So there I was… in a leaky rowboat up an ice-clogged river without a paddle. My sneakers were getting damp from the newly-discovered leak, but the amount of water that truly affected the rest of my life wouldn’t have filled an eye dropper.
It all started as a normal day for a couple of twelve-year-olds in April. My best friend Mike and I were searching around for something to do; and this being northern Michigan in the late 1970s, that was often a tall order to fill. We didn’t have smartphones, video games or even cable TV. We were forced to create our own fun; and in doing so, ofttimes errors in judgement were made.
Walking along the north side of the canal that separated my hometown of Houghton from our rivals in Hancock, we approached the crumbling remains of an old smelting plant from the heydays of the copper mines. It looked like a promising place for some adventures; however, just before we got there, we noticed an old, faded green rowboat pulled up on shore. I had no idea who it belonged to, but Mike assured me that another mutual friend had claimed ownership earlier and that it would be okay for us to sail it across the canal back to the Houghton side.
Good enough for me.
As we pushed it into the water, I couldn’t help seeing there would be two considerable obstacles in our way: the river still had several large chunks of winter ice still floating around in it, and the boat didn’t have any oars. Another factor we never took into consideration was the current. If we had gotten caught up in one, we would have floated out into Lake Superior where we would never be heard from again except in cautionary tales told to frighten toddlers who refused to go to sleep. For lesser children, these hurdles would’ve be a problem, but not for us. We improvised some paddles with a couple pieces of salvaged 2X4’s and cast off from shore. It really didn’t take long to realize that 2X4’s are great at holding up roofs, but they really fail at propelling boats. Luckily, the water was pretty still, so the only remaining peril was from the blocks of ice that kept smacking into the side of our vessel. That, and the leak I discovered when I tried to figure out why my feet were getting so cold.
This was going to be a problem.
We were only a little past halfway across the canal, and now our trusty craft was taking on water. Of course, we had no way of bailing; and my suggestion of adding another hole to let the water out was quickly vetoed. Left with no other options, we doubled our efforts at paddling and made a mad dash for the far shore. We did have the advantage of a prominent landmark to aim for: a police car with flashing blue and red lights and an uniformed cop standing next to it. Evidently, the workers who operated the lift bridge over the canal had watched our voyage with growing concern and contacted local law enforcement to come to our aid.
Once we hit land, the officer helped pull each of us out of the boat. The water inside the ship was more than ankle-deep at this point, and I don’t think it would have been much longer before we would have capsized in freezing cold water. We were quickly informed of the foolhardiness of our little expedition and given rides to our respective homes. And here comes the part that explains why I don’t drink alcohol to this day.
The officer escorted me into my house where my mother was home alone. This was a rare occurrence since I had four other siblings living there as well, and I’m sure she was enjoying her quiet time. The policeman quickly informed my mother of my latest act of stupidity (oh, yes, fair readers, there were several others of note) and, having performed his duty, went back to patrolling the streets. As I was standing there there in mute panic waiting to see what kind of punishment would be meted out to me, something very strange happened. My mother started crying.
It was something I had never seen before. I don’t want to give the impression that she was emotionless, far from it. Her laugh came quickly and her embraces were warm and full of love. Like most moms, she had always been there for me to cook my meals, wash my clothes and kiss my boo-boos. Along with that, she was, and remains, one of the toughest cookies I’ve ever met. My brothers and sisters had all been raised to deal with life with no hint of self-pity. My mother had been a living testament to that ideal. There had never been a problem she couldn’t handle before. At least until now. And I was it.
I remember really being affected by it, how my chest became tight and tears of my own filled my eyes. She was talking about how disappointed she was in me, but I could barely make out the words as my very skull seemed to be shrinking and squeezing my brain at the temples. A switch had been flipped inside me, and I mentally swore to myself that I would never make her cry again. From that point on, I avoided getting into any kind of trouble. Thus, when all of my friends started experimenting with drinking during high school, I didn’t join in. Not because I wasn’t curious, I just couldn’t bear the thought of letting her down. I’m sure my peers all thought it quite strange. When they realized it didn’t bother me if they drank, and that I was always willing to be the designated driver for them, everyone just sort of accepted it. I was never trying to be different; I just couldn’t break the silent vow I had made to my mom that she would never shed tears again because of me.
In the end, it was a promise I would faithfully keep until the day I left for college. As I prepared to drive the six hundred miles to Michigan State; she gave me a big hug and I could feel wetness on my cheek. I can’t really count that one though. Now that I have a son of my own graduating from high school in a couple weeks, I understand where those tears came from: the same place mine will, too.
I love you, mom.
A quick thank you to Dove Men+Care for the social greeting cards reminding us to care for those special moms in our lives. Check out #CareforMom on Twitter and @DoveMenCare.