Safe All Along
The View from Above
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
Our family stood on the banks of the Nile River, one of our favorite places to be, relax, and adventure. The rush of the rapids, the breeze off the water, the laughter, and an occasional shriek from one of our children carried up the riverbank, and I stood in awe, deeply grateful for all that God had carried us through over the past two years to bring us to this spot.
My husband, Benji, and I had sent seven children to college on a different continent, where they were navigating new cultures and foreign lifestyles, with an ocean and eight or nine hours of time difference between us. We had added another baby to our crew, which now totaled fifteen children, teens, and young adults. We had faced more than one medical emergency that left every member of our family reeling and had us traveling back and forth all over the place and spending more time apart than together. Like many other people, we had endured nine months of our country being fully locked down due to a global pandemic. And really, these are only a few of the things that were going on, added to the daily grind of just being humans trying to love each other and our neighbors well, trying to navigate online schooling and Zoom meetings and how to get groceries while not being allowed to drive a car due to pandemic restrictions in Uganda.
And now, for the first time in more than a year, we were together.
Needless to say, a family camping trip along our favorite river, at a section we’d never explored before, seemed like a needed reprieve. As our children get older and venture out into all corners of the world, I am keenly aware that our times of all being in one place are increasingly rare, and I purposed to soak up every minute. We were ready for adventure.
Almost all our family members are strong swimmers and decent kayakers, so even in new places along the river, I don’t usually worry too much. On this day, as we stood with our kids at the edge of the little bay, the current looked strong, no doubt, but it also looked somewhat circular, as though you could get in and swim or float a bit and it would circle around and spit you back out near the shore. This is what we were banking on anyway. The thing about rivers is that you can’t possibly tell how strong the current is until you’re in it.
Ignoring the sign warning even strong swimmers not to swim there, Benji and one of our teenage daughters strapped on life jackets and jumped into the water. The current did exactly what we thought it would. They swam around and then let the circular tide bring them right back in to where the rest of us were standing. Looks easy enough, I thought, and I convinced our daughter to go again with me.
Another thing about rivers: They aren’t exactly predictable. About halfway around the bend, the water shifted. Just thirty seconds later, we found ourselves fighting the current, swimming with all our strength toward the shore but instead being pushed farther away.
I called to our daughter, “Are you okay? Keep swimming!”
And she would answer, “Yeah, I’m okay!” with her head barely bobbing above the snow-white foam.
But I was beginning to feel desperate to get out of the water, and to get her out with me. I could hear Benji’s voice in my head remarking that if we were to get caught up in the current (which, of course, we were sure that we would not), the tree sticking out from the shore at the edge of the bay would be our last chance to get out and we wouldn’t want to let the current take us much farther due to the falls a little ways up the river.1 I know. As I type this story out, the whole thing really doesn’t sound like a good idea. But we are kind of an audacious group.
From my view in the water, the “last chance” tree was getting rapidly closer. And as it did, my panic rose. Everything in me swam for that tree. I kept calling out to my daughter (probably more to reassure myself), who was farther out in the water than I was, “It’s going to be okay! You can do it. Swim hard!” I craned my neck to see her as I swam with all my might. We were going to make it. As I reached my right hand out toward her, I used my other one to grab for an overhanging branch.
The limb snapped off in my hand.
I felt like I was watching myself in some kind of movie scene, willing myself to make it to the shore and somehow get my daughter there with me. The current crashed my legs against jagged rocks, still pulling my body fast, away from the bank I was reaching for, and still pulling my baby fast and away from my outstretched arm.
As I finally grabbed hold of another branch, I turned to reach for my daughter. But she was too far away, her arms outstretched, her head barely visible over the white foam of the rapids. I thought I heard her call for me as she was swept around the corner, out of my view, into the vast swirling water.
I know what you are thinking: a mother’s worst nightmare. And it was. Had this been a scene from a movie, I couldn’t have scripted it to be more intense. The current was still slamming my legs into the craggy shore as I clung, breathless, to my tree branch. Only one word came to my mind and to my lips: Jesus.
I’m not quite sure now, looking back, if I was actually yelling it or only crying out in my mind, over and over, Jesus, Jesus, save her! Please, Jesus. I had no idea what was around that bend in the river. Benji had mentioned falls up ahead, but I didn’t know how far, and all I could do was imagine the worst. Jesus, I need You to save my baby. I need You to save her, Lord Jesus. Please. Please. Please. Over and over.
I realized I was still pulling hard on a tree limb that might not support my weight much longer. Slowly, I pulled myself up onto a boulder in the beating sun. Though later I realized that I was covered in cuts and bruises, I didn’t remember feeling any pain. The sound of the river roared in my ears as I situated myself and waved to Benji and the girls far away on the shore, trying to somehow let them know that I was all right but that I was also alone. I was too far away to make out the expressions on their faces, and I wasn’t sure how much they had been able to see.
No one seemed to be moving very frantically (though I later learned that a few of them had run up to get help from someone at the campsite), and I wondered why no one was screaming or crying in horror at the fact that I had surely just lost their sister to the raging rapids. I tried yelling to them that I couldn’t see her and she wasn’t safe, but the rushing water drowned out my voice. A few of them waved back, seemingly unfazed.
As I watched my family walking toward me, I never stopped calling out to Jesus to save our daughter. I don’t know how long I sat there. It felt like a blink and also an eternity. It was certainly long enough to envision every possible worst-case scenario. I chided myself for being so foolish and overconfident and not heeding the warning of the sign. My mind filled with thoughts of having to search the river for a body. I sat on my rock, exhausted from both the river and the flood of emotions, and I prayed.
And then as Benji and the girls approached from my left through the bushes, another set of footsteps came running from a different path to the right. I caught a glimpse of her yellow swimsuit. I heard her voice. There she was!
She ran toward me and I shouted her name as she stumbled into my arms. “Are you okay?” I yelled, even though my face was right next to hers. “I thought I’d lost you. I thought you were gone! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay!” she chuckled nonchalantly. “Some fishermen came and pulled me out. They were getting out of the water with their boat, but I called for them and they came back to get me. They put me on the shore just over there.”
Fishermen? I briefly wondered. People don’t fish in water this fast. I hadn’t seen any fishermen or fishing boats on this stretch of the water our entire trip (and I didn’t see any after that day either).
“I’m so sorry,” I kept repeating. I was hugging her too tight. I finally pulled myself away to look into her eyes. “Were you so scared?” I asked.
“Nah.” She shrugged. “I just kept thinking, I’ll find another way out.”
And she bounded off, laughing with her sisters, joking that they were done swimming for the day.
I held it together for another minute as the rest of our girls called out to me, “You okay, Mom?” before heading back to camp. But when I got midway up the hill and found my husband’s embrace, I let myself fall apart.
“I couldn’t reach her,” I sobbed. “I couldn’t get to her. I lost her. I thought I lost her.”
“It’s all right. She’s okay. You’re okay,” he whispered.
We stood like that for a long time while my breathing slowed and I let my panic fade. Then, ever gentle and kind, Benji took my hand. “Come on. Let me show you something.”