WARNING: This poem contains intense and controversial topics likely to upset many readers. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers and possibly also triggers. It includes teen death by drowning, traumatic grief; complicated grief with various symptoms including lethargy, avoidance of waterfront, and difficulty thinking; nervousness, people still trying to play in dangerous areas, unexpected (but welcome) pregnancy, and other challenges. Readers with concerns about drowning or child loss should think twice. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read. It's unconnected to any other plots at the moment, so there's no harm in skipping it.
"Loss Is Like a Wind"
[Saturday, April 3, 2010]
On a fine spring day,
Ryder Wilkinson went out
to the Markle Mill Dam
not far from his home.
He walked along the edge
of the pond and looked at
the ruins of the old gristmill
to see if any new driftwood
had washed downstream.
When he crossed paths
with some friends, the teens
soon began horsing around.
A game of tag led out onto
the top of the old mill dam,
its concrete broken by years
of freeze and thaw cycles.
When a chunk turned underfoot,
Ryder flailed and fell over the edge.
It was the last time anyone saw him alive.
[Sunday, April 11, 2010]
Abbott sat in the game room
hugging a fish-shaped pillow
that Ryder had left behind.
He didn't feel like playing,
but neither did anyone else,
so that made the game room
a place he could be alone.
He just couldn't endure
the emotional atmosphere
in the house any longer.
His wife Lola May had
dissolved into a puddle of
tears and never emerged.
Their daughters April, May,
June, and September were
not doing much better.
It had been over a week.
Abbott needed to pull himself
together, or at least fake it
well enough that he could
He couldn't stop thinking
about his son's death, though.
The hastily assembled rescue team
had called off the search after ten minutes.
Ryder's body had washed up downstream
several minutes later, savagely battered
by the churning currents under the dam.
Every time Abbott closed his eyes,
the scene replayed itself again.
Footsteps sounded on the floor,
and his youngest son Thatcher
came into the game room.
"I miss Ryder," the boy said.
"My bed is half empty now,
and I can't sleep this way."
"I can't sleep either,"
"I miss him too."
The house only had
four bedrooms, so all of
the kids had to share --
Ryder and Thatcher,
April and June, May and
September. They had
bunk beds to save space.
"Dad, what are we going to do
about Ryder?" said Thatcher.
"There isn't anything to do,"
Abbott said, his voice cracking.
"Ryder is gone, and we are
still here. We just have to ...
keep going. Somehow."
"That's not enough,"
Thatcher said. He wasn't
good with big-picture issues.
"There is nothing more painful than
the untimely death of someone young
and dear," said Abbott. "The grief surges
from a bottomless well of sorrow, drowning us
in a torrent of pain. It leaves us wracked
with heartache and loneliness long after
our loved one is buried and gone."
Thatcher sniffled. "I need to do
something, Dad. I can't find
my smile, and that's ... not me."
"I'm sorry, Thatcher, I don't know
what would help," Abbott said.
"Nothing is helping me much.
Maybe you'll have better luck."
"Okay," said Thatcher. "I'll go
think about it for a while."
[Monday, April 19, 2010]
Thatcher came bounding
into the game room as soon
as he got home from school.
"Dad, Dad, I thought of
something!" he said.
"That's good," said Abbott.
"What did you think of?"
"I'm collecting stuffed animals
for first responders to give to
upset kids," said Thatcher.
"Ryder always loved them,
and I love the brown bear that
the ambulance man gave me."
"What a wonderful idea,"
Abbott said. "I'm proud of you."
"Have you thought of anything?"
Thatcher asked, bouncing in place.
"No, not really," said Abbott.
"I'm so sad that it's hard
to think of anything now."
"People at school are talking
about putting up a warning sign
by the dam with Ryder's name on it,"
Thatcher said. "You could help."
"No," Abbott said, shaking
his head fiercely. "Signs
like that don't really work."
"Oh," Thatcher said, slumping.
"Well, what are you good at?
You could find your own way
to remember Ryder then."
Abbott thought about that,
his thoughts flowing slowly as
molasses in the cold spring air.
Then he remembered how he
spent his summers as a teenager,
working as a life guard at the pool.
Maybe he could turn that into
a way to reduce the chance
of other kids drowning.
It wasn't enough, but
maybe it was a start.
"Thank you, Thatcher,"
said Abbott. "You may have
given me an idea, but it will
take time to pull together."
"That's okay, Dad," his son said.
"I knew that you could do it."
"Loss is like a wind," Abbott said.
"It either carries you to a new destination
or it traps you in an ocean of stagnation.
You must quickly learn how to navigate
the sail, for stagnation is death."
He remembered sailing toy boats
on Markle Mill Lake with his sons.
