I was 9 years old when I approached the river bank. I was just a young, naive boy that had not journeyed far yet. My bare feet stood on the dry land. As I peered out into the water, it looked beautiful and serene. The water was calm and flowed slowly. I looked to see where the river lead, but I could not see very far as the river took a sharp turn into the forest just a little ways down stream.
I could not imagine what could go wrong if I just took a little dip. I could always swim back to shore right? As I stood there, the cool water touched my toes, the feeling was refreshing. It felt good.
Moments later, I plunged in. Excitement rushed through my whole body. I splashed and laughed as I experienced the water for the first time. A short time passed and I looked back to where I had jumped in. It was further away than I expected. The current of the river was stronger than it appeared from the river bank.
I tried to swim back, but made little progress. I nervously let the river take me a little further down stream to see if there was a place to exit around the corner. There was not. The current picked up, and the first hint of trouble came to my mind. I swam as hard as my young arms and legs could to get to dry land again. I couldn’t. I tired too quickly.
Panic set in, and I didn’t know what to do.
Before too long, the river started to calm again. Relief came to my unknowing mind. I began to splash and laugh like I had before thinking the trouble was over. There were several spots to get out, but I was safe now. Why not just enjoy the water for a little bit longer before getting out? What’s it going to hurt? The water continued moving me down stream very slowly as I played joyously. Subtle enough that I didn’t realize it.
Then, an undercurrent pulled me under the water with a violent rush. I hit the river bed with force, and pain filled my body. I was over my head, and the rapids were too much for me to handle. I fought to reach the surface only to be pulled back under. I kicked and paddled and screamed for help.
Exhaustion soon set in, and I let the water take me. I flowed.
I experienced the relief of not having to swim upstream, but soon found myself being thrust over waterfall after waterfall. With every one, I dropped deeper and was welcomed by the jagged rocks below.
I fought hard again, but I could barely keep my head above water to continue breathing. Grasping at anything and everything to pull myself out.
Day became night. Night became day. Over and over. I fought and flowed, fought and flowed. I let the river drag my lifeless body over the rocky river bed because the fight left me.
I heard the cry of a woman nearby. She was being tossed around by the river slightly ahead of me. As the water pushed me closer to her, I noticed her beauty. She also was wounded by the unrelenting rapids. I got close enough to touch her. As I reached out to her, I was sucked under the water again.
I grabbed hold of her legs as I rushed by her. Her head fell below the surface as I climbed hand over hand up her body. I pulled her close to me. We traveled together under the water, both of us in turmoil. There was a moment of peace knowing that we weren’t alone.
Realizing I needed a breath, I put both of my hands on her shoulders and pushed off, propelling myself towards the air. Her body jolted downward deeper into the water. Sadness crossed her face just before she slammed into the unforgiving river bed. We drifted apart.
Sorrow filled my heart. Empty and hopeless I fought and flowed, fought and flowed.
It continued over and over again. This was my life.
If only I had never jumped in.
The entire time, I was focused on the rapids that I was drowning in, the sharp stones that were piercing my body as I was ravaged back and forth, the waves that hit me when I was coming up for a breath, and the hopelessness of impending death. Within the chaos, I realized that there was a lifeboat floating right next to me the entire time. A few times I caught a glimpse of it only to paddle away out of fear of what it was.
A man was in that lifeboat. He was yelling my name as he stretched out his hand. He was calm yet relentless in his pursuit to save me. For two decades he stayed there, never once leaving my side, never once giving up. He longed for me to simply turn my focus to him and he would pull me out of my misery.
Finally, I looked at him. He was smiling. His face filled with love not anger or frustration. The murky water in my eyes blurred his image. The more I looked for him, the more he came into focus. His presence reassured me that it would be okay if I could just keep my gaze on him.
The waves started to calm and his image became clear as day. I saw his strong hand, and it was close enough for me to grab. He pulled me out of the water and for the first time since I was 9 years old standing on that river bank, I felt safe. The dry air warmed me and he embraced my battered body. I closed my eyes and wept.
I felt his deep love course through my veins. It flowed stronger than the river through every molecule of my existence. A deep breath, then another. One after the other, and I felt the weight of my long struggle lifted out of my heart.
I opened my eyes and looked at him. His gentle yet confident face still smiled at me. Tears of joy streamed down his cheeks. I looked at his body. It was covered in all the wounds and scars that I received from the beating of the river. I looked at my own flesh and it was clean. Not a single remnant of a life spent in the turmoil of the current.
I closed my eyes and felt his worn hands cup my face. He whispered, “I am so happy that you are here. I love you. I’m proud of you.”
With tears spilling down my face, I opened my eyes. He pointed quietly to the water. I followed the direction of his finger back to the river. My heart dropped as I saw the water was full of men and women fighting the current as far as I could see. Some were fighting, some were flowing, but none of them could see the boat.
I looked back at the man, and he said quietly to me, “Help them find the boat. Help them find me. I will save them too.”