Monday, April 02, 2012


(Author's note: I apologize for having to share this, but it's the healthiest thing for me to do. I'm sorry you have to read it, and I'm sorrier I had to be there, but that's all eclipsed by how I feel for the family in this story.)

* * * *

And King David was much moved, and went up to the upper chamber of the gate, and wept; and as he went, he cried, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died in thy stead, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

2 Samuel 18:33

* * * *

It sounds like an old folk tale. It is not.

Far, far away from anything, up in the mountains, is a high lake, ice-cold and terribly beautiful, surrounded by steep hills, and full of trout. A great place to go fishing. Two brothers sat on the lake, in a tiny boat, while their father watched from shore. And something happened – one stood up too quickly, or the other shifted his weight – and the boat went over. Flipped them both into the water.

* * * *

We're seventy miles away when the call goes out, a long set of whistle tones, eight or ten pairs, followed by the dispatcher announcing a water rescue at a remote lake in the other end of our district. The fire department goes and the sheriff's deputies go and the closest city ambulance goes and our rescue ambulance goes. Screaming down the mountain, around the curves, listening to the chatter as everyone goes enroute and dispatch gives us updates.

"You know," I say, quietly, almost contemplatively, to my partner, as we rip past a semi, "by the time we get there – by the time anyone gets there – it will all be over."

"Yeah," he says. He's junior to me, but definitely has more water experience. Worked River Rescue in the summers before he got on the car. I jokingly call him our rescue swimmer sometimes, like we're a Coast Guard helo or something.

Now he looks out the window, into the growing dark. "Yeah."

* * * *

They swam for shore, as their father watched, urging them on, running for a rope and a life jacket, swimming out himself to meet his older son halfway across. It was maybe a hundred yards to shore.

* * * *

Dispatch updates us that a civillian truck is bringing one patient down to the ranger station. Hypothermic. One other still unaccounted for. The first ambulance says they'll meet up with the truck and take care of the patient. Everyone else – boats and cops and firemen and us – continues for the lake, up gravel roads, single lane, hairpin turns.

We get there a few minutes after the fire rescue boat. They're zipping up drysuits and getting their little zodiac put in the water. We talk to the deputy who's in charge, get the story. The second patient – the younger son – was last seen fifty feet from the boat. Well over two hours ago.

We can see the boat, half-submerged, out in the lake. The water is calm and the whole scene is eerily lit by floodlights and headlights, criss-crossing in the dark.

The deputy indicates a small SUV with a toss of his head, a forest ranger's first-response vehicle. I can just make out someone sitting in the passenger seat.

"Dad's still here. Just so you know."

* * * *

For a mercy, it doesn't take the firemen long to find him, in the clear water. We bring the ambulance gurney down to the water, so they don't have to put him on the ground with his father watching.

My daughter at home is barely a month old, and suddenly I can put myself in this man's shoes, and realize that there is no cutoff for when a parent can stop being afraid for their child. No magic age when they're safe.

And – though I am not a Christian, by any stretch of the imagination – I am reminded of the story of David and Absalom, and the heart-wrenching description of the king crying over his son.

This is far, far worse.

* * * *