Whitewater Rafting and Father's Day
by Greg Wright, Father of Stephen Wright

It's the end of May, 2001, and in two weeks it will be Father's Day. As a bereaved father I already dread it. It will only be four months since Steve died in a fatal bicycle accident at the age of thirteen.

Surely he would have gotten me one of those humorously wild and crazy Father's Day cards. Steve always made Father's Day fun.

Part of me just wants to get out of town, to just let the day pass without the constant reminders that Steve is gone. However, the rest of me wants to stay, to be at church, to join with those godly Christian brothers and sisters who were so faithful to reach out to us during this time of crisis. They would understand if I went out of town, but perhaps I'll opt to stay.

Indeed, their faithfulness reminds me of God's faithfulness to Steve and me during thirteen years of fatherhood. While there were many times when I felt inadequate to serve my role as a godly father to Stephen, during those times God was always faithful to help us out, or to use the common idiom, "to take up my slack." One great example of God's faithfulness was our whitewater rafting adventure in May of 1995.

This was a Royal Rangers adventure. Brian Sorne, seated in the back with the red bandana, was the youth pastor, father of four children, and a great cook on campouts. His job was to steer the raft. Seated next to him was his second son Karl. In front of Karl was my son Steve, and I was seated to Steve's left.

The Sorne boys had always been an encouragement to Steve. After the Ranger meetings there would often be a pickup game of touch football. Although Steve was only seven and the Sorne boys were much older, they welcomed him. Once while they were playing Stephen hit the ground really hard. The oldest Sorne boy, Morgan, checked on him to make sure he was okay. Morgan's gentleness gave Steve the courage to keep playing. As I watched I said to myself, "These are the boys I want my son to grow up with." Little did I realize that within three years we would be in different churches in different states.

In the weeks prior to this whitewater adventure Steve was very excited. When Commander Kent announced the trip, he let us know that any boys could go, regardless of age, as long as they weighed at least sixty pounds. Steve weighed sixty-four pounds, so he was well within range. However, Steve misunderstood this to mean that he couldn't weigh more than sixty pounds. He immediately went on a diet and restricted his eating for a few weeks. Thankfully we were able to clarify this with Steve before he lost too much weight.

The whitewater trip was down a stream that fed into the Natahala River. As best I can recall, it had level one and level two rapids, although Steve was convinced that at least one of them was a level four. In any case, for someone who had never before been whitewater rafting, it was fun, exciting, and scary.

We hadn't been on the water for very long before Steve lost his paddle. This very much irritated me, and I sternly rebuked Steve for not being more careful. Brian didn't say a word. However, when he saw Steve's paddle on the side of the stream he pulled the raft to the side, walked upstream, and got it. When he returned he gave Steve the paddle, giving him that second chance that I should have given him. Steve seized that second chance and held on tight for the rest of the trip.

Later in the trip some of the older rangers playfully engaged us in a water fight. Although they meant no harm, this was very upsetting for Steve. Because of his small size, the cold water affected him much more quickly than it did the rest of us. Once the other Rangers realized that Steve was upset they backed off.

Then we got stuck on the side of the stream. Brian got out of the raft to push us off. I was looking off into the distance when suddenly I saw someone float by who looked just like Brian. We had been instructed that if we fell in, we should lie on our backs and float downstream, head-first. I had just seen Brian float, on his back, head-first down the stream.

I turned around to tell Brian that someone who looked like him had just floated by. When I realized that Brian had really floated away I almost panicked. Here is how I assessed the situation:

Finally I decided that I had to get the raft free, but I decided to do it by keeping more of my body in the raft than outside. It worked. I got the raft free without floating away. Quickly I dove into the raft and breathed a sigh of relief, but not for long.

Suddenly we found ourselves stuck once again, this time on top of a rock, only this time we were in front of a higher rock. It was like being underneath a waterfall. Within seconds our raft was completely filled with water.

Meanwhile, Steve was going nuts, crying and screaming. Karl, although himself frightened, grabbed Stephen, putting his big arms around him.

I was at the other end of the raft wondering what to do next. Not realizing that the raft would float even though filled with water, I didn't try to dislodge it, thinking it would immediately sink and dump us all into the stream.

Suddenly I heard someone off to the side calling out to us. Karl said that the guy was going to throw us a rope. It was a great throw, and the rope landed in the raft. However, somehow the paddles got tangled up in the rope. I sat there trying to untangle the paddles.

Then I thought I heard the guy say to throw the paddles out. (Yes, I think my brain floated away with Brian.) Obediently, I threw out the paddles, and as I did I saw our helper slap his hand against his head and say "No!". He wasn't angry, just amazed. Now I think what he really said was, "Pull it out," not "Throw it out."

Meanwhile Stephen continued go crazy and to cry out while Karl held onto him.

Finally my own sanity returned, and I pulled on the rope to get the raft over to the side of the stream. Now we were safe.

We were all relieved to see Brian walk up, although he was badly bruised and had lost his glasses.

Within a few minutes the adventure was over. We waited on a bus, welcoming the warm sunshine, ready for the drive upstream. Steve was shivering; his shirt held the cold water against his skin. However, when I had him take his shirt off he quickly warmed up. Then we learned that we were scheduled to take a second trip down stream. Steve was adamant: "I am not going back."

Suddenly I saw this as a pivotal moment in Steve's life, a critical moment that would define his character for years to come. Steve had to be persuaded to face his fears; he had to be persuaded to go back.

I no longer recall what I said to him, but somehow Steve was convinced to make the return trip. This time he rode with Commander Kent. I was very, very proud of Steve when we reached the end of our second trip and Commander Kent told me that Steve had done well.

In the years ahead Steve would amaze his peers with stunts of bravery and courage, especially in hockey and BMX biking. But I believe that it was on that day in May 1995 that he learned to face his fears and to overcome them. I wanted to do something to commemorate that event.

As Steve and I discussed the whitewater adventure, I noted that ever since he was an infant he had been affectionately called Boo Boo. I nicknamed him this, thinking of Yogi Bear's companion in the cartoon. I told Steve that he wouldn't be called Boo Boo any more, because on this day he had proved himself to be brave. This seemed to mean a lot to him.

Sometimes our lives can be compared to whitewater rapids. Indeed, as we travel down the whitewater rapids of life there are many times when we are called upon to be brave, to take courage. To help us to be brave God often places special people in our lives to encourage us. The example here is the way God used Karl to encourage Stephen. In my mind it shall forever be a memorial to Karl Sorne that at this critical time in Stephen's life, he set aside his own fears and held my son. I shall always be thankful to God that he provided for Karl to be in that raft with Stephen at that time.

Now as Steve's mother and I continue on our own whitewater journey of grief and bereavement, Steve's journey provides an analogy for the hope we have in the days ahead. Just as God was faithful to Steve and me in that raft, God will be faithful in the days ahead. Whether it is through the Holy Spirit or through special people, there is no doubt that God is in that raft with us. Indeed, we are confident that even while Steve is safe in that place prepared for all those who know Jesus as Savior and Lord, God is here, using people just like Karl, to hold us up on our whitewater journey through the coming days.

Meanwhile, to all you dads, have a wonderful Father's Day. Enjoy every minute of it, and be sure to give your kids an extra hug from Steve, Nan, and me.

Someday there is going to be a big celebration in heaven. When I see my son again, when I look again on his smiling face, when I embrace him at last, the joy will more than compensate for all the Father's Days missed here, joy that will last, not just for a moment, but for all eternity.

Steve I can't wait to see you again.