by Dillon Flake
The Payette River makes a wide arc when it hits Horseshoe Bend; that’s how our town got its name. The river’s U-turn forms a cradle for the place I grew up in: a small collection of trailers, log fences, and rusty old trucks that, in Idaho, constitutes a city. But Horseshoe Bend owes more to the river than its name; the area might never have been settled if not for the Gold Rush. The discovery of treasure in the Payette brought prospectors to our valley in the 1860s. It became a favorite place for hopeful miners to camp out in the winter while they waited for the spring thaw to bring them unimaginable wealth.
The gold ran out eventually. People moved on. Everything the settlers built rotted away. But the river remained. It’s like an heirloom in that way. It’s the one thing that got passed down through the generations. The miners used it for panning; the loggers used it for their mills; nowadays people mostly use it for rafting and tubing and swimming. My cross country team used to jump in the river to cool off after practice.
But the river has its costs, too. Every year it claims a few human lives like some jealous god demanding tribute. It chooses its sacrifices indiscriminately. I’ve known some of them: friends or friends of friends taken before their time; the river reclaiming its treasure. I admit I’ve never cried at a funeral, but I’ve always felt deep sorrow for the deceased as well as for their families. That is, I regretfully admit, except for in one case.
When I was in high school an 18-month-old girl wandered away from home and drowned in the river. The tragedy became a defining moment in Horseshoe Bend’s history. Everyone in the community felt affected by it; many kids skipped school because of grief, and teachers were told to excuse children who requested a visit with the counselor. We were asked not to spread rumors about the death. There was a well-attended funeral in the community center. Afterwards they released a cloud of balloons. Finally they erected a big white cross on a hill near town in memoriam.
I, of course, was an ignorant, selfish teenager. Every time I saw that cross I thought to myself how melodramatic it was. It was the only monument in town, erected in memory of a baby. I remember commenting to my mom that I didn’t know why everybody was making such a big deal out of it. “She’s a baby,” I said, “of course it’s sad when babies die, but when somebody’s that young you don’t even really have a relationship with them yet. It’s not like losing an old friend.”
My mother didn’t attempt to make me understand. She simply said, “You’ve obviously never had children.” At the time I was offended by my mother’s comment. Like many teenagers, I was arrogant and felt like adults took me for granted because of my age. I’d been around plenty of babies and was sure I was right. I wasn’t right, though. I wasn’t right about how serious the tragedy was, I wasn’t right about a parent’s bond with an infant, and–though I didn’t know it at the time–I still had a lot to learn about love.
The most surprising difference between spousal love and fatherly love is that, though the difference is significant, it is not very large. I had to experience spousal love before I could learn this. The idiomatic “love at first sight” was, of course, an oversimplification–that much I knew. An appealing once-over never seemed like valid grounds for a long-term romantic relationship. Reducing eternal devotion to a profile scrapped together from superficial characteristics was a dangerous and irresponsible strategy for pursuing happiness. Still, attraction is a great starting point.
The first time I saw my wife, Emily, I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen: a petite, athletic-looking girl with freckles, honey-colored hair, and almond-shaped eyes. She was so attractive, in fact, that after an entire evening of flirting with her I determined that she was out of my league and left without asking for her number, never expecting to see her again.
Of course, I did see her again. I saw her many times after that. In fact, from our first date until the day we were married, we scarcely spent a day apart. Every evening we went on long walks and talked about every topic that occurred to us, including how silly we both thought short courtships were. We had always taken for granted that love wasn’t love unless it was founded on years of development. To be fair, we did spend immense amounts of time together and knew each other extremely well, but the fact was that we got engaged after only six weeks of dating. We’d only known each other for a little over two months.
Of course the love we felt then didn’t have the same depth as the love we feel now, but when the prospect of marriage came up there was no question. It was as genuine and profound as any spiritual confirmation I’d ever received. It was one of very few instances in my life in which I wasn’t second-guessing myself. My pre-conceived notions were melting like snow in hot water; I knew I’d never roll my eyes at short courtships again. Love wasn’t something that had to conform to an artificial timetable. Its development was unique, case-by-case. Still, I couldn’t understand as a newlywed how this epiphany applied to the tragedy in my hometown. The only thing that could teach me that lesson was having a child.
Ruby RaeAnn Flake was born 10 days early on February 27th, just over a year into our marriage. She was the 34th grandchild born into my family, and only the second born into Emily’s family. Ruby got the best of both of us: Emily’s almond-shaped eyes and dimples, my complexion and cleft chin. Her size definitely came from Emily’s side: Ruby was 5 pounds at birth, but still deemed a healthy child. We were proud of our newborn.
I had always been under the impression that babies were homogenous–all of them were pretty much the same. Personality was something that didn’t develop until someone was 4 or 5. And true, Ruby did spend the bulk of her time as a newborn sleeping and eating, but her individuality became apparent almost immediately. She preferred sucking her fingers to taking a pacifier; being outside to inside (even when it was cold); and, once she graduated from an all-dairy diet, the preferred condiments to any other food we offered her. It had never occurred to me that someone so small could have opinions.
That, of course, wasn’t the end of it. Though our daughter wasn’t a fast grower (even now, at a year-and-a-half old, she still fits into 6-month-old clothes), but she was a fast learner. Half past her first birthday she could walk, talk, dance, throw, climb, high five, give kisses, and take her dirty diapers to the garbage. Sometimes I’d find her in her room, flipping through a book, reading to herself in gibberish. I was shocked by how complex she was–not to say that Ruby is some sort of prodigy, but I’d taken for granted that babies developed on schedule with some sort of unwritten curriculum programmed by God. I thought their interests were 100 percent dictated by what their parents conditioned them to like.
This was not the case. Even when we were trying to teach Ruby her first words, she still blazed her own trail. In the months we spent endeavoring to coerce a “Mama” or “Dada” out of her, Ruby started saying, “duck,” “poop,” and “Jesus,” often interchangeably. Sometimes she would even use words that we were sure we’d never said to her, like “temple” or “platypus.” She made it clear that she had no interest in television unless we were watching it together; she thought it rude of us to eat anything we weren’t willing to share; and she begged me not to play my mandolin unless she was asleep or at the park.
Ruby invented many of the words we use and many of the games we play. She loves to fake us out by tempting us to come get kisses, and then telling us to go take a nap right before we get any. She refers to all of her peers as either “friend” or “Sally,” and believes the two most meaningful ways to interact with them are give them hugs or follow them around. She is perhaps the most popular child in our ward, easily recognized by both the children and the adults, most of whom she’s stolen snacks from during church.
And all this from a girl who’s barely over 18 months. Ruby is the same age that the baby from Horseshoe Bend was when she drowned. Was that child inventing words and games, discovering the world, forming opinions? Was she learning to speak, laugh, and love? How could I have known how wrong I was? Ruby isn’t just my daughter, she’s one of my very best friends. Because of my wife’s demanding nursing job, Ruby and I have gotten to spend a lot of time together. We have expectations of one another, we have inside jokes, we miss each other when we’re apart, and we have a lot of memories together. If I ever lost my daughter, there is nothing that could ever replace her. Would I put up a cross for her? Maybe. Maybe the point of building a monument isn’t to remind us that we lost something, but to remind us how much it meant to us.
And so now, as I reflect, I express the remorse I should have felt for that poor family that lost their child. It doesn’t take a lifetime to truly love someone–it doesn’t even take 18 months.
Dillion Flake is a senior graduating in landscape management. Dillion loved growing up in the small Idaho town that frequently appears in his writing, including his recently-published novel, Rumor of the Year. Dillion lives in Provo with his wife, Emily, and daughter, Ruby.