I love Molly Brown. Truly love that kid. She's seven now, all skinny arms and legs, nerdy glasses and an exuberance for life that's palpable. She's prone to hugging strangers and can dance like the world's next YouTube sensation.
Her mom is Melissa and we became friends because our sons were. Melissa is the adventurous, outdoorsy sort, and we've done campouts together for years. We're always pushing ourselves to try new things.
Once she suggested we take the kids on a canoe trip. I grew up canoeing on the Upper Iowa with my dad and I was keen to go. We chose the Maquoketa and it was the year the dam broke at Delhi. That should have been our first clue.
I knew right off I was out of my element. The river was high and it was all I could do to read the water far enough ahead to keep us off the snags. And snags there were—everywhere. God knows what was in that river after the flood, but it was treachery. We'd come upon random things like a refrigerator half-buried in sand, or a stove pulled apart into rusting metal.
Another woman was with us, up ahead with her teen daughters. Melissa, Molly and Ayers were in the middle and my son Bryce and I brought up the rear.
I spotted the danger easily, suspected a submerged tree and I was heading for mid-river to avoid it. Melissa went straight for it. She'd had crazy luck all day, breezing through stuff I never would've attempted. She'd be fine, I was sure.
When she got caught, I held my breath, backpaddled and watched. Her boat broadsided fast—faster than anyone could think. I saw Melissa's face, the startled O of her mouth as her canoe flipped.
Within seconds, she was swept thirty feet away of the overturned craft—her children nowhere to be seen. She screamed: "My kids, get my kids."
I'm not a strong swimmer. And I didn't have on my stinking life vest, so cocky and determined to prove myself that day. I don't know how I managed to put the thing on and guide the boat toward the tree at the same time, it doesn't seem possible. I don't know how I jumped in the water without tipping the boat, how my son managed to breeze by cleanly on the right, now alone in the canoe.
The second I was in the river, I knew it was a mistake: I'd just made myself another victim. There was no saving anyone, it was going to be all I could do not to drown. I managed to grab the tree before the current dragged me past and made my way, hand over hand, to the overturned canoe—the water up to my chest and neck. I plunged a hand under the boat, feeling for the kids, finding nothing. Working my way down to the stern. Searching. Trying to right the boat, but it wouldn't budge.
Where were those kids? If I dove under, could I find them? I could hear my son, somewhere downstream, screaming.
Go under. Find them. I must.
I was paralyzed. I'd drown. I knew it. Please please please God don't let those kids die, not on my watch, please God get those kids. An eternity passed, me clinging to the tree, no sign of the kids. Bryce remembers it differently—says it wasn't that long—but he wasn't where I was, he doesn't know. It was forever.
Ayers surfaced downstream, the current spinning him in circles. The woman with the teenagers paddled toward him: so determined, so certain, so expert. Barking commands at her teens, and then Melissa too, someone lifting Ayers from the water and into the boat. Safe.
But still no Molly. Oh where was she?
When she burst from the water—six feet away from me and upstream of the submerged tangle of branches, I had a single thought: Who? For the thing that surfaced from the muddy current was not the sparkling girl I knew—cartwheel girl with chipped glitter polish and a sticker on her cheek. This was a ghost girl: mist-pale and insubstantial, with everything she was now washed away.
Each of us clung to one end of the same slender branch, her and I—with her just out of reach.
I lifted a hand for her, stretched to make my way to her, but as I did, the branch dipped dangerously under the current, taking Molly down. I reached and tried, reached and tried, but any effort threatened to submerge her.
"Hang on," I screamed, and watched her, helpless. My world filled with only her: her eyes pinched tight closed, her tiny hands gripping the tree, the water rushing past us on all sides.
With Ayers safe on shore, canoe-woman came back, her oldest reached for Molly and said, "Let go."
I looked around at me alone. Molly safe. The river raging and tried to think what I must do. I let go; swept downstream until I could stand steady on my feet and stagger to the shore.
Bryce hugged me, hysterical. Couldn't believe I left him and neither could I. I couldn't believe any of it. What an awful day. It took me months to shake it, to not feel the water at my neck, not to see Molly's white face, just out of reach.
Since then, I've tried to think how to explain it, how I feel about Molly and what happened that day, but it's hard to describe. It's about the shared experience: her and I and the river and nothing else—not even a future. And it's about what it was like to be caught between my intentions and my shortcomings.
But I think the biggest thing is, it's because she showed me who I was. And who I want to be.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
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K Rawson is a native Iowan and the author of HitList. She lives in Cedar Rapids where she works as a daytime computer programmer, nighttime writer-blogger, and overtime mom.
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