cascade before us. I had wanted to bring her, but the incline in and out is almost too steep for me. When he places her on the outside bench in the morning, her favorite spot to take in the summer morning smells, I capture a photo of her with a river of sunlight streaming directly onto her chest, as if light itself is pouring from her.
We drive to Astoria for his grandmother’s internment and memorial service on a bluebird day. From the cemetery that sits atop a hill on the outskirts of town we can see the bay and from the bay out to Youngs River and from the river out to the bar where the ocean meets the double rivers. Over the bar hangs a marine layer thick with blues, purples, greys, and greens, as if it were reflecting back the land and water we all stand on and that surrounds us. It never does come in and we burn standing under the rays of the sun while the crisp blue-green water sparkles down below us.
While singing Amazing Grace, the voices of my partner and I low, barely audible, as neither of us have great singing voices, a swallow dips down, nearly touching the purple urn that holds his grandmother. Then a large black dragonfly buzzes around, bright orange markings on its side while heads are bowed in prayer. The sermon preaches that she is with her God now, and my partner next to me wipes tears from under his sunglasses, even though neither of us our believers.
Later still, I see a blue heron stalking the edge of the marshes, and walking down the Columbia River Riverwalk before we leave town, a cormorant takes flight, wings beating through the air and I see a river otter’s back end dip below the lapping waves between old aimless pilings that used to be piers. On the drive back to the city, his cousin in the back seat repeats the same stories about their grandma that he told at the microphone at the service and we don’t tell him, yes, we already know, just let him speak until he drifts off to sleep while cruising down the highway that borders the river all the way home.
Two days before the memorial service I throw my partner a 33rd birthday BBQ. After everyone goes home he, drunkenly, lays down on the dog bed next to our aging dog. She promptly clambers up on to his chest and begins aggressively licking his face. “She’s just my old lady” I hear him say repeatedly, while making a strange sound that sounds a bit like a laugh. When I get up and walk over, I see that he isn’t laughing, he’s bawling and she licks the tears off his face, his preemptive grief for her and thus far unexpressed grief for his grandma all mixed together in the river of tears that stream down his face. In the morning, he doesn’t remember this and when I tell his sister about this at the service, she is saddened that he had a whole catharsis that he doesn’t recall. But being there, socked in by two rivers, his eyes bleary red while people tell stories about a stubborn and strong woman who was referred to by her family as grandma tiger, I think he is getting that catharsis all the same. During the service, someone’s phone begins to ring and a sea shanty blasts into the quiet of the air. For his birthday I gift him a double person innertube set so that we can float down the river together, wash ourselves clean.
SHILO NIZIOLEK’S (she/her) cnf book, FEVER, is out from Querencia Press. Her chapbook, A Thousand Winters In Me, is forthcoming from Gasher Press. I Am Not An Erosion: Poems Against Decay, a micro chapbook of collage poetry was part of Ghost City Press’s online summer series 2022. Her work has appeared in Pork Belly Press [PANK], Juked, Entropy, Oregon Humanities, HerStry, Crab Creek Review, Literary Mama, Sunday Mornings at the River and Pumpernickel House. Shilo holds an MFA from New England and is Associate Faculty at Clackamas Community College.
Art: “Let’s Catch a Vibe Amongst the Clouds” by Abigail Morales, Oil on Canvas