Andy’s first canoe trip down the Little Miami River was the same day his mother was set to come home from the hospital after a major bowel resection. A week earlier surgeons had opened her up from navel to groin to remove necrotic portions of her lower intestines that had shriveled up like rotten calamari and blocked her from passing anything thicker than water. Once they were finished inside, they cinched her open wounds together and stapled them shut. She now had a train track-like incision complete with railroad ties running down her stretched pink belly. It would take months to heal, but even then the threat of further bowel death might require more surgery.
Andy shivered while watching her lay in the hospital bed coughing, holding her stomach against the pain, and he thought that one of the staples may pop out. He could imagine it flying across the room and embedding its bloody points into the white hospital room wall.
Andy was looking forward to the canoe trip. It was a welcome relief for him to wake up in the living room of a friend, Tom, on that Sunday morning. It was a company picnic Tom’s mother had planned for her office. More than thirty people would be paddling down the river with coolers full of sandwiches and beer. Getting out on the water and out of the hospital room would be a welcome adventure.
For six days Andy had been sitting quietly in his mother’s hospital room, watching her sleep, or fitfully press the button to release her pain medication from the machine beside her bed. When she was awake he would go down to the nurse’s station and fill a plastic cup with ice chips from the machine. After two trips to the break-room he realized he could get it himself without asking permission or being questioned by the staff.
He would feed the ice chips to his mother in little clumps from a spoon. He could hear her bite down, and see her jaw flex through her sallow cheeks, crunching the ice. She had a glazed look in her eyes from the medication, but Andy could always tell when she swallowed, because her eyes would brighten slightly, and he could almost feel the cool water trickle down her throat. It reminded him of characters in books describing their thirst. After reading them he would need a drink just to go to sleep.
Every morning that week Andy’s father dropped him off at the hospital before he went to work. Andy knew there wasn’t enough money to take time off during her recovery, but his dad always managed to come up for a few minutes before work to see how she was doing. The two of them would go up to say good morning, and leave with a brief kiss to her forehead. He would be back after work to say goodnight and pick up his son, but otherwise the day was Andy’s: alone while she slept and worried while she was awake.
This was the first time in Andy’s life she had been out of the house for more than a night. It was quieter now. Andy and his father would stay in the living room while the rest of the house remained dark. They would fall asleep in front of the TV and one or both would wake up in the early morning to turn off the lights and fall back asleep. It was only a week, but so much changed after that first night. The house felt still. The light above the stove that was always on would be off when Andy woke up. The kitchen was too dark to see into. Once he was startled awake by the sound of the refrigerator door opening and the tinkling of glass jars on the shelves inside. He could see his father drinking from the water jug in the light of the fridge. He rolled over and fell back asleep once the sound made sense.
The morning of the canoe trip was humid, but the sky was clear. The river was higher than usual due to recent rains up north, so everyone was cautioned about hidden rapids and stronger-than-usual currents. Andy and Tom were given their own boat since they were big enough to paddle themselves, and Tom was pretty seasoned at steering a canoe from the back. Tom’s mother made sure that they had life jackets on and old shoes in case they fell out or decided to swim. It was supposed to take everyone five hours to get back to the livery and return all the equipment.
They shoved off shore in knee-deep water at ten in the morning. The river was cold as Andy and Tom pushed their boat into the water. Tom anchored it with his weight while Andy stumbled on the unseen, uneven rocks beneath the green water and jumped in. Everyone warned the boys about glass shards littering the soil of the river bottom. They warned them about losing their equipment, and showed them how to stop from tipping. It was common knowledge that the river was dirty, with factories dumping their waste down the river. At first, Andy didn’t want to swim, but as the day grew hotter he stopped caring about the briny taste on his lips as he came up out of the water.
Sitting down in the canoe, Andy felt a small pang steal over him. The metal shelf in the front of the boat was as hard and uncomfortable as the chairs in the surgical waiting room. That first day at the hospital had been oddly exciting as his mother’s surgery brought about a diversion to the dull summer. In the early morning on Monday they had said goodbye to her as she was wheeled into the surgery corridor by her nurse. The automatic doors swung shut and she was gone. What was left of the day was spent sitting in sturdy chairs that gave little in the way of comfort. Bound together in sets of four seats each, they lined the waiting area walls of the small room. A blue paisley fabric covered each seat, which were framed in coarse black metal. The cushions showed signs of wear with small holes near the edges exposing plywood with a thin layer of cotton padding under the fabric.
