Things That Feel Unbearable

I have had several thoughts rolling around in my head like snowballs, gaining momentum and growing in size and cohesion until my brain overheats and the whole thing melts down into an unidentifiable puddle of mismatched ideas, nothing to paint a page with, even though they are all things that must be expressed somehow. How do you come up with words to describe something so awful. Words that don't become narcissistic or gossipy? How do you speak words of love and sympathy and grief without sounding like a hallmark card or a church of christ preacher? I don't like writing in questions, but some circumstances are so answerless that they call for it.

Last week our little town took a blow that it will not soon recover from. When you live in a population of 280 and you lose one, even a transient one, it's noticeable, especially when that one is young, and vibrant, and his loss is unexpected. Today is Junha's memorial. And I am not able to be there. It breaks my heart a little - and I hope that my love for all of them is felt from where I sit under this smoke and heat in the middle of the state.

How can you wrap your mind around the death of a young, healthy person? Especially when you have watched helplessly as his life slipped suddenly, haphazardly, and quite literally out of your hands. If I, as an adult, an EMT, struggle with the thought that even 20 minutes later that I could have, should have dived in to the cold, black water and hunted frantically for him, that maybe with the temperature of the water, maybe there was something I could have done... How can a 16 year old, 17 year old, 11 year old, cope with the reality that Junha is just gone, and there was nothing more they could have done.

It's been a week now since I got a scratchy phone call from another responder - painfully, also the host parent for Junha, that there had been a possible drowning at the boat launch in Northport. I was on my way home from Colville after Irish dance practice and an MRI and seven billion errands. I turned on my flashers and I drove fast. My mind was sorting through the possibilities. I had been down at the boat launch several days over the last week, with kids and dogs, and without fail, there was always a handful of highschoolers there, hanging out on the dock. It's tradition. They all do it. Every summer. For some reason on this day, the water was a little higher, or Junha was a little out of his element, or who knows what fatal combination of factors came in to play, but he went under, and he didn't come back up. He went under fighting. Fighting against the panic of being overwhelmed by cold, dark water with no tangible bottom. Fighting against his peers that struggled to pull him in to safety. His own panic ultimately overcame all of them. Three strong, healthy teenagers, who swallowed and tried to breathe water as they refused to give up until they were spent to their last. Knowledgeable adults who knew exactly what-to-to. But the what-to-do didn't work. And sometimes, even if it's exactly right, it doesn't work. I arrived 20 minutes after he had gone under. Already a boat was circling the area. The kids who had gone in with him were still shivering and dripping. The kids watching from the shore were huddled with their mother, who's lifeguard experience wasn't a match for the opaque and frigid water. The other responder gave me a name. One of the names that had flashed through my head on the drive up. A name that was the most impossible. Because he was only here visiting. From so far away. He'd been with our community since January. He played Peter Pan's shadow in the production we had done this spring. I coached him on his mirroring and how to disappear into a stage floor. He took Washington State history with me and two of the my girls. He played soccer. He came to my house to play Just Dance and eat birthday cake more than once. He was smart. And funny. And inquisitive. How could he have just disappeared into the giant peaceful river? Like a camouflaged monster that awoke and swallowed him whole. It was just impossible. 20 minutes ago. The water was cold. If I just dove in, right there. straight down. Maybe I would have found him. Maybe we could have done something. Maybe... Maybe... Maybe his parents, thousands of miles away would not have gotten that phone call from the consulate. Maybe half of the high school wouldn't be standing on the bank of the river, staring into the blackness, weeping. Maybe this would be a nightmare that we would all wake up from. I waded up the side of the river and back down, up to my waist. What if he just floated downstream a little and crawled out into the brush, exhausted? Maybe he was fine. I tore through chest high shrubs just out of the water, back and forth from the parking lot. Maybe he pulled himself out. Maybe. Maybe they missed something, and he was just fine, over on the other side of the bay. Everyone came. Everyone. To help. To snorkel the edges of the inlet. To kayak furiously down the river. They came roaring in with jet boats and motor boats. Fisherman and neighbors. To hug the kids on the riverbank. To just BE THERE. All staring intently into the water while the sun fried the backs of their necks and the tops of their heads. They brought food for the officers and divers and everybody who was looking. They brought water and ice and sunscreen and offers of everything and anything. Everybody came. Everybody hugged and prayed. Everybody stared at that black spot of water. The same black spot where Junha still sat serenely, quietly waiting to be found. The same spot that most of the town of Northport will never look at the same way again. So close to shore. So impossibly reachable. How could it have happened? What could we have done? Why?

Junha was a gift to our community. As imperfect as he might have been, he was a joy, and he taught us so many things. About our love for each other, even visitors. Even our "temporary" kids. About our community as a whole, and what we will do for each person in it. As the days go on, we learn about the weight that we can bear as a whole community, like we did ten years ago when little Allison died. That we can see each other around town and say: "how are you?" and there's no doubt in all of our minds what we're talking about. To say thank you to the responders from around the county seems trite and inadequate. Thank you for coming, and for looking, and for doing what you do, because even if it didn't fix it, you made us feel better. Like we did everything we could. Exhausted every resource. We tried. Hard.

Already people are talking about the life preservers that we need to have down there at the park, and how to keep them from being stolen. People are brainstorming about what things should change to never, ever, lose anyone again. People are talking about being more involved. Becoming EMTs, becoming part of the fire department, so that somehow, they could help. There is no answer to why Junha is gone. There is no peace for the ones who couldn't save him. Not yet. But with time, it will come. And with hugs, and with softness and openness and learning. There is no why. But there is a WHAT we do with the grief. What we accomplish and change and become. And we can thank Junha for it. And remember the unthinkable suffering of his parents and his friends and his would-be rescuers. And we can try to rescue them. And love them. And cherish every moment, because life is short, and the unbearable things must be borne.

Junha Lee, overlooking Northport and the river.

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