The Fourth of July is a tough time for me and my family. While anticipating celebration one year, we experienced tragedy instead. Major life changing tragedy for all of us. That’s not something you ever forget, no matter how many years pass. It’s not that we spend the day living in sadness. It’s not like memories are the highlight of our day. Or even a focal point. They’re just always there. Hanging in the background. Lingering. This year, for the first time in many years, what’s left of my family who were there that day, were together over the fourth. We were at our family cabin – a place where all involved had spent many many happy fourths. We didn’t speak of the one bad fourth of July. We didn’t mention the loss. We just wandered around each other and couldn’t get in sync. The day did not start out well. As a matter of fact, it started out worse than I could ever have imagined. Instead of pulling together, we were at odds. All trying. And all, somehow failing.
I’d pushed Mom to call my aunt who has a place on the lake close by. I’d heard her son, my cousin who I hadn’t seen in years, was up with his family. I really wanted to see him. He reminded me of the one we’d lost all those years ago. And Tim had yet to meet him. (My cousin, that is. Blessedly, Tim knew the one we’d lost.) So eventually we all found our way to grooming and becoming presentable. We piled into my brother’s car, strapping the little ones into car seats, making certain that the one too big for a car seat was settled in. And we were off to spend just an hour or so with my aunt and her family.
But as life often has it when you do all you can do and fail and yet are open to more, fate took over for us. We arrived, a mostly silent bunch at my aunt’s. One of the young ones wasn’t all that happy as we climbed out of the car. You could tell by the look on her face. In truth, the only happy ones who climbed out of that car were the two littlest ones who didn’t know any better. They’re always up for adventure. For seeing what life has in store for them next.
My aunt was waiting out front. She greeted each one of us with a hug and a kiss and a personal welcome that made the world steady again. Upright. I don’t know that she remembered what the day signified. It’s been a lot of years. We didn’t speak of anything – not even with each other. But love and family doesn’t need to speak. They just need to exist to make things right. After greetings, my aunt ushered us inside and downstairs, telling us that everyone was down at the water, pointing through the backyard to the deck at the edge of her yard. The deck overlooks the lake that is only a few steps below. It seemed like the place was swarming with people. All family. Many of whom I’d never met. I’ve lived across the country from most of my family for all of my adult life. I’d missed marriages and births. On Saturday, I got caught up. At least partially.
I thought I saw a dear uncle who’d passed away several years before. It was his son. All grown up. And the splitting image of him. That cousin has a wife and three sweet children. I saw the cousin I’d been looking forward to seeing again. And his wife and kids, his son in law and his grandchild! I saw his older sister’s (an absent cousin) daughter and her husband and their two kids. I saw his older sister’s son, too. Last time I saw him was…I don’t think ever. I heard about his birth. I’ve seen pictures through the years. I was really close to his mother (the absent cousin) when I was growing up. And there he was grown up and married.
We visited with my aunt and uncle. And…well…there was this boat. A bunch of boats actually. The lake was filled with families and boats and people and water skis and jet skis, and…inner tubes. I’ve never been tubing. Not as in, sit in a tube tied to a speed boat and fly over the water with no control of anything whatsoever.
You know that cousin I wanted so badly to see? We’ll call him…Dennis. He had the boat. And the tube. His sat three. When I first got there, my absent cousin’s daughter, I’ll call her Temptation, was availing herself of a little liquid courage so she could go out on that tube without fear. I watched. And cheered as she, with Dennis’ wife and daughter, loaded up in the inner tube. I waved them off along with other folks. I watched another cousin jet ski. And I sat on the deck with Tim and talked to my aunt. And watched over my brother’s little ones who were playing in the water. I was content. Finding peace. Filling up.
Temptation made it back safe and sound! And wanted to go again. She’d stored up extra courage. She wanted me to go. Nope. I was in jeans. Dead ender right there. My aunt was sure she had a swim suit. Yeah, but, I’m too little. It would fall off. It was a one piece. I could tie it up. And my aunt’s little, too. Nope. But thanks.
This time when they went, though, I rode in the boat. I was a spotter. My kind of job. Just sit and enjoy the water and the wind on my face and watch three other brave fools risk their lives. Temptation’s husband and toddler were in the boat with Tim and I. I got to chat with him as I watched his wife brave the water. I’ve never seen someone have so much fun being foolish and risking their lives. I spotted…hilarious fun. And nothing else. Nothing untoward.
Back at the dock, I climbed onto the deck and sat again. Next thing I know, my two little nieces have on life jackets. They were climbing into the inner tube. Really. No one seemed to notice that they were only six and ten. Neither of them looked the least bit scared. Not unusual for the daredevil six year old, but for my logical, careful, sensible, weigh every possibility ten year old niece? She was grinning from ear to ear. The boat pulled out. The inner tube, bearing my beloved little ones, went after it. I busied myself with my five year old nephew in the water. He needed my careful attention. Or so I’d determined.
Temptation was there again. In my face. And you know what had to happen. Everyone probably knew what had to happen before I did. Temptation wanted to go tubing again. And she wanted me to go with her. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked. Or the second or third. A couple of words to my aunt and Tim and I were upstairs in a bathroom with a one piece suit and a pair of swim trunks. And fifteen minutes later (we had to wait for a gas run) we were seated with Temptation in that three seater tube. I reminded Dennis, the boat’s owner and expert driver, that I was related to him. And older than him. He reminded me that he loves me very much. All was well.
Instruction was administered. Dennis’ wife instilled confidence. I could do this. I was going to be fine. She showed me the signal to give when I had to stop. Promised me her husband would stop instantly. She showed me the signal to get him to slow down, too. There was another signal. A thumbs up. That meant I was doing just fine.
We started off at about five miles an hour. No wake. Barely a ripple in the water. I was good. Really good. I could handle this. I wasn’t a fool. I was living life on The Fourth of July, dammit. (That was the beer talking. I’d taken Temptation’s advice and sipped from a can for a tiny bit before we left.) The boat sped up some as we left the dock area. It sped up a little more. But there was none of the criss crossing I’d seen as a spotter. No sudden turns that sent us over wakes. And I was having a blast. The sun was shining. It was in the nineties. The water sent up a cool spray as we sped merrily along. Tim raised his thumb. We were okay. Temptation raised hers, signaling that she was fine. I was raised mine, too. Guess they were watching for that one. The boat sped up. I didn’t care. I was doing fine. And then the boat turned. I held my breath. This was it. My stopping point. I was just having too much fun to make the signal. Or was too afraid to let go of my hand hold to do so. Tim asked if I was okay. I yelled back that I was having a blast. We crossed the wake…and…I was still having fun. More fun. He signaled that all was well. I did, too, putting my thumb right up there. I even let go with both hands and put both thumbs up.
And the speed racheted again. And again. We flew across the water swerving and turning and jumping wakes until my throat hurt from screaming and laughing. How could I have lived so many years and not had so much fun? Temptation was having fun, too. No fear for her. And Tim, he laughed his way through the entire experience. By the time we pulled into the dock, I was exhausted, but exhilarated. My mom and aunt were both down there, waiting for us to climb off the boat, checking to see how I’d done. I’d had the time of my life. Truly.
Later, when we were on our way home, reliving the experience with my brother who’d been one of our spotters, I finally found out why the boat kept speeding up. I hadn’t paid as much attention to my tubing instruction – my signals - as I’d thought. Thumbs up didn’t mean you were doing great. It meant speed up.