They had learned how to steer
the boats, even though it was tricky.
Abbott could learn how to do this too.
[Saturday, June 5, 2010]
Abbott felt nervous but determined.
He had spent months renewing
his lifeguard certification and then
talking people into supporting him.
There weren't that many swimming pools
in Vigo County, but he had approached
all of their facilities one at a time.
The Rose-Hulman Natatorium
had finally agreed to let him teach
water safety classes all summer
along with free swimming lessons
to anyone living in the county under 18.
Normally the only people who got
to swim free were YMCA members,
because the organizations had
made special arrangements.
As the first students trickled
into the natatorium, Abbott
remembered Ryder learning
to swim, which brought up
a fresh surge of grief.
Abbott lifted his chin.
"You can do this,"
he told himself firmly.
"You're doing this for Ryder."
Maybe if he spent the summer
teaching water safety and rescue,
nobody else would have to suffer
the way his family was now.
[Saturday, June 4, 2011]
It had been a difficult year
for everyone in the family.
Thatcher had found meaning in
collecting resources for upset kids,
and went from gathering teddy bears
to seeking donated blankets, but he
still missed his brother terribly.
None of the girls would go
near water yet, even May who
was normally the most adventurous --
they went around the back of the house
instead, so they didn't even have
to look at the water out front.
That worried Abbott a little,
but he didn't want to push them.
Lola May was just beginning to pull out
of the slump that had left her unable
to do much for most of the year.
Abbott himself was busier than ever.
More and more people wanted to take
water safety, swimming, and rescue classes.
Teens who had taken water safety and
swimming last summer now wanted
to learn water rescue and lifeguarding.
"Hey," Lola May said quietly as she sat down
beside Abbott in the living room. They had
redecorated it with purple chairs and curtains
in hopes of cheering up, but it didn't help much.
"Hey," Abbott said. "I've added another pool
to the list of places that let me teach. I want
to make sure that free water safety classes
are offered at least four times a year, on top
of the ones people can pay to attend."
"That's good," Lola May said. "I've been
thinking about Markle Mill Dam myself."
"The girls still won't go near it," Abbott said.
"Maybe that's not a bad thing," said Lola May.
"I want to have the area declared a historic site
so people can't climb all over it anymore."
If Ryder and his friends hadn't been
fooling around on top of the dam,
he would still be alive today.
"That would be safer than
it is now," Abbott agreed.
"The Markle House and grounds
are up for sale now," said Lola May.
"We could raise funds to buy them --
they need work, so it's not a high price.
Turn the house into a museum and
the grounds into a historic park."
"That sounds interesting," Abbott said.
"What kind of museum would it be?"
"It should cover the Markle family,
the dam and gristmill, local wildlife,
that sort of thing," said Lola May,
"along with dams and water safety."
"I like that idea, but it would take
quite a lot of money and networking
to get people on board," Abbott said.
"Do you think you're up to that?"
"I think I have to be," said Lola May.
"I've wasted enough time already."
[Saturday, May 5, 2012]
On a fine morning in late spring,
the Markle Memorial Park opened.
The Markle House itself had been
turned into a visitor center with
various museum displays.
The first floor held the lobby
and reception, gift shop, and
fully restored period kitchen.
The old dining room held
an exhibit about Frederick and
Sarah Markle, the Markle House,
the Markle Mill Dam and its gristmill.
Upstairs, the first bedroom housed
a display about Indiana wildlife,
the importance of mill ponds and
other constructed waterways.
The second held an exhibit about
low-head dams, gristmills, and sawmills
both in history and in modern times.
The third covered drowning deaths
and the need for water safety.
Outside, the old outhouse was
still functional but had been updated
for better performance, and now
included a display of toilet history.
The carriage house out back featured
examples of horse-drawn transportation,
while the driver's apartment above
the carriage floor was fully restored
to show period living conditions.
The visitor center had a receptionist,
a shopkeeper, and tour guides for
indoor and outdoor presentations.
Markle Mill Dam and its pond
were fenced in for safety's sake,
with signs warning people not
to climb on the historic ruins.
A park ranger now kept watch
over the grounds to ensure that
people minded the new rules.
"Congratulations," Abbott said
to Lola May. "You did a great job
raising money to buy and restore
this place. What will you do next?"
"Well, I'm not as excited about
contacting universities to arrange
archeological research, so I've
handed that off to a new volunteer,"
Lola May said. "I'm still thinking
about later opportunities."
April sidled forward and said,
"Mom and I are talking about
launching a photography studio
for senior pictures and weddings."
"The park is beautiful, and it'd
make a good wedding venue,"
Abbott agreed. "This could work."
