On Drowning

By LONNIE LARSEN

 

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”
-Norman MacLean

 

1. 

On a Pacific Northwest wild-fire summer evening, Emmett and I drive the babysitter while the edges of the world burn. She’s chatty and optimistic about fall classes, but I’m distracted by the sun, which is Crayola-Orange, perfect circle, unnatural and eerie. The sky is a muted monotony of ash, like gray-brown construction paper. She prattles away, while I think about being trapped in a naughty child’s apocalyptic crayon drawing.

Even with fire on the horizon, the drive home is a joy that belongs to Emmett and me. For him, traffic is a delight—life-sized rows of Matchbox cars line up for his merriment. My almost-four-year-old boy with wayward curls at his temples, can’t say his own name, wakes with night terrors, is sent home from preschool for uncontrollable tantrums, but in road-construction backups, he sways back and forth, blows kisses to me in the rearview mirror, and whispers: excavator, cement mixer, tandem-axle dump truck. For these few moments, we enjoy each other in quiet accord, damn the inferno.

Our sitter’s school, Green River College, is perched on a pine ridge called Lea Hill northeast of our little house in the once-rural valley south of Seattle. After dropping her off, we weave switchbacks down the forested slope for home until we’re stuck at a traffic light and backed up on the bridge. The muddy waters roll beneath us, but only the edges of the river ripple with current. For a moment, Emmett’s cautious curiosity distracts him from counting cars. He tilts his head—a question—and makes doggy-paddle motions.

I answer him. “No way, dude,” I say. “It’s not safe to swim here.”

For a thousand years, the Green River* has been sinking into the mud and lime of the valley floor; its banks are steep, slippery, and congested with the sharp invasive barbs of the Himalayan blackberry vine. Even in the heat of summer, the water is frigid with glacial runoff. Many trails run alongside the river, but in this part of the valley, the river is no place for swimmers.

 

2.

Late August. The fires have passed for now, and I’m back on the banks of the Green River to watch the water swirl into chocolate eddies and then ramble by. Upon us is the rare but dreaded Pacific Northwest heat wave. The river trail, usually thick with afternoon dog walkers and baby strollers, is stifling and silent. Today I’m here to imagine boys, long dead, on the river’s shore. In my imagination, the banks are slippery with a thousand muddy footprints. In the distance, I hear shouting, racing, splashing. The boys are grateful to be free of watchful eyes, if only for a few hours on a summer afternoon. Behind me, my mini-van is parked next to a small sign that reads: Briscoe Park—the only evidence that the Edwin Briscoe Memorial School for Boys stood nearby for sixty-one years.

Six years ago, I stumbled upon a newsletter article written by the archivist at our local history museum, which is only a few blocks from home. The article is a spotlight on a unique piece in their collection: hundreds of letters written to and by Brother Patrick Gibbs—of the Irish Christian Brothers—the first headmaster at Briscoe School who served for nearly two decades. Because I have three boys at our parish school, because I work for the Seattle Archdiocese, because I am a Catholic convert, but come from generations of Irish and Polish Catholics, the thought of the letters lights a fire in me that I cannot douse. Year after year, I spend blustery fall afternoons at a table in the museum’s archives cataloging each letter’s heartache, careful not to let tears touch the brittle paper or ruin the careful script written by parents—almost always mothers—who are heartbroken, abandoned, or both, and whose boys are dispossessed of care and stability.

From my bench in the shade at Briscoe Park, I watch heat ripple off the paved pathway. The soles of my sandals soften, and I think of Emmett. For one nightmare of a second, I imagine the river’s power pulls him under and drags him away. The thought tugs so hard I swallow sobs, which aren’t, I know, for my son but for a Briscoe boy lost to this river, another little boy, like Emmett, who was rendered voiceless by circumstances. From the banks of the river where he drowned, I whisper his name—Francis Bellar—so that even after a hundred years, he is not silenced by the river. When the heat becomes impossible to bear, I turn away from the water and walk back to my van. All the way home, the chatter of Briscoe boys playing in the river echoes in my ears.

 

3.

The day after he drowns in the Green River, the Seattle Times calls Francis Bellar a hero, which by all accounts is true. Because he lived at the Briscoe Memorial School for Boys, the reporter assumed Francis was an orphan, but that isn’t quite right. Francis was, however, scandalous in other ways. First of all, there is the matter of his birth date. David “Francis” Bellar is born in O’Neil, Nebraska on August 26, 1902, only twenty-four days after his mother and father are married. Also, there is the issue of Francis’ baptism, which may well have been what delayed the marriage in the first place.

