A few years back, I was infatuated with the idea of songwriting. I figured, “Hey, I play the piano. I can sing. I can rhyme, and I can write. And there’s an added bonus: I’m really good at creating ridiculous names for country songs.” So I purchased a fancy keyboard and took to songwriting—ballads mostly.
One day early in the process, I let myself wane into a melancholy mood. I thought Gloomyville must be the place where all great country songs are born. While me and my two horses hung out in this one-horse town, I decided to write a song about the impacts of losing someone you love. Suddenly. Unexpectedly.
Let me set the stage…
It was July, 1966. The Arkansas heat was like Satan gone mad, so my family drove to our cabin on the White river where we could hide from the sun’s stare. There were several of us kids—cousins, friends, siblings—swimming just off a sandbar. Swimming in the river was commonplace. There’s always an element of danger when you play in a river, but no one in our neck-of-the-woods considered it any more perilous than, let’s say, riding in the back of a truck. It was the 1960s, years before seatbelts and gun control and speed limits and low-fat diets.
My parents were sitting on the riverbank with some friends watching us play in the water. My dad had a beer in his hand and a cast on his leg from ankle to hip. His condition was a consequence of driving off of a bridge in his pickup truck while drunk. My mom was eight months pregnant and didn’t know how to swim, but she went along with the let’s-take-the-kids-to-the-river plan because my dad was persuasive and loud. And she knew my dad might need someone to rescue him from his inevitable drunken stupor. She never imagined the worst thing that could happen that day. Now, the only thing she can imagine is the worst thing that can happen.
Here’s a couple verses about my memory of that moment of loss from almost 50 years ago. I was only five at the time—too young to recall the details of the day. But I imagine what it must have been like for my parents.
In the river she played
on that hot July day,
as he sat on the bank looking on.
Muddy waters meant to harm her
as the current dragged her under.
I don’t know if it’s right or it’s wrong.
Well the years floated by
on a river of why’s.
His little Joy was forever gone.
He worsened the pain with vodka and blame.
I don’t know if it’s right or it’s wrong.
After my six-year old sister, Dana Joy, drowned that sweltering summer afternoon, my dad took to drinking more and more, and my mom took to loving me and my siblings in a way that didn’t always feel like love. At times, my mom’s love felt overprotective, indulgent, and controlling.
Every summer my mom obsessed with providing us with swim lessons. Of course. That makes sense, right? We each received private lessons from some local teenager whose only qualifications were that she had seen people swim in the summer Olympics and she could dive fearlessly and gracefully from the high board. The daily lesson at the pool was: hold your breath, put your face in the water, blow bubbles. “Now see how much fun that is?”, she would say in an upward rising pitch. I was six years old with water issues, but I was compliant and blew bubbles. After a while, it wasn’t so bad, and I was like, “Yeah—gulp cough sputter—that’s really fun.”
After bubble blowing, the lessons moved to floating. I was a skinny kid and was uptight even at six. Floating was a very scary thing. Floating felt like a night terror. Floating battled with my trust issues and won most of the time. I really hated floating. If I had known that floating was the next important thing to learn after blowing bubbles, I would have never blown bubbles. I would have kicked and screamed and cried. I was already on the dramatic side so this would have been easy. But no. What did I do? I blew really good bubbles which meant I now got to learn how to float. Every atom of me shook. This was full-on 11-on-the-dial shivering.
“Okay, Jim. Just relax. I’ve got you”, my know-it-all instructor would say while supporting me with one hand. She would pull her hand away slowly, and I would sink—cough, sputter, cry, shiver.
“You moved your hand!”, I would scream.
“Don’t move your hand! Promise you won’t move your hand?”, I would plead.
“Okay, Jim. Yes, I promise I won’t move my hand. Just relax.”
Swimmy McSwimster was a liar and I was a pleaser. So every time she said she wouldn’t move her hand, I believed her. She always moved her hand and I always sank. Floating sucked. Looking back on this now, I see how my inability to relax and float was foreshadowing.
I’m a great swimmer now. I swam in college. As an adult I love water, and floating is something I can do without fear. But I’m still uptight and I still have trouble with the metaphorical “float”. I frequently say to myself, “When you become exhausted from swimming upstream, surrender to the ‘float’. It gives the river great joy to carry you. Let me say it again…it gives the river great joy to carry you.”
I know on all levels that the river gets great joy from carrying me. I’m allowing this to happen more and more in my life because it also gives me great joy to let the river carry me. I stretch out my arms like wings, tilt my head toward the heavens, and float—no shivering, no coughing, eh, maybe a little crying. So what’s changed? The difference is that my swimming swim teacher of yore always took her hand from underneath me, even when she promised she wouldn’t. The angels in my life now are different. They patiently teach me how to be an Olympic floater. They never take away their hands from beneath me. They support me. I trust them. Their love and my courage give me float.
Today, through all my failures, lessons, brokenness and joy, I mostly surrender and allow the sweet light of my angels to shine on me, through me, and from me. I ask my angels to lift me from the river—to rescue me. I relax into their love. I do the best I can with what I know. Every day my soul finds at least one more courageous idea, one more loving thought, one more blessing to lift and carry me.
My enormous hope for you is that you will have the courage to surrender, spread your wings, tilt your head toward the heavens, and let the river carry you. Floating works much better if you’re face up, chin back, and basking in the glory.
Outrageous love to you all!