On a January morning of this year, the body of a woman in her sixties was found floating in the river several yards from my door. She was discovered by two men who had been working for several hours on righting my houseboat, which had started to tip dangerously to one side under the weight of an unusually heavy snowfall. The men had just finished up and set forth on their tugboat when they skirted the breakwater, a string of logs that prevents wakes from damaging the houseboats, and came upon the body.
I knew nothing of the discovery until I came home after running errands and saw police cars in our parking lot. A neighbor told me what had happened. The deceased woman was clothed, and looked normal. By this I understood she was not yet decomposed and there were no signs of foul play.
I had read that the number of bodies found in Portland’s two rivers was higher than comparably-sized cities. Given boating, alcohol, drugs, and plain ignorance of the power of these rivers, many of these people die in accidents. Given a dozen bridges, many die by suicide. Because of the time of year and all the recent bad weather, I suspected this woman’s death was probably not due to a boating accident.
During January I think more intensely about suicide than I do the rest of the year, although it’s a subject always close at hand – not my own suicide, never my own, but my brother’s, which happened on New Year’s night in Minnesota, sixty years ago. I think of him often, but in January I invite him to come live more fully, more daily, in my heart so that I might once again come to terms with the fact that he’s missing and I miss him. Bruce was also born in January, so the month frames him, as well as others in my family who were born and/or died in that month, all of whom I have written about elsewhere. e.g., here.
So I was already in this familiar, annual mental state when the woman was found, although I think that, had it been any other month, my reaction would have been the same. Every time I hear of someone dying in this way there’s a little mental earthquake as old pain and misery is shaken from the rafters. A kind of emotional dust comes drifting down and covers my thoughts, my joy. Maybe anyone who has lost a loved one in a tornado or a plane crash is reminded of their loss when hearing about similar catastrophes in the news. A thread of grief connects us to the new event, and we might dwell there a bit longer than others in the population who haven’t experienced anything similar. Few of my neighbors mentioned this woman at all, for example, after the police left that day. If the subject came up, they quickly moved on to other topics. I didn’t feel I was being morbid, as they might have felt about me had we talked about her for as long as I actually wanted to talk about her. I felt only that I had a stake in the experience that they didn’t have, and I wondered about her more and more as the days passed.
I thought about her age. It’s in our sixties, after all, that most of us who have previously been fortunate enough to live in good health begin to feel the first perplexing inklings of vulnerability. If she died because she’d wanted to die, I tried to imagine what may have caused her to feel vulnerable as she made her way to the river. The older we get, the higher the odds of a life tipping over: isolation, sickness, chronic pain, unexpected or steadily increasing poverty, the deaths of friends, side effects of new meds, mix-ups in meds, loss of a partner or a home or of neighbors on whom we’ve counted moving away, the death of a beloved animal companion. One or more of these things could have beset the life of this person.
It also seemed quite possible that the winter we’d been having had added its own stresses in a way that older people feel more keenly. Usually it snows on average four days a year in Portland, but we’d been hit by five winter storms between early December and mid-January. For that long spell, heavy and then heavier snow had muffled our normally drippy, puddly, splashy world. White robes cloaked the thousands of trees around us. When freezing rain encased the snow, branches snapped and tumbled from great firry heights, plopping onto power lines, shutting down heat and lights. City roads are neither salted nor graveled. Skittering into a ditch became more and more likely.
I’d certainly felt increasingly stressed when, for days on end, snow continued to fall relentlessly on this river world. At the bottom of a steep, snow-covered hill, we at the moorage had been forced inside. Our cars sat still as frightened rabbits in the vast parking lot at the edge of the forest. Even the otter family, regular chirruping rollickers on the riverbank outside my back door, had chosen to wriggle off into the woods to hide until it was over, darting out only for a quick fish hunt. On their hunts they could have observed the dangerous leaning of my house. They could have peered through the windows and spotted me pacing in the dying light of day, bundled in sweaters and jacket, arms wrapped around myself. No lights. No heat.
Weather forecasters warned that more snow lurked in the flat gray skies, but they didn’t talk about how to weather the weather, about depression or feeling cut off from others. I wondered if snow had been falling on the day of the woman’s departure from her regular life, falling steadily, accompanying her and silencing the world around her as she walked.
On cold winter nights back in the Midwest, my original homeland, the elders in my family, as in many families, used to tell stories about what they called real cold. They talked about how farmers, even during blizzards, needed to go to the barn to milk the cows and would sometimes lose their internal compass in swirling snow on their way back to the farmhouse. They’d finally give up and fall asleep, which meant the end. They’d be found when the blizzard died away, curled around themselves in the farmyard. Before cars or telephones, the old ones said to us, roaring winds and weeks of snowfall would drive otherwise stable men and women on those farms into what was called prairie fever. Many succumbed because they had not always been farmers, of course. They’d been city dwellers from the east or from small towns and were trying to make a living from a land with no trees to break the wind and no neighbors for miles. They weren’t experiencing what we now call cabin fever, a light dose of boredom, but an agitated, excruciatingly lonely and anxious state of mind, and sometimes all they could do was open the farmhouse door and walk out farther and farther into the enemy itself, winter, until they disappeared.
My Midwestern relatives would have considered Portland’s weather, even with its recent severity, as troublesome yet relatively mild, but because it was so unexpected and because the unexpected lasted so long, it created a feeling of unreality for some who have lived here a long time. Housebound, cut off from normal routines, some may have thrived, but some of us felt embattled, restless.
How had the woman found floating in the river been weathering this strange winter? Had at least some of her thinking, as I believed some of my brother’s thinking, been affected by the cold? Our brains, too, feel the cold. They get sluggish and stupefied and capable of turning down the wrong dark, internal lanes. Snow loses its beauty and becomes a menace. Had she, like those farmers cooped up to the point of insanity many years ago, walked out her front door and straight into the arms of the enemy defiant or broken? How long had she been floating in those near freezing waters? Was she missed by anyone? I hoped she was missed. I did not want to think of her as a woman whose absence would be noted but not mourned. In time, I did not want to think too much more about her at all because it made me so much sadder than I already was.
Sometime in February I spoke with the wife of the diver who had come to my houseboat to save it from its dangerous tilting. We needed to settle up our bill, but we like each other and talk easily, and our conversation that day soon led to the woman whom her husband and his partner had found. She told me that the partner, in his seventies, suffered tremors from Parkinson’s disease and he had quit that very day. He wanted no more of what this Oregon river might put in his way. I sympathized. After their discovery, the harsh weather, and the normal January sorrow I’d been feeling, along with noticing that it was becoming harder for me to shovel snow away from my own small section of the walkway, life on the river had not looked the same to me either. For the first time in these nearly forty years of living on it, I thought seriously of moving elsewhere.
Eventually, spring swept winter aside and my heart lightened as hearts do when that finally happens, so I decided to try to find out more about the woman who had drowned. With a little research, I learned who she was and that she’d been challenged by health issues. I read comments addressed to her from several friends on her memorial page and from these I gleaned she loved the earth, contributed wholeheartedly to any group she was part of, and would be greatly missed.
I looked at her photograph. Her pale skin was in contrast with a simple, darkly patterned dress. She had a soft smile, white hair, and the kind of ease in her face that comes with loving and being loved. She looked like a woman it would have been hard not to smile at if we’d passed each other in the aisle of a grocery store or stood near one another in line at a movie theater. I felt better that I knew her at least a little now.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.