THE SPRING EQUINOX, a RIVER, and a DAUGHTER'S GRIEF


Our father died on the Spring Equinox, twenty-two years ago. On my first trip to the Grand Canyon for the Writing Down the River book project, three months after his death, our raft flipped going into notorious Lava Falls. A motor boat had taken up a rescue position downstream and a few of its passengers pulled me out of the water.

A woman from the South Dakota Humanities Council was on the rescue boat. She invited me to come to the capitol and give a program at the Cultural Center. The following March, under a clear blue prairie sky, on the Equinox and anniversary of my father’s death, I drove to Pierre.

The Missouri River flows along the outskirts of town. The 2300-mile river is the longest river in North America, flowing from its headwaters in Montana where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers merge. One-sixth of the North American continent drains into the Missouri. 

I had heard of it all my life. I grew up fly fishing with my father on the Madison. But I had never before stood on the historic, bucolic shores of the Missouri, nor seen its wide looping waters.

On the outskirts of Pierre, I pulled off the highway and drove to a wooded wildlife refuge along the river. I got out of the car and walked among the cottonwood trees, along winding paths that bordered the shoreline.  Nearly noon, the sun had little warmth.  A jet trail, one of my father’s favorite sights, hung in a cold bright sky. A flock of geese, 
vee’ing their way toward the river, carved a path in front of the jet trail.

I watched as thousands of Canada geese flocked to the river. Impervious to the frigid temperatures, the big birds made ungainly landings on the rippling surface, drifted a hundred and fifty feet downriver, then paddled back upstream. Again and again, they pushed their feathered chests against her southward flow, lifted from the water, then flew a hundred feet upriver before dipping playfully back onto the water again. 

My wings, for the first time in a year, itched to feel the lift of a carefree updraft. I was emerging from the shadow of my father’s death and grief had anchored me to his memory. His presence was palpable.   

Perhaps my grief was even anchoring him. Must I let go of the weight of my sorrow so that he could vee his way into the great beyond? 

I saw my father’s dark, bright eyes in the black eyes of the geese, saw his salt and pepper beard in their black and white feathers, remembered him feeding crusts of bread to the seagulls in San Francisco as they swooped down onto the deck of the ferry. 

A gull once drew blood from his finger with its sharp beak. He held up his strong bent finger and laughed. 

No tears, Baby, he would have said.  See how the geese shake the river water from their feathers? Shake off that sadness. Get on with things!  

I knelt in the sand and etched “I love you.” I turned and walked to the car, waving at the river, at my father, at the birds, at the noon sun high in the equinox sky.

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