"If people know you from seeing
your presentations at the museum,
they might consider swim lessons or
pool memberships as wedding favors,"
April said. "One of my lifeguard friends
came up with that idea last week."
"Plus the gift shop is mostly books,
Indiana swag, and general souvenirs,"
said Lola May. "We need to make
some stuff especially for the new site,
and that requires fresh photographs."
"Yeah, some of my classmates want
to help with that so they can get
the small business experience,"
June said. "You can make a living
by producing t-shirts, papercrafts,
and whatnot but it takes practice."
"You girls don't mind that the site is
right on the waterfront?" Abbott said.
April sighed. "We can't avoid it
forever, Dad," she said. "Besides,
the new therapist is helping more."
"We can pick up some senior pictures
and test the premise," said Lola May.
"That should tell us whether and
how to develop the project."
"Then I look forward to seeing
how your business venture
turns out," Abbott said.
[Saturday, April 6, 2013]
Abbott was working on
the advance plans for
his busy season teaching
water safety and rescue
when May and September
bounded into the office.
"We need to do something
about Markle Park," said May.
"It's spring, and the ranger is
going nuts trying to keep people
away from the water. They hate
losing a place to play and fish."
"So, what do you want to do
about that, hire more rangers?"
Abbott said. "It's expensive."
"Doesn't matter, it won't help,"
September said, shaking her head.
"Remember that awful freeze last month?
Poor ranger was dragging people off of
the ice where they were shoe-skating.
Those kids need a place to go, not
just a new person nagging them."
"Besides, nagging doesn't work,"
May said. "My health class is doing
a unit on communication in relationships,
and that came up. I think it's true, too."
"It's definitely true," Abbott said.
"What are you thinking instead?"
"We should build a water park,"
September said. "Make it better
than Markle Park for fishing and
swimming and whatever else.
Then people will want to go
to the new place instead --
and we can make that safer."
"Make it easy to do the right thing
and hard to do the wrong thing,"
Abbott murmured. "That's a rule
from training dogs or horses."
"Ooo, I like the sound of that,"
May said, writing it down.
"I can use it in class."
"Building a water park is
pretty ambitious," said Abbott.
"Have you thought about where
it would go and what it would cost?"
"Uh huh," September said, slapping
a newspaper on his desk. Colored circles
marked some classified ads for farms.
"What's this?" Abbott said. "I thought
that you wanted a park, not a farm."
"Look, there's all this land that's
crummy for farming because it floods,"
September said. "We could buy it cheap,
make a pond, and add a swimming pool."
"Flooding isn't good for either a pool
or its support buildings," Abbott said.
"Yeah, but to dig a fishing pond, you have
to move a lot of dirt, which all has to go
somewhere, and hauling that away is
expensive," September said. "Pile up
the dirt on the highest place, then put
the water park there. It'll be safe."
"We already found some places
that might work and compared
their prices to better farmland,"
May said. "They're way cheaper.
We could get a piece big enough
to make a wildlife area for fishing
and a water park for playing."
"I'm all in favor, but I think
it's too big a project for just
the two of you," said Abbott.
"Well, duh," said September.
"We're going to ask Mom to help.
She already did the Markle House,
and the photography studio is set up."
"Let's go ask her," Abbott said,
pushing away from his desk.
When they went to the living room,
though, they could hear Lola May
throwing up in the bathroom.
"Sounds like Mom caught
the flu," September said.
"Honey, are you okay?"
Abbott asked when Lola May
came out of the bathroom.
"Well, yes and no," she said.
"I think I might be pregnant."
Okay, that was a surprise.
"There goes our plan for
the water park," May said.
"Mom won't have the energy
for a new project if she's pregnant."
"It will require some adjustments from
everyone, but we've dealt with this plenty of
times before," Abbott said. "If we can get
April and June to help your mother, then I'll
rope Thatcher into the water park project.
There are enough new lifeguards that I can
hand off some classes to them, and then
I'll have time to pursue the water park."
"Thank you sooo much!" September said,
flinging her arms around her father's waist.
"I'll go find April and June," said May.
"Mom, think about what kind of help you
want -- like you'll need to see a doctor,
so April could drive you to that."
"Just in case I need to hang
my head out the window on
the way," Lola May said dryly.
"Good thinking on that one."
"Okay, we have a preliminary plan,"
Abbott said. "Let's get to work."
[Saturday, March 22, 2014]
The day was overcast but warm
as the whole family moved through
the wild part of Ryder Water Park.
Closest to the water, Abbott and
Thatcher planted seedlings of
trees and shrubs most tolerant
of standing in water for a while.
Abbott dug holes for water tupelo,
black willow, and dogtooth cottonwood
while Thatcher put out winterberry,
barberry, and sandbar willow.