The waiting room smelled of fresh coffee. News was on television. The morning paper was still neatly packed when Andy’s father began to pick apart the pieces he wanted to read. There was a large black woman named Hattie sitting at the front desk greeting visitors as they trickled in. Murmured conversation’s could be heard but not understood as Andy sat in one position for a few minutes, and then shifted to keep his legs from going numb. He felt sleepy, but there was nowhere to lie down and the phone behind the desk rang at regular intervals. Hattie would pick it up and call for a family who would gather their things and rush out of the room to hear from the doctor, or enter a recovery room to see their loved ones.
Andy’s mother’s surgery was to be quite a long and extensive undertaking for the surgeons. Five hours to open her up, remove the rotted intestine, and sew her back together. In that time no piece of the morning paper went unread, and each magazine was carefully looked over for any amount of distraction. Andy found it funny to see pictures of rich, juicy looking pork chops atop mashed potatoes in a section of a cooking magazine. His mother usually made them dry, a bit like jerky. Who knew they could look like that? It gave him something to laugh about with his father, who was watching a morning show.
Lunchtime came around, and there was still no word about his mother. After being there all morning his father struck up a conversation with Hattie, and he offered to bring her back some lunch from the cafeteria. She graciously declined, but then added that if they had a doughnut leftover from breakfast she would take that as an afternoon snack. Andy’s father obliged her, and they went down to the ground floor to eat some hospital food.
It turned out to be a good lunch. Andy was happy to eat some macaroni and cheese, along with beer-battered fish. His father had the same, and they talked about his mother while sitting in another set of uncomfortable chairs.
“How do you think she’s doing?” Andy asked. He’d never spent so much time in a hospital.
“I’m sure she’s doing okay,” his father replied.
“Do you think she’ll feel better after this? I mean, she’s been sick for a while, maybe this will help her?”
“Well, that’s why the doctors want her to have this done. If they can get all the bad parts out then she should be feeling better. She has to heal though, so it will be a while before she can do things like before.”
“I know, but maybe she won’t throw up so much anymore.”
“I hope so. Hey, listen, this week you know you’re going to be here by yourself when I go to work right? Did you want to come here, or just stay at home?”
“I think I’d rather come here then stay at home. It’s kind of neat here.”
With that, Andy came every morning with his dad and sat in the room with his mother. When she was awake he would wait on her, and when she slept, he did too. There was a vinyl lounge chair in her room that was much more comfortable than the others. When the lights in the room were off it was very peaceful. All he could hear were the sounds of the machines monitoring his mother’s heart, and controlling the slow drip of whatever was in the bag hanging above her bed.
Andy felt just as peaceful as the caravan of canoes drifted down the river. Each boat was full of Tom’s mother’s coworkers yelling inside jokes, and trying to steer their pointed fronts into each other. Andy and Tom were keeping a good pace on their own, and they had yet to tip or spill out into the river.
Andy found it invigorating that the river looked wild. On certain stretches there weren’t any houses along the banks or overpass bridges signaling the proximity of civilization. When they did approach an overpass they could see random graffiti decorating the concrete columns of the bridge, and the play of the light reflecting from the river made their bright colors shimmer. As they passed under the last bridge the echo of their paddles in the water and the thickening of trees on the other side made Andy feel like he was in the Amazon, or an Indian heading to an outpost. He and Tom both talked about playing guns on the sandy patches when they stopped for a break. It was like a war in the jungle, and they were special military forces trying to rescue POWs. After they ate lunch they went into the woods along the riverbanks to see if they could catch some enemy fighters. Before long it was time to get back in the canoes. Luckily their adventure required a daring escape down the river with the rescued soldiers. The need for a quick getaway was so intense that there was no time for lifejackets before putting out into the water.
Green bunches of flowers sat atop Andy’s mother’s bedside table. People came to visit while Andy was there all day, and many bouquets were delivered. Friends from church came to wish his mother well, and they brought cards and chocolate. She couldn’t eat regular food yet, but she promised they would be enjoyed once she got home. After an afternoon of visitors, her lips were cracked and her throat was hoarse. Andy knew to get the ice chips.