 When Francis’ father, David Bellar Sr., meets the boy’s mother, Mary Keeley, he works as a hired hand on a farm outside O’Neil—a Fenian mecca for those who fled the persecution of Irish Catholics led by Pennsylvania’s Puritans. The fact of David’s underemployment may not have posed a problem had David been an Irish Catholic boy, but he is not. Much to the heartbreak of both families, and surely to the thrill of town gossips, the Bellars are Mennonites. Sometimes referred to as Anabaptists, 19th-century Mennonites were known for the rebaptism of adults, which is forbidden by Catholics, and the refusal to baptize infants, which is a tenet of Catholic teaching. There was certainly a battle between the families as to whose diametrically opposed beliefs would prevail.

As it turns out, Francis is baptized at O’Neil’s Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church on September 2nd, exactly seven days after he is born and exactly one month after his parents are married. The Keeleys, for a short time anyway, must have felt triumphant. At the very least, they’d saved the soul of their tiny squalling grandson who is held up at church between parents who must have, by now, grown tepid with what their love, or maybe just an autumn indiscretion, had wrought.

Despite inauspicious beginnings, Francis’ parents seem to make a go of marriage. A year and a half after Francis, his brother John is born, but shortly after that, Mary takes the boys to join her parents who’ve gone west for gold––a home base in Seattle and then onto Alaska’s Klondike. There’s no evidence that David joins his wife and sons in his in-laws’ endeavor. In the end, Mary doesn’t make a home away from her husband for long. Francis is five years old, his little brother John only three, in the autumn their mother is looked after by the nuns at Providence Hospital while she succumbs to an agonizing abdominal infection, most likely brought on by a burst appendix or a perforated bowel.

There is a photo of Francis, taken only months before he drowns. He is surrounded by family on the wooden front steps of his grandparents’ Seattle home. Although his father, David Bellar, is alive, well, and remarried to a Mennonite woman in O’Neil, Nebraska, there is no evidence that he traveled to the Pacific Northwest for his wife’s funeral or makes any effort to retrieve his Catholic children. The boy Francis, orphaned by death and then, worse yet, his father’s choice, is dark, serious, and somehow absent, especially aside his brother John’s tilted head, mischievous grin, and floppy hair. If Francis’ mother had lived to see her son snatched away by the river, I wonder if she would have spent nights, like I do, awash in the guilt of her child’s absence. What choices, in the repose of 3 a.m. tears, would Francis’ mother have wished to clutch back to her chest like hot cinders of regret?   

 

4.

My Catholic conversion is less controversial than Francis’ baptism, but the reactions of friends and family run the gamut from amused confusion to unspoken disgust. It begins with the televised Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Emmett is a baby, our third in less than five years, and I am lost in the throes of post-partum depression. My family is safe, warm, and well-fed, my husband still makes my belly flip, our backyard chickens are locked up safe, the dog dozes at my feet, but not even the twinkling light from our Christmas tree, with gifts spread out beneath, or the bright wood-stove warmth can penetrate the dark drowning that consumes me.

The Christmas Eve broadcast is not a reach towards faith. I only hope the Latin chant of the cantors, the Pope’s lyrical Italian, the angelic choir will be what lulls me to sleep, as in the Mass as the Vatican’s prescription for insomnia. A few hours on the couch, and I can make it through Christmas Day without running water in the bathroom to drown out the sobs that wrack my post-partum body into hopelessness. Then, somehow, maybe because I am rancid and ruined, submerged too long, the soothing lilt of Pope Francis’ Christmas homily enters me like a swift arrow into soft flesh. He speaks of the suffering that Mary endures to bring forth a son who is a gift to the world. I do not think Emmett is the Son of Man, but for the first time, my suffering feels acknowledged by God, and I begin to believe in its purpose.

After the New Year, I march into Holy Family Catholic church, three blocks from home, and announce my intentions. To undergo the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults (RCIA), I spend one night a week for five months eating brownies, and chatting with old church ladies in the wing called the parish center­, which once housed the order of nuns who, until 1993, ran the parish school. Every Thursday I thrust Emmett, who is soggy-diapered, hungry, and squalling into my husband’s arms and run into the embrace of Jesus, or gooey baked goods, or new friends; I don’t care which.  

