A Life Lived Like a River Flowing

My mother-in-law Bette Wakefield died last week after several years of decline. She taught me how to seize life and not let go. During the diminished vitality of her last years I often thought of Dylan Thomas’s famous line of poetry, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

Bette was a Connecticut Yankee who came south in 1946 to Converse College for health reasons, met Bill Wakefield, fell in love, and stayed to raise three children, Betsy, Jay, and Katherine. She’d been president of the Converse student body, so when she settled here in Spartanburg Bette moved easily into leadership in clubs and organizations. In the years I knew her, the last decade of her life, she’d become a world traveler and a kayaker.

But Bette wouldn’t want this to be an obituary or a eulogy. She read the Kudzu Telegraph regularly, and I know she would have wanted me to find strength and adventure in the life she lived.

When she was already into her seventies Bette convinced us to take her kayaking on Lawson’s Fork. The Hub City Writers Project had held the Lawson’s Fork Festival not long before that, and Bette wasn’t happy simply to look through the book we’d published. She wanted to see her neighborhood creek from the seat of her own blue boat.

On a spring Sunday afternoon a group of us floated downstream from the Spartanburg High put-in, with Glendale as our destination. Bette slipped into her boat flanked by her kayaking daughters Betsy and Katherine.

There are two things I remember about that day: How I had the rare privilege of pointing out the future site of our home to my mother-in-law from a kayak as we floated through Pierce Acres, and how Bette fell out of the kayak just as a snake swam toward her.

Falling out of the boat didn’t seem to faze Bette. She had that spirit to the end. She simply got back in and continued to the take-out. It became a story to tell, a memory, an experience we all shared.

This morning I woke with the lingering wisps of dream clouding my mind. In the dream I’m touring the very same creek where we paddled. I’m with my friend Deno. He’s the keeper of the waterway, and he’s telling me that he’s found three cemeteries on its banks. Two are to be expected, large municipal areas high on the ridge like Greenlawn Memorial Garden where we’d buried Bette, but one is a small plot hidden deep in the privit close to water level with smooth marble monuments more like tombs than grave markers. The inscriptions have been worn away, and they’ve gone unnoticed until Deno has discovered the tombs in his duty as river keeper.

It’s easy to read the memory of the kayaking trip with Bette as a fable of a life well lived-you put in, you do your float, overcoming whatever adversity is downstream, and when it’s time, you reach the take-out.

It’s not so easy to read a dream. Dreams are like that. They are always subject to interpretation. This morning I read it as a tale of the hidden monuments to our own strength to rage against the passing of the river. I think it’s a good sign that I dreamed of my beloved Lawson’s Fork in the week of Bette’s passing. It ties us back to the land, to the ceaseless flowing.

I hope there are kayaks where Bette is now, and a river flowing by to float them on. I can’t imagine her sitting idle for eternity.

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