The Worst News
I was alone when I got the email. I’d just gotten the baby back to sleep and sat down at the computer, not really expecting anything new to be there. I was wrong. It was from KN, my ex-boyfriend’s sister and my dear friend. The subject read “I wanted you to know…”
I read on —
Yesterday I left for work, kissed Buddy on the forehead when he told me he was going to hang out with friends at the teen center. Instead, he and his friends went to Sand Island and were crossing the river when Buddy hit a sink hole, went under, and drowned —
I don’t remember the rest. I went up for the funeral. It was June of 2003, and he had turned 13 in April. My daughter will be 14 in August. She was 9 months old that June. That means that as of this July, Buddy will have been gone longer than he was here.
A Beautiful Place
I moved to McGrath, Alaska from Anchorage in 1999. I followed my longtime boyfriend (par for the course as far as my life goes-I have always followed some boy). He moved up to live with his sister, her husband, and their three kids. Buddy was nine, E was almost eight, and M was five. I’d known the kids since M was just a baby, and their mom was like the sister I never had. She had two brothers, so it was nice for us, the girls, to have someone to lean on.
It took a little doing, but within a few months, I’d fallen in love with the slower pace of village life. People worked when they needed money. When they wanted to go up river, they took their boat and they went. I was lucky to have found amazing friends willing to fully include me in life there, without the kid-glove treatment tourists got. I loved that, but it was really hard, too. No running water. That takes getting used to. There is a lot more, but that’s for another time. I stayed up North for two years. I came home in 2001, had my daughter in 2002, and we lost Buddy in 2003. I haven’t been back since.
A Deadly Place
There had been a storm, and the bottom of the river had shifted. These kids knew the river like they knew each other’s faces. They didn’t expect the change, and that little miscalculation cost my nephew his life. He had bad asthma…the theory is that he went under and his lungs spasmed into an asthma attack and he couldn’t come up or hold his breath and he just sank.
My dear friend Dusty dragged the river with some other men and eventually found him. They kept him in the school freezer until the service. There was no embalming. There was no autopsy. There was a village funeral. Dick Newton, from the next village over, made his coffin (he made all the coffins). It was beautiful.
There was a viewing before the service, but we, the family, went before that. I stood next to his mother as she told her boy goodbye. She touched him all over and talked to him. She smoothed his hair, and kissed his eyelids, and his cheeks, and his lips. It was beyond heartbreaking.
Except for a little scratch below his eye; a mark from the river-he could have been sleeping. I will never get that picture out of my head.
He was about the sweetest kid on the planet. My son’s nickname is Buddy, after him. And I feel like if I ever lost my boy, I would die, too. But his mom carried on. She raised his little sisters into amazing, capable, educated women. The baby (M) turned 22 yesterday.
The river where he died is absolutely gorgeous, and everyone still gathers at Sand Island to play, and party, and screw around.
Because Life Goes On
Buddy’s wasn’t the only life that river claimed. Not by a long shot. And in a community this size, every loss is felt everywhere, forever. There was Richard, who died breaking trail for the Iditarod in 2006. He left behind three daughters, the love of his life, a brother, and nieces, nephews, cousins. The next year, Val, the owner of Joe’s Bar, died too, another snow machine/river fatality. She was a single mom to three little girls. This last year, in December, we lost Casey. He still hasn’t been found. Casey was just a year younger than Buddy would have been had he lived. The Kuskokwim River has seen a lot of death.
Those are just the ones I remember at this moment, off the top of my head. Every life tears these people apart. And each life pulls them back together again.