As generations go, my new faith is an old one. Each of us, myself and three siblings, are baptized as infants into the Protestant church our mom grew up in––lest we be lost to the Papists––but my dad is a non-practicing Catholic. His grandmother, deeply adored by us and called Candy Grandma for her propensity to hide treats in her purse, was a devout Polish Catholic who, long widowed, followed Pope John Paul II—the faith’s first-ever Polish Pope—around Europe, in the 1980s. Catholics believe in the communion of saints, or in the spiritual solidarity that binds the living faithful with the dead to create a mystical body of Christians. I have a difficult time believing this until I begin to say a rosary in the chapel before Thursday meetings, and even when I’m alone I smell Candy Grandma’s perfume–­–floral and distinctive––and I know, in a way I have never known a thing, that we both belong to the communion of saints. 

The final Rite of Initiation takes place at the Easter Vigil Mass, which begins with a bonfire in the churchyard whose light is carried into the indigo-black of the sanctuary where for the first time, I consume the blood and body of Christ. Although I don’t think it will happen, a great weight is lifted from me like I am drifting away downriver.

 

5.

Emmett is nine months old when all three boys are baptized at Holy Family Church after Mass on Pentecost—the seventh Sunday following Easter when the Holy Spirit descends upon the risen Christ. The air is fresh, sparkling, and the sky is so crisp and blue that it disappears altogether. The church’s cross, welded from thin steel I-beams, painted white, thirty feet tall, stands like a sentry before the main entrances and is framed by Mt. Rainier, achingly crystalline, whose majesty safeguards the valley. My mother-in-law, in town from Phoenix—all brown, drought and barren—gapes in awe at the mountain’s display, but those of us in her hinterland, who dream of lahar, who pack go-bags, who know how many minutes to high ground, don’t forget that beauty’s price is a belly full of fire. 

Inside the church, our family and dearest friends—Protestant and Catholic alike—scoot into padded pews and decide whether to genuflect, what to do with their hands during prayers, and when to answer the priest, “And with your spirit,” versus “It is right and just.” Great red banners, like flame from heaven, hang from the church ceiling, and the delicately stitched inferno on the priest’s vestment seems to consume him in the fires of the Holy Spirit. When it’s time, Emmett’s godmother tips him backward toward the baptismal font and Father Roy says, “I baptize you, Emmett James, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The priest punctuates each blessing with a scallop shell full of Holy Water to which Emmett lets loose shrieks like sirens to remind the parish that being baptized by water instead of fire is no reprieve from suffering.

 

6.

My bachelor’s degree in early childhood development does not prepare me for the growing ache at Emmett’s silence. Worse, the words are inside him, whole and articulate, so the incomprehension of others sends him into howling tantrums. One time, a hot day at our neighborhood park, he spends endless energy articulating the same utterance, which to me sounds like: “Sasa.” When his wails become intolerable, I load him and his brothers––more fury now—into the van, desperate with defeat. Before we leave, I pass a cool water bottle around, and Emmett’s tantrum turns off like a switch. He chugs it gratefully, looks at me in the rearview mirror, and says, “Sasa.” When my oldest son asks, I can’t explain to him why I sob all the way home.

The number of Emmett’s meltdowns are in direct correlation to the number of migraines that announce themselves with bits of rainbow, beautiful and ominous, at the edges of my vision. In a determined search for respite, we join the YMCA. My first memories—the Land of 10,000 Lakes—are full of water and joy, but from the moment we hit the indoor pool deck, humid and heavy with the smell of chlorine, Emmett wraps impossibly mighty arms around my thighs and digs his fingernails in until I whimper. His two older brothers slide into the warm wading pool like eager seal pups and splash into a gaggle of swim-lesson friends. I pry Emmett’s octopus tentacles from my legs to sit on the pool’s edge, feet dangling, the water a deep comfort, but now he refuses to come within an arm’s length for fear of being pulled close, for fear one single toe will touch water.

When I rise to coax him closer, he leeches on again. If I step toward the pool, his yowls echo against the floor-to-ceiling windows, then the attention of other mothers focuses in on me like sharks at blood in the water before I can settle him down again into silence. Their unspoken whispers taunt me: I would never…, If only she…, What that kid needs is… Emmett spends the swim session—ninety minutes—standing on the deck watching the big boys frolic and wrapped around my leg like drowning begins on dry land.

 

7.

