Shortly after my wedding some 30 odd years, seven children, and 8 grandchildren ago, my family faced one our darkest moments when, while on a family trip, we lost my younger brother Brian. What follows here is my father’s recollections of that day. I’ll have more of my own thoughts to add later.
In a seldom-accessed portion of the sheriff’s evidence room in Aspen, Colorado there is probably still a nearly forgotten evidence box containing one small sneaker. It has long since dried from when it was pulled from the waters of the Crystal River. Long gone are the inquiring reporters who tried to talk to anyone who would tell them something about what happened. Long gone is the solitary white camp trailer with the red stripe parked in the campground near the river. Perhaps still reverberating far out in space with ever decreasing amplitudes are the television and radio broadcasts that were beamed around the world showing the scene with the investigators, the would be rescuers, and the silent watchers. Thanks to the thoughtfulness of a sheriff’s deputy, not identified in those broadcasts were the grieving family members watching and waiting. They were just a few of the crowd of onlookers. In one of the police cruisers was a wet and grieving boy suffering from shock. Not there to be filmed was the big gray GMC van that was traveling the 50 some miles to bring the news to me. Brian was gone, swept away by those swift and swirling waters. No chance to bring him back. No chance to back up and do it right. No chance to say goodbye… All that was found of Brian was that small sneaker. But, Scott was OK. It could have been two… It could have been two!
That time twist brought me to face the memories of the events the night before and earlier that morning.
We had driven to Snowmass, Colorado, towing that trailer with the van. The van was packed with 11 of our 12 children. Chelsea was just 10 months old. Only Mark was absent. He was married and had much more important things to do than bum around the country with a gaggle of kids; his day would come for that. The occasion was a business trip concatenated with a family vacation. The family was to relax while I worked for five days. Friday afternoon we would be on the road to visit my sister JoAnn in Indiana.
We stopped long enough in Snowmass to check me into my room where the conference would be held. Then it was off to get the family settled into a forest service campground. The one we chose was on the banks of the Crystal River, some 50 miles away, up a different canyon and adjacent to some red rock cliffs. As we slowed to turn into the access road, Scott excitedly pointed to a group of large rocks at the edge of the swiftly running river and shouted: “That one’s mine!”
Our camp was situated at the edge of a meadow full of deep grass and tall wild flowers. The river was a comfortable distance to the south of us, and the red rock cliffs were about 4 times that distance to the north. It was a beautiful site with pines, spruce, and lots of quaking aspen. We spent the rest of the day getting settled and preparing dinner. Mixed among the chores were frolics in the meadow, excursions into the trees, and discussions of the rules of safety. There was even a trip across a service road and down to the water’s edge to stress the dangers that were there. Directly across the river, near the highway, were those commanding rocks. Everyone received a buddy assignment and was told they were always to go together, but never to the river.
After dinner we had a little birthday party for Brian. It was the last day of July 1983. Brian’s birthday was on the third of August (it was to be his 5th), but I would be away at work in Snowmass. After some tender hugs, settling the kids down for the night, and family prayer, Linda drove me to my hotel room. Adeena was left to watch the kids. As Linda left me I felt unusually lonely. I had spent many lonely nights in hotel rooms, and would spend many more in the years to come, but this night was the loneliest and darkest of them all. There are not words to express how dark things seemed and how sad and apprehensive I felt. As I prepared for bed these feelings became a great burden. I longed to be with my family and felt that the mountain was a great barrier between us. Why hadn’t I stayed there all night and been driven over early in the morning? Of course it was logical to spend the night at the hotel. I could get up and get ready for my meetings without disrupting or disturbing anyone. without disrupting or disturbing anyone.. Besides it would be better to leave the young ones when they were asleep instead of in the morning when they might be up and about.. Of course Adeena was there and could handle it, but it was just more logical this way. As the dark and lonely feeling persisted, I prayed once, then twice, then more. I eventually dropped . to an uneasy sleep
The next morning I was up and ready for my meeting early. The dark feelings of the night before were put aside as I got on with the day’s business. About midmorning I was sitting at a conference table with my back to the hallway facing a window that looked out on those barrier mountains. As my mind drifted from the presentation, I gazed longingly at those mountains and wished to be beyond them. Then an overwhelming feeling swept over me. I felt distressed to be where I was and not with my family. It wasn’t the return of the dark feeling of the night before, but a melancholy and longing. But what could I do? They were beyond the barrier, and I would be here for 4 more days. I thought of abandoning the meetings, but I had no way to get there and no way to contact them.and handle it
More than an hour later, Adeena was calling to me from the hallway. Although her news was devastating, it was not a complete surprise. Now I knew what those feelings were about. The events of the previous 12 hours had been attempting to prepare me for it. I numbly excused myself from the meeting and accompanied Adeena out to the van. Most of the kids were in it. Adeena told me Brian had fallen into the river from those rocks and Scott (his buddy) had gone in to save him. Both were swept away before Scott could get to Brian. They both were pulled under but Scott was able to grab some roots near the bank and pull himself out. He scrambled up the bank to flag down passing cars, but by then Brian was gone. The buddies left camp after breakfast saying they were going to the red rock cliffs. Once out of sight, they turned from the cliffs to the bridge and down along the roadside to those rocks. After jumping from the bank to the rocks and playing for a while, they attempted to return to the bank. Scott made it, but Brian did not. He was in a little side stream but could not make it up the bank. When he lost his footing, the current took over.
