It was a sunny warm day in the Big Laramie valley. We had been living on the ranch for 3 months. We liked it. It was wide open and beautiful. Cliff could do what he loved – cowboy. I was living in the nicest, biggest house in my entire life. The kids loved the animals. Little did we know that our lives were about to change so drastically that they would never be the same.
It was Saturday. It was warm! One of the first warm days of spring for us, here in this high valley. My Cowboy was spreading manure on the fields. I was washing the minivan. The kids were helping me. Ever since the irrigation canal had started running several weeks earlier, I had been keeping my kids inside the house. I was so paranoid that they would fall into the water. (its only a few hundred feet from my door.)
So, on this bright day, I took them all outside with me, and they ‘helped’ wash the van. they also played in the mud, rode pretend horses, and chased each other. It was good to be out in the sun.
When I finished washing the van, I needed to go in the house to start lunch. But the kids didn’t want to go in. they wanted top play in ‘Daddy’s truck’. So I put them into the bed of the 4×4 truck, and closed the topper, so they couldn’t get out. I went in and started lunch. After a few minutes, I went out and checked on them. Jenni told me that Andy wanted out, so I lifted him out. He was grinning from the sheer joy of living and playing in the sun. As I set him down on the ground, I remembered the hot dogs I was frying in the house, and I thought I better go turn them off, before they burn. So I turned and went back to the house. I looked at the clock as I went it. It was 11:55. I don’t remember exactly what I did in the kitchen at that time. stirred the mac-n-cheese? flipped the hot dogs? maybe washed my hands and put something away? Whatever it was, I have regretted those five minutes of my life more than anything else I have done all put together.
Because I suddenly heard a scream from outside. At first, it sounded so distant, I thought maybe I was imagining it. So I listened, and yes! There it came again! Franklin was screaming at the top of his lungs… “MOM! MOM!” and it wasn’t a ‘I’m mad at my sister’ scream. It was a earsplitting-life-or-death-this-is-serious scream. I could tell right away. And I knew instantly what had happened.
I looked at the clock as I dashed out the door – it was 12:00.
“Mom! Andy fell in the canal!”
I pulled on some rubber boots as I tore out the door. I flew across the yard, and straight into the water of the canal, not even slowing pace. I realized quickly that I would have to lose the boots, cause they just filled with water. I climbed out, jerked them off, and yelled at Jenni to get me the phone. I thought that since there was so many trees and bushes growing into the edge of the canal, that Andy would get trapped and stuck in under the branches. So I went along feeling under branches. But when I stepped a bit closer the center of the canal, and felt that current, I knew he had been swept downstream. The current was fierce. It nearly drug me under. I could barely stand in some places – it was so strong. And it was just above my waist.
By now Jenni had brought the cordless phone outside, so I called 911 as I was wading through the water and searching.
“911 – where’s your emergency?”
I told her.
“OK, Whats your emergency?”
“My son fell into a canal and I can’t find him!”
“He fell in what?!”
“The canal! The IRRIGATION CANAL!!! And I CAN”T FIND HIM!!!”
I was in tears by now.
“Oh! Ok, well just stay on the line…”
I climbed out of the canal, realizing I wasn’t gonna find him by myself. I dropped the phone on the porch, and told the kids to not set one foot out of the house. I wasn’t worried about them disobeying. They had just witnessed their brother fall into the canal – they weren’t about to be next.
I jumped in the van, and drove like a crazy woman – all the way to the ranch headquarters. (half-mile) I laid on the horn the whole way, hoping it would alert someone – anyone – to the fact that something was wrong. But the only person at headquarters was Cliff, and he was driving a tractor, so he didn’t hear me. I drove right up to his tractor, horn blazing, and he just turned and smiled at me. I jumped out of the van, frantically motioning and half crying – half screaming at him. He realized something was wrong, so he opened the door and stepped down.
I had to do the hardest thing ever – tell my husband that one of his beloved children, the only one he had personally named, had fallen into the canal. On my watch. But at the time, I just did it, and he jumped in the van beside me, and we drove back to the house. Believe me, it was a fast drive, too. I pretty much held the pedal down.
Back into the water. Cliff came to the same conclusion that I did – that Andy had been swept downstream farther. So he took the van as far downstream as he could, and began running along the canal. I kept searching the places closer the house. It seemed like forever, but in reality, it was probably only 20-30 minutes till the first responders came. The Fire Chief came to where I was, and I quickly told him what had happened. I told him that I thought someone needed to go ‘way ‘way downstream to get ahead of Andy. So he sent someone around by the road to a bridge further down, and he and some other worked it from our house. He told me to go back to the house and stay by the phone. So I did. I was still in socks, which were wet and nasty from all the wading. I was soaking wet and scratched from all the branches. I walked back to the house. Jenni and Franklin were playing, but they were confused about what was happening. I explained that Daddy and some other people were looking for Andy, and we just had to wait. Well, that was fine. They were very trusting. They started talking about what they would tell him when we found him. I didn’t let myself think “death”, but in my heart I knew we wouldn’t be having a pleasant evening, discussing the whole issue.
I fed the kids, then sent them to bed for naps. Oh how trusting kids are!