What happens in the Green River when Francis Bellar goes to the aid of his teacher, seventeen-old Edmund Carroll, is called Aquatic Victim Instead of Rescuer or AVIR Syndrome, and it refers to a drowner’s uncontrollable instinct—akin to fight or flight—to grasp at whatever or whoever is in reach. Today lifeguards like the ones at our YMCA prepare for this impersonal eventuality by using direct contact rescue as a last resort, but Francis can’t have known the risk in going to Edmund’s aid, and the Irish Christian Brothers provide nothing to prevent drowning other than sending along a single teacher who is young, inexperienced, and ill-equipped.

The year the boys drown—1916—the great majority of June is cold, rainy, and disagreeable. This is a common phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest we sometimes call Juneuary. Spring temperatures in Anchorage are exceptionally warm, dry, and pleasant; the Times quips that Seattlites in need of a summer getaway might consider Alaska. So, by the 4th of July weekend, the boys must be restless of the year’s endless wait for summer, and the Brothers must ache to set them free.

After Mass on Friday, July 7th, the boys are finally released, eager as race ponies to cross the meadows—still saturated with heavy spring rains—toward the river. The day’s temperatures are only set for the mid-70’s, but for the first time ever, in the memory of boys, the valley’s wide skies are cloudless, impossibly blue, and Mt. Rainier looms so near and so lovely you can drink her in with a deep breath.  

It must happen in the beat of a heart.  In the river, Edmund is fine and then he cramps up in the cold water and is too weak to fight the frigid current for shore. By the time he cries out, he must struggle to keep the surface. Of the several boys who go to Edmund’s aid, it’s Francis—by proximity? By the strength of his stroke? By sheer compassion and will?—that reaches him first. Francis grasps his teacher’s hand but isn’t strong enough to fight the current and the drowner. He must, in the frantic struggle, realize the danger he’s dealt himself. When they lose footing and are swept away by the deep lurking current does Francis understand his fate, or does he cling to hope until the end?

 Despite long efforts to locate them, the pair—David “Francis” Bellar, fourteen years old, and Edmund Carroll, seventeen—are not found the day they drown. They are not found the next day or the next week. Thirteen days after they are overcome by the Green River, the bloated bodies are found tangled in the brush, by a farmer two miles downriver. In the end, Francis is universally hailed as a hero, but the truth of it is there’s no way of knowing who it was that couldn’t let go.

 

8.

The five of us­—three boys under eight—plus a too-big Goldendoodle and an invariably-irritated Manx cat cram into our tiny post-war cottage whose mortgage disproportionately corresponds to its size. We perpetually chase survival. Some days it weighs down on me like water so heavy my chest burns with panic. During brief escapes, I’m drawn, like some morbid salve, to the quiet places Francis and the boys from Briscoe still walk in my imagination. Of all the places that call, St. Patrick’s Cemetery haunts me the most.

The land for the cemetery is donated by the same prominent Irish-Catholic families who finance Briscoe School. Those men and women rest here under obelisk monuments whose white marble must have sparkled once but is now ancient with moss, which has been fed by a century of cool wet days in the shade of colossal swooping cedars. Nearby are the modest monuments of the school’s Irish Christian Brothers and a small plot of orphaned boys who died at Briscoe—drowning, influenza, whooping cough. The monuments rest on a hillside, steep and forested, facing the valley’s opposite ridge with the switchbacks Emmett and I navigate to bring the sitter home. From here the valley’s spring green rug, a hundred miles long, is rolled out at the feet of Mt. Rainier, who is perfect and white if the sky is clear, but more often than not is shrouded in the gray gloom of the rain shadow cast by the Cascade Range. 

Francis is not buried at St. Patrick’s, but Edmund Carroll is. His monument is the same white marble as the obelisks up the hill, and the small curb of marble that outlines his plot is so thick, soft, and green with moss that it appears to have burst from the earth. Sometimes in the summer, I visit with bright bouquets of dahlias purchased from the roadside stand of a valley farm, one of the few remaining. The day I wipe dirt from the crosshatched marble and carry wind-blown cedar boughs from his plot back into the forest I notice an empty steel bolt rising from the top of the monument.

The empty steel threads speak of some absence to weather, to vandalism, to time. In my imagination, the missing white marble is an angel in long robes, deep in prayer, with wings tucked softly away in grief. The day is hot, so I sit nearby in the cool shade with Edmund’s angel and wonder after his mother who grieved her drowned son from back home in Dublin. When a child’s voice is lost, a mother loses hers too. Before I go, I tell Edmund what I know about his mother: “She loved you. She wished she could be the one to bring these flowers. She wished she could have been here to save you from the river.”

