At first, the screams didn’t register with me.
I was standing outside my eldest son Joe’s home last Sunday, saying goodbye to my youngest son, Jon, who was taking his puppy home. It had been a great afternoon visiting with family members as we celebrated my mother-in-law’s birthday. It wasn’t until my eldest daughter, AmyJo, mentioned the noise that it moved from the periphery to the center of my attention.
“Is that Will?” AmyJo asked as we chatted pleasantly in the warm spring evening.
It sounded like Will, but it was different from any sound I had ever heard come from my 2-year-old grandson. It was a cry, but more than a cry. It was urgent. Guttural. Like a scream.
I started trotting toward the backyard, assuming Will had fallen from the swing set. Again. That’s Will. He is a fearless little rascal, and often gets himself into tough situations that leave bumps and bruises on his face, hands, arms and legs. I also assumed an adult would be somewhere in the vicinity, picking him up and drying his tears and providing hugs and comfort.
But when I got to the backyard I couldn’t see anyone — no Will, no other children and no adult. Then I heard that scream again — it was definitely Will.
And it was definitely coming from the creek.
My heart started to pound as I broke into a full sprint toward the creek that runs along the back of Joe’s property. By the time I got there, Will was screaming again from the far side of the creek. His clothes were soaked and water was dripping from his face as he stood precariously on a muddy ledge at the water’s edge, clinging tightly with one little hand to a thin root that jutted out from the slick, steep, muddy embankment.
He looked at me, terror in his eyes and screamed.
“I’m coming, Will!” I shouted as I made my way down the embankment and plunged into the frigid, chest-deep water to cross the 15-foot-wide creek. “Papa is coming!”
The creek bottom was slick beneath my Sunday shoes as I struggled to reach him. I slipped once and nearly went under. I began to wonder if I was going to be swept downstream by the swift current before I could reach Will. Then my feet landed on a rock that provided the footing I needed to sturdy myself against the rushing water and push toward the toddler.
In a moment he was in my arms, clinging to me desperately and crying in fear and cold discomfort. I was still thigh-deep in water, and my footing wasn’t solid or secure on the slimy creek bed. I looked at the steep, slick embankment on that side of the creek, but I couldn’t see how I could climb that in muddy shoes with a frightened, shivering little boy in my arms. Then I considered going back across the creek the way I had come, but the last thing I wanted to do was stumble again and fall into the deep water while holding Will.
Suddenly Jon was standing beside me. He had followed me into the water, only he had found a place where a submerged tree branch made the crossing less treacherous.
“Give him to me,” he said firmly, reaching out for his nephew and carrying him in his long, strong arms back across the creek to his mother, my youngest daughter Beth. Jon then plunged back into the creek to come help me.
“Dad, are you OK?” he asked. The look on his face suggested he was afraid he was going to have to carry me out, too.
“How did he get here?” I asked Jon as hip-deep water swirled around us. It didn’t make sense. The banks were too steep for him to have negotiated them successfully without falling into the creek. All around were deep pools and swift currents that would have been impossible for a 2-year-old to negotiate. I couldn’t see a logical, viable route to get him from the bank nearest to Joe’s house to that tiny ledge of limited safety on the far side of the creek.
“How did he get here?” I repeated, my feet turning numb in the cold water.
“I don’t know,” Jon said. “But God knows. Because he had something to do with it.”
I’ve thought about that a lot during the past week, and I can offer no other explanation. Jon and I didn’t save Will last Sunday; we only retrieved him. Someone else saved him.
And God knows.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr