We call this place Riverton, this land in the Sandhills of North Carolina along the banks of the Lumber River. Here we sleep on cots in cabins and the cool of the river in the afternoon is the only air conditioning that we enjoy. My family has been coming here for over a century and for us, it is paradise. It was here, at Riverton, where we spent our last Saturday with Webb.
I wasn’t worried when I could not find him. Riverton is safe and small, and I knew that he would not venture too far without his brothers. I searched the cabins and peered through the cracks between the pines. Jeff sipped on an evening beer while watching Jack and Duncan as I casually looked for Webb.
We had spent most of the morning down by the banks of the Lumber. The iced-tea river was cold from the changing season, but that didn’t deter the boys from tramping through its waters and stamping in its swamps. Webb had protested, begging to stay longer, when I told him it was time to leave for lunch. After two peanut butter sandwiches and a long nap on the iron bed in the big room, I thought his appetite for the river had been appeased for the day. But I knew Webb and I should have known better. I should have known that he would escape the screened walls of the front porch as soon as he could. By the time I made it to the Avenue, the dirt road that leads to the river, I realized I had been foolish to look anywhere else.
I emerged from the tall pines of the woods to the dirt path and into a scene so beautiful that I am now convinced that it was nothing short of heaven on earth. The evening air was crisp and cool, and autumn’s orange sun suspended low to the ground. The gentle breeze caused the pines to dance and the cones to tumble. Yet it was not the setting that took my breath away. My eyes were instantly drawn to Webb. His long, thin legs were running as fast as they could carry him down the road. His run, oh Lord, that run, stopped me in my tracks and I stood in awe of the joy of this three-year-old boy. He was always running, deliberate and controlled, focused and intent. He was a lot like his run.
When I finally caught up to him, I gently grabbed his shoulders and bent down to meet his eyes. “There you are.” These three words met a smile as wide as the ocean. Is there anything more precious than being found and loved? “Oh Webber, I am so happy to see you. I’ve been looking for you. Where are you going buddy?” He didn’t flinch as I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and rested my cheek on his head. He graciously accepted my adoration and stood still as it seeped deep. I released him and he took off running again. His arms made circles, windmills that mimicked swimming. “I want to go to the pool, mama. Let’s go to the pool. Bye-bye mama.” He had always referred to the river as a pool. And after many futile attempts to correct him, I had grown fond of the way he owned the word, incorrect as it were, with confidence.
I watched him take off down the Avenue, the setting sun illuminating his yellow hair, his bare feet pounding the dirt. I settled into this moment and felt its magic warm me right up. The freedom, the wildness, the beauty of it all left me breathless. Could heaven really be better than this? My heart whispered the question to my God. In this moment, I was sure that I had never seen my son so full of wonder, so full of adventure, so fully alive. As I watched this boy, my blood, my heart, run down the dirt road to the river, I knew that God had cracked through the shell of earth to pour heaven into the finite. Though I couldn’t name it then like I can now, I was being given a glimpse of eternity, and I could hardly handle the beauty of it all. In that moment, when all I knew of God was blessing and all I knew of the world was gift, even then I knew that this was a taste of heaven. It was the scent of a garden I was created to crave.
I have tucked that memory of Webb running to the river into the deep corner pocket of my heart. Safe in this corner, it is protected against the mean game of tug-of-war that I play with time. In this corner, the colors of the memory’s fabric will not fade. I pull this memory out of its safe pocket often. I’ve heard the 5:00 hour referred to by mothers as the “witching hour.” It has become my favorite time of the day, this “Webb hour.” As the sun sinks low in the backyard and another day comes to an end, I find myself standing alone with Webb on the Avenue. Though my clogs stand on the tile of our kitchen floor, I feel the dust of the dirt beneath my toes. And as the toddler brother knocks over the big brother’s tower in the playroom and the bean soup bubbles over, the wind of the pines causes my hair to dance.
On those especially sad days when Webb feels distant like a dream, I unfold this memory and I feel his shoulders beneath my arms, my adoration pouring out. He turns to face me with that smile as wide as the sea. “There you are,” I say to him. He stands still and I hold him tightly, soaking in the softness of his skin and the scent of his hair. The beauty of the moment warms me and I refuse to release this boy who now lives freedom. I hold him until I can find my breath again.
On those holy days when he feels incredibly alive and his presence in the home is so real that I set his place at the table, I pull out this memory. I am standing behind my Webb on the dirt road as he runs to the water. He sprints, controlled and focused, but incredibly free. I watch him run, farther and farther away, all the way to the river, until he eventually fades from my sight. And I know, with all my being, that he was made for this. His eternal joy trumps my earthly sadness and I find my breath again, standing firm on the confidence that I will one day join him on the banks of that River.
Oh that I might be more like my son. When the One who loves me grabs me by the shoulders and sighs, “There you are,” would I not flinch to shrug off His holy embrace? Would I be so stilled by the power of His adoration for me that it would seep deep into my soul? For it is a precious thing to be found and loved. And I pray that, like Webb, I might be so caught up in the wildness, the adventure and the beauty of the River that I would run to it with determination. Would the mystery and the power of the Water draw me, like it did Webb, with such a magnetic force that the shell of my skin would crack from mounting joy? As I run, may the freedom of eternity carry me down the road and the beauty of the River reveal the truth that I, too, was made for this.
Family picture, October 2011 (Webb in blue)
Jack and Webb running down the Avenue, October 2011
On the banks of the river, July 4, 2011
Webb and Jack in the river, October 2011