By Joye O'Keefe
Fifty-four years ago, on Thanksgiving, my 16 year-old- brother, Paul, planned to go duck hunting with his friend, Clayton ”KK” Lewis, and KK’s brother and his brother-in-law. My mother forbade Paul to go because he wouldn’t be back until after 1:00 p.m. Two uncles were coming for dinner from different areas of the state and we were going to eat at noon instead of the usual 3:00 p.m. Of course, my brother became upset, but it was back in the day when parents ruled the household, the children did not. He consoled himself later in the day with hunting rabbits and pheasants with other friends.
The next day we were stunned at the headlines in the Joliet Herald News:
3 Hunters Drown In Kankakee River.
It was KK and his family. They had taken their boat out and it capsized in the choppy water. The treacherous reputation of that river proved itself true in the taking of too many lives. But never before or since have there been three at once.
At 13, the triple wake devastated me. I was stunned and felt numb. At first, I couldn’t tell which one was KK. I learned that often when people are prepared for viewing they might not appear as they are remembered in life. It was then I learned that life is a gift. KK’s tragedy slammed it home at an early age. No one is guaranteed a consistently good life or specific number of years to be fulfilled. Since then, I have thought of KK and other friends or relatives who have left us, much too soon. Always, the memories are filled with deep sadness. But life goes on.
Recently, my brother asked me to go to the library archives in our home town to get a copy of that story. I agreed, partly because, years ago, living in Ohio and working three jobs, I was unable to return to Illinois to help move my parents from their home. Knowing my mother, she would have kept that newspaper. I didn’t have the heart to tell Paul that if he had not thrown out everything in the attic, he probably would have found the article.
I did as he asked but I was not prepared for the emotional slam when I again saw those headlines. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, at the same time my heart was squeezed in a vise. Fighting back tears, I had to remind myself to breathe and kept repeating, “It was fifty-four years ago! Breathe!”
The librarian realized I was having trouble focusing the article on the machine and she was kind and helpful. She ended up doing it all while I wrung my hands in between picking up the copies.
Later, I was asked by several people why I had such a reaction after so long. At first I wasn’t sure. Thinking about it gave me the answer. I had learned two things from my brother I hadn’t known before. KK’s mother had been widowed for only a few months, and his sister was pregnant. In just a matter of moments, his mother lost both her sons. His sister had lost not only her brothers, but her husband. Their child would never know the love of its father.
In the intervening years I, too, had to live with not only the hurt and uncertainty of losing a husband, but also the devastating pain of losing a child. For KK’s mother, the agony had to be a thousand fold more than we could ever imagine.
Mom would be the first to say it was Divine Intervention. If it had been a usual Thanksgiving, Paul would have been with them in the boat. If he had, some aspects of my life would not be the same. The least of it, my brother would not have been here for me the times I needed his guidance.
The most important consequence is there are two sons and two grandsons who exist to fulfill their life’s destiny, because Mom made a firm decision for that Thanksgiving Day, so long ago.
The author uses vivid, emotive descriptives to tell her story of loss, grief, and reflective gratitude to her Mom for inadvertently saving her brother. Her heart hammers hard in a fresh adrenalin rush as if the accident happened yesterday while she copies the news article printed more than a half century ago. Touching. Heartfelt. - Colette Sasina
It was well written and very much to the point. You have experienced the loss that you describe and yet I have only lost a spouse. I can only imagine the pain of losing a child. I am glad that your brother did as he was told and that he was/is there for you. - Maria Bennecke