“Sweetheart, thank you for being here with me. I know it must be boring, but it really means a lot to have you with me. It hurts so much sometimes, and I’m sorry I sleep a lot. Are you okay with being here?” Her tense brow and downturned eyes implored him to speak his mind. He knew that because of her pain she only wanted to hear good things. He didn’t want to tell her about the chairs, or that he was bored, or that when she coughed it hurt him too. He put his hand in hers.
“It’s okay mom. I like being here. I brought books to read, and my notebook. I want to make sure you’re okay too.” She smiled and gripped his hand weakly.
“I love you honey.” With that she started to doze. She had clicked her pain medicine button a few minutes before and it was now taking affect. Andy was a little irritated that she had been so animated with visitors, but that she had little time to be lucid for him. He knew it was selfish to think this way, and that she must be in a great deal of pain.
Once, Andy saw the doctors change the dressing on the incision. He saw a Frankenstein-like bunch of flesh stapled together in a line down his mother’s stomach. For some reason she had wanted him to see this. She called him over to the bedside with a proud look on her face. She was a trooper, look at her battle trophy, was what she seemed to say with her eyes.
The nurse dabbed the scabbing, red, almost fake-looking incision. She cleaned it for what felt like hours, and then gently placed new bandages over it. Andy was fascinated and repulsed. Just looking at it gave him chills, and he winced at what he imagined the pain must be like. After that, when he watched her move he worried about the two pieces of her belly coming apart. He wanted her to sit completely still until it healed, but she would sit up or cough, and the worry would start again.
Andy felt this worry again when he and Tom pushed forward, ahead of the other canoes. They were still on the rescue mission, carrying the prisoners they had saved, and they had to get down river quickly before the enemy caught up with them.
Up ahead, a bend in the river was swollen, and it whipped around exposed tree roots that descended into the murky water. It changed from green to brown as the current picked up the still water and dirt on the edge of rapids, and pulled it fast around the turn. Andy and Tom were heading right for it. The game they were playing stopped. They became prisoners of the water as it churned and carried them.
As the boat fell into the current they hit a rock. The canoe was pitched into a turn that was bringing the back forward like the dial on a compass looking for true North. They struck the gnarled tree roots with a hard crush, but the metal boat did not bend. They tried to push themselves away from the bank, but the current pushed them against it. The boat began to tilt sideways towards the water. Andy stood up and tried to dislodge it from the tree. Tom yelled for him to sit down, but it was too late. As Andy pushed the boat off the bank it pitched back the other way and tipped. Both boys were thrown towards the tree roots. In a flash the paddles and lifejackets were floating down the river.
Andy’s foot was stuck in the roots under the water, as the boat filled up and pushed him harder against the tree. It began to drag him down, and there was nothing for his feet to push off of. He kept sinking. The water was near his chin, and the boat was getting heavier. He felt the lip of the canoe press ever deeper across his belly. It felt like he was being cut in two.
A wave covered his face, and he coughed. The pressure from the boat and the cough made him cry out. Andy now felt the boat slipping away, possibly sinking for good, releasing him, and he began to climb up the tree to the bank it was snuggled into. He rested his cheek on the knobby roots and tried to catch his breath. Tom was above him, having already jumped up the tree as the boat sank away. Out in the water a few adults were flipping the boat over to drain it. Another had gathered the paddles and lifejackets from the opposing shore and was walking them back to the group who sat waiting on the sand across from the boys. Luckily, Andy and Tom weren’t near Tom’s mother, or she would have slapped them both for nearly getting killed.
Andy turned and looked out across the swiftly moving water. The wet knots of wood were slimy, but comfortable, and he sat, watching the river rush past, around the next bend and out of sight. For a brief moment he knew that he could feel a small fraction of his mother’s pain now in his own sore stomach, but he would never be able to tell her about it. She too would never be able to adequately describe her own pain, and he would not want her to worry about him, so he would keep this to himself. He would be home soon, and so would his mother. Maybe she would want to watch a movie, or read quietly like he had in her hospital room all week.
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