Riding the River

By Teresa Swartz Roberts

Blog post 10. Copyright 2016

Rivers carry us along the way life does.
My family’s canoe trip on the Androscoggin River in Maine is a precious memory. I think that’s why I chose it as my first subject for learning to paint. Rivers are ideal metaphors for life.

            I grew up between the Kanawha River and a set of railroad tracks. The river and the tracks ran through both my hometowns: Dunbar and Nitro, West Virginia. I am a River Rat. In West Virginia, most people grow up either on a hill, which makes them Hillsiders, or in a valley or holler (hollow) that cradles a river or creek. Natural lakes are hard to come by, but dambuilders have created some beautiful and fun lakes that harness the energy of the rivers and provide places that folks can fish or paddle a boat without much of a current.

            West Virginia’s rivers are known for their currents. The New and the Gauley boast rapids that draw whitewater rafting enthusiasts from all over the world. My husband and I spent seven years living only a few miles from where the rafters put into the New, prompting us to consider opening a bed and breakfast, FDR’s New Deal Inn, before our house got too full for guests. (My mother-in-law and our son joined us, along with two dogs, during the time we lived in Mount Hope.)

            Once my husband and I went whitewater rafting. We didn’t fall into the New River, but we did jump in–at Jump Rock. We had been given a mini-lesson in what to do about involuntary swimming, but that didn’t quite prepare us for the current. Jump Rock isn’t a rapid, after all. Frank got caught by the current, and I, a fairly strong swimmer back then, grabbed the edge of his lifejacket and said, “I’ve got you, Honey!” Then the current took him right out of my hand. After his eyes widened a bit, he started adopting the pose we had been taught: head out of the water, turning to get his feet downstream so that he could deflect himself off any rocks that might be in his path. Ultimately, our raft guide caught up with Frank and pulled him back to the rock.

            In Maine, we lived close to the Sandy River. It froze over every winter, the current crawling beneath the surface until the temperature would allow the water to break free and push the ice into jumbles that dammed the river and caused the local McDonald’s to flood every year. Until we moved to Maine, I had not seen people walk on water. In Maine winter I saw them walk, snowmobile, build fishing shacks, and drive pickup trucks on water. If they were lucky, they stayed on top. The local rivers, lakes, and ponds usually swallowed at least one snowmobile or shack each winter, sometimes dragging people under.

            I don’t live near a river now. Georgia’s in the middle of a severe drought. Nevertheless, I’m still riding a river every day. I know the bends in the river, the eddies, the rapids. I put myself in the water when the sun comes up, which is not as early as daybreak in Maine. I am reminded of a canoe trip I took with my husband and then-six-year-old son on the Androscoggin. It was a gentle river where we canoed, surrounded by evergreens and bald eagles that didn’t hint at the pollutants that generations of industry had left beneath the surface. My mornings are gentle, a time to stretch my muscles and ease into the current.

            By 10 a.m. I am traveling full-out. That is my best time of day, so I make the most of it. I have structured my life so that I have somewhere to be almost every day at 10 a.m. I go to the pool, Bible study, the gym, Sunday school and church, painting class, or errands like getting an oil change or going to the library. Anybody who knows me here probably knows me from a 10 o’clock activity. This period of time is when the river does its work. There are some eddies that sometimes drag me aside for a rest. I don’t usually think of those as stopping my progress; I am still on the river. I can ride the current for hours through chores and bill-paying.

            Lunch is a time to connect with people I care about. If I am at home, that means my son gets up after only three or four hours’ sleep after working overnight to have lunch with me. When my husband is off, we go out to lunch, or he cooks a meal for us. Sometimes I get together with friends for lunch or go to my friend Sue’s house right after lunch to work on a painting. These times are also when the river does its work. These folks are taking a turn at the oars and helping to propel me forward.

Now that I have Parkinson’s, it is the daily equivalent to the New River’s Greyhound Bus Stopper that creates a vortex that can suck me below the surface. I ride the current by digging in with my paddle.

            I need that momentum. I hit the rapids at about 3 or 3:30. My whole life, I have found that after-school time of day to be a challenge. Now that I have Parkinson’s, it is the daily equivalent to the New River’s Greyhound Bus Stopper that creates a vortex that can suck me below the surface. I ride the current by digging in with my paddle. I know that I will have a blood sugar crash, so I eat a snack, a meal really, every day between lunch and dinner. I know that I will be fatigued, so I don’t plan to get much done. In fact, I don’t usually even look at my phone. I choose something easy to watch on TV or Netflix, and I ride the current, taking breaks from the screen to move laundry from washer to dryer or chop something for dinner if I feel like it.

            The rapids can be scary. I want to be a positive person. When that wave crashes over me, I allow myself to feel it. I feel my tremors. I feel my feet dragging. I feel my confusion. I feel my pain. I pack all of my fear and fatigue and regret into a couple of hours. Then it’s time to make supper, and I realize I have not capsized, that I am not under water, and I start to breathe again.

            Evenings are usually spent with the people I love most. I am emboldened, much like the time when I was 12 and went out on the Kanawha River with friends in a baby pool we were using as a boat. I clean up the kitchen and pre-pack Frank’s lunch for the next day. We have lively conversation and usually watch one of our favorite geeky TV shows. I might read a bit or color in my Doctor Who coloring book, which is a fun part of my self-care. With an ice pack and my favorite adjustable chair, I am comfortable and at peace. I am content with the view upstream and even the view downstream.

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