As I approached the van and opened the door, I paused and gazed once more at those mountain barriers and the cloudy sky above. After a long pause for a silent prayer, it was clear to my mind that Brian would not be found. He was where he belonged; all was well with him. I announced to Adeena and the rest of the kids that Brian was gone, and quietly sobbed those 50 some miles around those barrier mountains, and back to the red rock campground on the Crystal River. As we drove up the canyon along the Crystal River, there were people standing and watching at every bridge or promontory along the river. They were volunteers positioned to spot any sign of Brian. Others were walking the riverbanks or probing the pools and rapids. One of them eventually found the sneaker.
When we reached the riverbank where those rocks remained, gone were the news people and most of the spectators. A sheriff’s deputy summed up the situation and told us what to expect over the next day or so. We were to go to a local mortician to make arrangements in case Brian’s body was found. He gave us a little history of the river, and said quite often no body is recovered. So it was with Brian.
We spent the rest of the afternoon making phone calls to those who should be notified. A lodge up the river made their phone available to us. We spent that night in the campground. Just before bedtime, we gathered around the campfire and all but Ronna Lin (but that’s another story) recalled all the good times and fun experiences we had with Brian. Then we said goodbye to him and told him we loved and missed him. Early the next morning I was restless and got up to walk along the riverbank. I visited those rocks and tried to visualize what happened. To this day I have a vision of Brian being swept away and crying for help. If only I could have been there….. If only. But NO! That was not to be! He could have been saved, he could have been prevented, but he was not. Brian was to go. Hard as it is to experience, there can be no resentment, no rebellion, and no loss of faith. There can be no grief that saps away strength and resolve; that deters and diverts. There can be no blame, retribution, or rancor. After all, it could have been two. Eleven and a wife remain.
I continued down the road along the river past the straight section of choppy rapids until the river broke over and around some very large boulders and cascaded into a series of swirling pools. It was there that Brian’s little body could have been trapped, wedged in a crevice, never to be dislodged by the probing poles and divers. It was there that I determined to say a father’s farewell. Words could not express my feelings of loss and love, nor my intentions to live worthy to be called the father of such a son.
That day was spent in minutia. We met with the mortician, contacted the sheriff’s office for a status report, left a copy of our travel route to Indiana (in case they needed to contact us), broke camp, and moved into my hotel room. It was a cool and rainy day. The next day we loaded up and prepared to hit the road. Breakfast was typical of the many we had on the road with lots a little kids. We went to a market, bought some bulk items, and drove to a large parking lot to eat. While we were there Mark and Dana drove up. They had traveled all night, had looked everywhere for us, and had found us in a last chance effort. About an hour later we headed over the mountains on our way to Warsaw, Indiana. When we finally returned home, my aunt Jean told us that the night that Brian died she saw her sister (my mother who had died 27 years earlier) in a dream. She was walking along holding the hand of a little blonde boy. She had no idea what it could have meant until she heard the news the next day.
Life with Brian had been a continual delight. He was full of life, love, and brightness. His ample shock of thick blonde hair was always bouncing in or out of some great adventure. He started talking in sentences very early in his second year, and he endeared himself to us all with his silly and profound statements. He clearly felt close to his Father in Heaven. He was just fun to have around. Linda participated in a neighborhood Joy School with Brian and treasured his enthusiasm and personal joy. He was a very happy boy. Then there were the Suzuki violin lessons. His tucka-tucka-tuckas resounded through the house and our lives. When he wasn’t playing them, he was singing them. Brian became very close to his closest siblings, Lori Jo and Adam. Lori told us that for many months Brian would come to visit her at night. He told her he was happy and doing well. Oh how he is missed! Often over the years we individually or in groups wonder what he would be doing now or what wonders we have missed. He would have left on a mission this year (1997). We all consider Brian to be a highly favored one who was called on a special mission years before most.