the water is wide

There’s a photograph stored in a plastic bin that I can’t look at. It was taken on highway 85 along the border of Georgia and South Carolina at a rest stop that overlooks a body of water that makes up the boundary. My wife at the time snapped the shot of me standing at the banks of that wide water with my eight year-old son in my arms, all twenty seven pounds of him.

He leaned on my shoulder and neck on his elbow while perched in the crook of my left arm and he looked over that water with me and we talked. James Taylor’s The Water is Wide played in my head and sorted the thoughts that I wanted to deny in the metaphor of crossing over, but we talked about it anyway, having no idea that he’d do just that five days later.

The song itself dates back to the 1600s, English or Scottish in origin, it’s not certain which. It was written to another purpose, the idea that love grows cold after time, unclear of the metaphor of the water, instead of how I interpreted it that afternoon on the way back home to North Carolina.

Taylor’s interpretation of the original lyrics goes…

The water is wide
I can’t cross over
And neither have
I wings to fly
Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row
My love and I

There is a ship
And she sails the sea
She’s loaded deep
As deep can be
But not so deep
As the love I’m in
I know not how
I sink or swim

Oh love is handsome
And love is fine
The sweetest flower
When first it’s new
But love grows old
And waxes cold
And fades away
Like summer dew

Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row
My love and I
And both shall row
My love and I

The film Fly Away Home ends with this song and it tears me to pieces every time I see it, every time I hear it.

We talked there on that shore about dying, crossing over, and how I wished I could build a boat for two, for how much I wanted to go with him, his crossing inevitable, I had no greater desire.

The heartbreak looms in the latter verse where love grows cold, and such is also the fear I think when a parent loses child. So much love remains unexpressed and risks fading in the distance and the width of the water that separates them, that separates us.

Had I known he’d make that row in five days, leaving me without wings to fly, I’d have talked of happier ideas than not fearing the crossing, or assuaging him in the thought that his mother and me would be okay when he did.

I was wrong.

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5 Responses to the water is wide

  1. Today is the 1-year anniversary of my last living grandmother’s unexpected passing, from a heart attack on the sofa while my grandpa was buying soil at the store for them to continue their gardening. I couldn’t have possibly read your words at a better time, Eric. Thank you for expressing your thoughts about a heart-wrenching moment in your life, for all the world to see.

    Coincidentally, about 3 months after my grandma’s passing I had a dream that (for me) correlates with your interpretation of James Taylor’s lyrics (a song which I had not known of until today; and I love James Taylor, so thank you for enlightening me with what seems like a beautiful song).

    In this dream my grandma, grandpa, mom and dad and myself were walking along a European sidewalk talking and laughing and enjoying a nice afternoon stroll. Suddenly my grandma pulled my grandpa into a recessed arched doorway where she stood and spoke to him for a minute in the shadows. My parents kept walking, oblivious, but I waited and watched. Moments later, my grandma gave my grandpa a kiss and then both rejoined the rest of us, though clearly something was not the same. I fell back behind everyone to walk by myself, as I often do. I noticed my parents seemed to no longer be aware of my grandma’s presence in the group. But as I followed, I watched my grandpa carrying on a conversation with her. “Rather strange,” I thought. “How can they not see her?” But as we walked further, and the evening set in, I saw my grandma start to fade in and out, in and out, until I could see her no more. I knew in my heart she would not be coming back. And yet, my grandpa continued talking with her as he walked with us, although none of us could see her.

    Then, just before my dream ended, we approached a bridge under which ran a rapid river. On the bank below the bridge was a raft. Instantly my grandpa’s eyes lit up, and the biggest smile to have ever been expressed took hold of his face. The raft was there for him. Emotion overtook the rest of us, and we begged him not to get in the raft; it was too soon. But he simply told us, “I know where the river’s going. It leads to my soul. Linda (grandma) is at the end, waiting. I’m happy to go.” With those final remarks, he hopped in the raft, picked up the oars and floated off into the setting sun, waving as I ran to the middle of the bridge to bid farewell as long as I could. Though cliché, it was beautiful. I was happy, because I knew he was returning to his happiness, even though I was certain my heart would ache when the finality hit me.

    I’m grateful that my grandpa is still alive and has not yet begun his final journey down that symbolic river. Once he passes, I will have no more living grandparents, and will of course miss him terribly as I miss my other grandparents every day. But the dream gave me some comfort for when that day inevitably comes. My grandpa is hoping it will happen soon. He is anxious to get back with his one true love, whom he believes is indeed waiting for him at the end of his journey. I hope he’s right.

  2. ImNoSaint says:

    So do I. Thank you for your post.

  3. Anne says:

    Such a heart-breaking post. I am so sorry for your losses. I have heard 80-year olds tell me that there is nothing more devastating to a marriage than losing a child; it just warps everything out of place…

  4. Jenn says:

    I love you, Eric.

  5. Karen says:

    What a beautiful picture and touching story. I’ve got to learn not to read certain posts while at work because they make me cry. The crossing over is so painful. And you’re right, the pain never goes away. You learn not to cry all the time, but the pain honestly never leaves, even years later.

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