 

9.

When the shrieks of Emmett’s night terrors shatter the quiet like broken glass I rush to him—cold bare feet on hardwood floors—hush him back to sleep with soft circles on his back, and chant quiet prayers in the dark. Once settled I search his face, search his sweet peach cheeks and long luxurious lashes for some sign that I am responsible for his silence. What I find is the delicious perfection of his still-baby face, and yet, my cheeks burn hot with the shame of guilt.

In the morning, I run from home to the extinguishing cool of the riverside along Briscoe Park and cling to this story I know. After Mass that Friday in July, the boys race to the river when one of them, his brother John maybe, misses Francis and returns to hunt for him. In the Briscoe School chapel, knelt at the golden pine rail before the Blessed Mother—robed in blue, head bowed in grief, arms outstretched—Francis prays The Holy Rosary, and the boy sent to fetch him waits in the shadows for the cadence of prayer’s end, “…Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…”

My research into Briscoe School, my obsession with boys I never knew and a school that no longer exists is not popular party chit-chat; when I bring up the orphans who constantly swim through my mind, people slowly scoot away or are struck with the sudden need for fresh air. Family and close friends also find my work to be a curiosity. Once, it was a mystery to me too, but not anymore. As I learn Briscoe’s stories, I discover boys who suffered there, and boys who were rescued by the place. My sister buys her home from a United States Air Force general who attended Briscoe School. In his memoir, he credits it for turning his life around. A plaintiff of the class action lawsuit brought against the Seattle Archdiocese and the Irish Christian Brothers for abuse that took place at Briscoe School, a grandfather now, says, “I just want someone in the world to know that we got wrecked.” These discoveries have grown into a deep yearning to understand how a place can be for some, a place of great suffering, and for others, a place of sacred redemption. I carry muted boys around until I find a place for their stories because Emmett and I are the same; we are both pierced and saved by the suffering we carry.

 

10.

A few miles north of the bridge where Emmett and I are trapped in traffic the day wildfire ash fell from the sky, is a place where the Green River is slow, sullen, and shallow, where the current is almost completely tamed by the upriver dam and a long hot summer. Life-jacketed toddlers splash in knee-deep water at the muddy shore, and bigger kids stand waist-deep in the gentle current. For several miles along the riverside, there are picnic blankets, stroller pushers along gravel trails, and volleyball games spread out in the lush grass.

When we arrive with our pink soft-sided cooler filled with soggy sandwiches, we’re ready to soak up the always sought-after Pacific Northwest sunshine but we aren’t prepared for a swim. This is what I tell the boys, but the truth is that the river is a terror to me. After lunch and from safely on shore, we watch a mother muskrat and her litter make a V in the water upstream from the swimmers. They cross back and forth to rip sticks from a downed tree on one side of the river, cross with the treasure, and then disappear to their underwater den. The current is so gentle, the tiny creatures—kits I could hold in the palm of my hand—cross effortlessly. So, when the boys beg to wade up to their knees I relent.

I don’t bother to attend to Emmett’s pants or take off his shoes, but while I help his brothers, he’s stripped off both and is headed toward the water in a T-shirt and his underwear. He plods forth at his own cautious pace, but his determination not to be left behind this time is like a little flame inside of him. When he hits the river’s edge I catch up. He takes my hand and two steps forward so that his toes are covered in muddy water. He looks up at me and says, as clearly as I’ve ever heard, “Mama, I swim!” 

 

*A note: In 1916, the river that Francis Bellar and Edmond Caroll drowned in was called the White River. In 1962, after generations of damage caused by severe flooding in the valley, the Army Corps of Engineers erected the Howard Hansen Dam and re-routed parts of the White River’s flow into the Green River. The portion of the White River that ran alongside the Briscoe Memorial School for Boys was included in that project. Because I have always known this stretch of river to be called the Green River, I refer to it that way.

 

 

Lonnie J. Larsen is an emerging writer who lives and works south of Seattle, in the Green River Valley where the view of Mt. Rainier never gets old. Currently, she’s earning an MFA in Writing at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. She and her husband have three boys, too many animals, and a wild vegetable garden. Lonnie writes to help herself and others understand the transformative power of the places we move through, the surprising ways stories connect us through time and to show how the art of reflection can make everyday life profound. She’s currently researching a book-length project on the history of a Catholic boys’ orphanage­—The Edwin Briscoe Memorial School for Boys—that stood near her home for sixty years. 

On Drowning

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