I called my parents, Cliffs parents, and one of my good friends, telling them that Andy had fallen into the canal, and we couldn’t find him. I took a shower. Somehow I knew I needed to get dressed and be ready. By now it had been 45 min or so, and I knew if he was in the water that long, he was either dead or brain damaged, In which case we would be in the hospital a long time. I was mentally preparing myself.
Then I went out and talked to a female first responder that the fire chief had sent to stay with me. She was sitting on the front steps, just waiting. I went and talked to her a bit. Then a sheriff’s deputy drove in, and told me they had found Andy – did I want to go and see him? he would take me. Of course, I did. I jumped in his SUV. I assumed that we would be driving down the canal till we got to where they found him, but when he started to drive out the lane, I stopped him.
“Hey, Where are we going?”
“To the hospital.”
“I can’t go – I have other kids in the house!”
“Oh, well, we better go do something about them.”
So we turned around and went back. The woman responder ( I wish I knew what her name is!)offered to stay with my kids while we went to the hospital. I reluctantly agreed. I had never left my kids with a stranger. But under the circumstances, I felt I had no choice. So we went. We drove around to the bridge where Cliff was waiting with some firefighters, and he climbed in with us. He was soaking wet, and looked weary. He had been wading water for 45 min or so. He had caught a glimpse of Andy as they took him to the ambulance, but was too far away to do anything.
We rode in silence to the hospital. An occasional blast on the siren broke the silence. I was silently praying that if Andy was too badly brain-damaged to live a normal life, that God wold take him to Heaven. (I found out later that Cliff was praying the same thing.)
We pulled up to the ER door, and would you know – when I tried to go in to see my son, who was dying, they made me stop and sign papers?? I was kinda mad about that. We did get in , finally. There were firefighters, and nurses, and Dr’s around. But they were very patient, and let me squeeze in and touch my baby. He was cool to the touch, and I seen that he was gone. So I went out and let them try. Try with all Man’s inventions to bring back a life that God had taken home already. It was futile. I knew it, Cliff knew it, and the Dr’s knew it. But they had to try. They had to satisfy themselves that they couldn’t do anything.
We sat on a bench outside the OR, and were silent. What was there to say? Our pastor, Phil Lapp, came in and sat with us. To this day, I will never know how he got there so fast. Maybe he wasn’t the first one of our friends there – but he was the first I remember. He sat beside us and there were tears in his voice as he read Psalms 23 to us. The words of that ancient Scripture were soothing to me. They allowed me to think of good things in that hour of waiting.
After awhile, the hospital staff took pity on us, and gave Cliff several blankets, since he was shivering from all the cold, wet, and nervous shock. They also showed us to a small waiting room. Soon several friends came to sit with us. I took my friends’ small son, and held him, touching each tiny toe, thinking how warm and wiggly and alive he was. Some things you don’t realize until you lose them.
The Dr’s would come in every few minutes (it seemed) and tell us what they were doing, and they’re sorry, but it isn’t working. We assured them several times that we know they can’t do anything, and that its ok. I couldn’t look at Cliff. His son was dead, and it was my fault!
Finally, they came in the final time, and told us sadly that they did all they could, and it was beyond them. He was gone.
So we went in to see Andy one last time. The room was empty now. I sat beside my son, my baby, and held his hand. He looked like he was sleeping. I had always been scared to see a loved one in death. It seemed so eery. But when it was my baby laying there, eyes closed, cheeks still soft and cute, well, it wasn’t eery. Just unbearably sad.
We went home then. Phil took us home. There were friends pouring in. It didn’t matter that they drove 2 hours just to be with us for an hour or so. They came out of love. But a full house didn’t ease the pain of the loss. I found myself counting the hours that had gone by since I had last held Andy – alive…4 hours, 6 hours, 10 hours… Today it has been four long years.
Years with alot more tears in them. Years that have added another sweet baby to my arms. Years that have taught me to be more loving and less judgmental with others. Years that have made me acutely aware of people taking their kids for granted. Years where I have perhaps been a little lax in the ‘discipline’ of it all, but trying to train them in the ways of their Father, God Almighty. Because who knows when one will be summoned to the Presence of God?
I never thought I could handle the death of a child of mine.
I can’t. Only by Gods grace and mercy. He alone deserves any praise. He held me up through the prayers of the saints. He held me. I dealt with months and months of blame and guilt. He showed me He still loves me. Don’t tell me I am strong. I am not strong. I only serve a strong God. I trust Him every day. He gives me strength every day to learn from this. Its Him – not me.
Andy on the left, with his best bud, and cousin, Ira. They were two ornery little stinkers!
I have prayed many times that Jesus would pick Andy up for a minute and snuggle him – just like I used to do. This is how I like to think of him now.
Note: Jennifer was 5 at the time, and Franklin was 3. Almost four. Andy was 2 years and 2 months. He apparently climbed up on the concrete abutment of the bridge, and when he threw stones into the canal, he became overbalanced and fell in. Franklin was on the bridge at the time, so he watched it happen. Jenni didn’t see it. Andy was swept downstream for almost two miles, and was in the water for 40+ minutes.