May, June, and September ranged
farther up the slope with shoulder bags
full of various tree and bush seedlings.
They planted buttonbush and elderberry,
swamp white oak, weeping willow,
river birch, and freeman maple.
Highest of all was Lola May with
Webster in a baby carrier and saplings
filling a cart. She had red osier dogwood,
indigobush, downy serviceberry, red maple,
pear, pawpaw, pin oak, red and yellow buckeye.
Beside her, April carried a shovel to dig holes
while her mother only had to drop in a sapling
and hold it while April filled in the hole again.
They were planting a mix of fast-growing species
like maple and willow alongside slow-growing ones
that would live longer such as oak and buckeye.
Both of them had to keep a close eye on Webster,
because he was already an adventurer, so he
needed a baby carrier with safety buckles --
which was nerve-wracking to parents
and siblings after having lost Ryder.
Carrying him didn't slow down Lola May
in terms of planting trees, though.
Later in the spring, orders of wildflowers
would arrive and everyone would come back
to put out the swamp milkweed, blue flag,
bristly aster, and great blue lobelia.
Abbott straightened and looked around,
rubbing his back to loosen the muscles.
The soggy, pathetic farmland had been
transformed into a marsh feeding a lake
with many different coves, cuts, and points.
Everything was still raw from construction,
but soon it would be flourishing with life.
It did not have a dangerous low-head dam
but rather a nice wide levee with a path
running across it. Parking lots at each end
held benches, pavilions, and dotties.
In places the bank was shored up
by boulders, which stabilized the soil
and gave people a place to fish
without standing in the mud.
In other places, the bank was
shallow to allow for water plants
such as cattails, arrowleaf, and
several kinds of water lily.
Later on, bridges and docks
would be built, providing
more places to fish.
"Look, Dad, ducks!"
said Thatcher, pointing
at a small flock of mallards.
"That's a good sign," Abbott said.
"They won't find much to eat yet,
but I'm sure the frogs have already
discovered this place, and we'll
be stocking fish later this spring.
The plants need a head start."
On cue, a shrill peep-peep-peep
sounded from the waterline, and
then a deeper trill followed it.
"Listen," Abbott said. "Those are
spring peepers and American toads."
They were among the first amphibians
to find puddles in the spring floods.
He wondered how long it would take
before the lake attracted larger denizens
and the water would resound with
the booming calls of bullfrogs.
"I like watching frogs and toads, but
I don't really want to swim with them,"
Thatcher said, wrinkling his nose.
"I know, that's more September's thing,"
Abbott said. "Fortunately we have
something for everyone here, so
you that don't have to swim with
the froggies if you don't want to."
Abbott looked uphill to where
the visitor center stood on
the highest part of the area,
now reinforced with tons of
earth dug out to make a lake.
So far it had an indoor pool
with locker rooms on one side.
The other held a nature center
with a gift shop, an exhibit hall,
a classroom, and a quiet room.
Outside stood the first pool
made from real rocks with
a waterfall like the one at
Markle Mill Dam, only
safe to play under.
Between that pool and
the wilder lake below lay
the messy play area with
lots of water, sand, and mud.
It even had a fishing hole where
kids could "catch and release"
a school of little toy fish.
Future expansions would
roll out each summer including
another rock pool with a slide and
hot tub, a rafting river, a splash
and wading pool also made of
natural stone, and a sprayground
with river boulders sunk into
a concrete splashpad.
The monument to Ryder
wasn't finished yet, because
that consisted of several pieces
of black and gray granite.
It was hard to think about,
but the family wanted people
to remember Ryder for the effects
he inspired, rather than just
sanctifying his memory.
The whole town had worked
hard to make sure that this kind of
tragedy would never happen again,
supported by state and federal grants.
That made it well worth waiting for
an expert carver to finish the monument.
What they did have was a plaque beside
the door of the visitor center that read,
Vigo County Water Safety Score:
0 Deaths, 0 Dam Falls, 0 Ice Falls
since Saturday, April 3, 2010.
Every time Abbott looked at
that date, it hurt, but the zeroes
always made him feel better.
"You're thinking of him, aren't you,"
Thatcher said quietly. "Ryder."
"Yes, I am," Abbott admitted.
"This place will always remind me
of him. It's sad, but I'm hopeful that
what we're doing will save lives."
"I miss him too," said Thatcher.
"It's not as bad as it used to be,
though. I look forward to moving
Webster into my room someday."
"Loss is like a wind," Abbott said.
"No matter how hard a storm blows,
eventually it wears itself out, and
then the sun shines again."
Just then, the clouds parted,
and sunlight danced on the water.
There was no darkness without a ray of hope.
* * *
This poem is long, so the character, location, and content notes appear elsewhere.