A river runs north

May 1 is a day of seduction.
Without fail, it arrives cloudless and sunny, warm and fragrant, casting off the vestiges of a cruel winter.  Fear? Toss it out the window. Success is an open road looking for someone to tear it up.

I remember feeling that way 10 years ago, before the Nishisakawick Creek coughed up its sedge to form an island where its mouth meets the Delaware River. Back then there were a few scant sycamore trees that jutted up from the river, catching dead leaves and twigs in the rapid flow. There were no signs that the island would one day block the creek’s entrance, forcing the river to flow up instead of down. Had I seen it, I tell myself, I would have known.

But the truth is, we never really know life’s irony until it stares back at us from the page. And this story is no different. May 1, 2008, I started out on a morning of hope, launching a new business with my mother and father as partners. Sure, we had failed as a family unit. They’d divorced some 30 years earlier. But we’d learned from our failures. Time is a great healer, afterall. We were no longer mother, father and child, but adults who had experience in the world. Our business venture was destined to succeed.

As I made my way down River Road that morning, fire police detoured traffic onto Dark Hollow Road where I’d normally turn anyway. A sign, I was sure, that I was on a guided path. “A tree down,” I thought before losing myself in other mind chatter.

My mother would arrive late, complaining about a power outage that kept her from drying her hair. We huddled, vowing to knuckle down, make calls, do whatever it took to make this venture work.

Uneven road ahead

Only now do I see the irony. Yes, a tree did come down, ill-timed, crushing my stepfather’s car and killing him instantly. Nine months later, my father would be diagnosed with lung cancer. Our fledgling business venture would be buried along with him. My sister’s crazy outburst at his funeral wasn’t inconsolable grief, but a softball-sized tumor lodged in her brain.

I’d pay only scant attention to the thickness I felt, like a jelly fish, in my right breast while showering at my father’s house after his death. “Perimenopause,” I thought, before my mind wandered to the mold in the grout lines and whether I could adequately clean them or would need a professional before I could put the house up for sale.

By then, a large tree trunk had lodged between the river sycamores and on a sun-baked August day if you looked real hard you could just about see the sedge that was starting to mound at their base, not even enough ground to stand on.

Running in place

The next May 1 I was in Jacksonville, Fla. helping my sister navigate a life, post-cancer, that had taken a chunk of her brain and part of her mind, leaving her at times manic and at times depressed. It would be another beautiful, cloudless day. She would come and watch me run a 9K race, sitting on a curb, throwing up in the gutter from the mega doses of steroids she was on to reduce the swelling caused by the brain radiation. My mother was there. A new venture. Not of our choosing. One that had us chaffing life’s bit.

By the next May 1st I was bald and scarred, recovering from chemo and surgery. It was cloudless and sunny and my neighbor would insist on me joining her for a long walk with her dog along the river. The river sycamores were getting thicker, their trunks bent over nearly parallel to the fast flowing river. A piece of opaque, ragged plastic got caught in one of them, rattling in the wind like a sail.

Rising from the ashes

The next May 1st, cloudless again, the plastic gone and with it wind from my own sails. I’d buried my sister nine months earlier and felt bewildered by the world I was now living in. By now, the sedge had settled, forming two islands just off the river banks. Enough ground to walk on with a sedge sandbar starting to fill in between the two shorelines where marshy grass grew. By summer, the marsh choked the creek flow, pushing the river northward along one of the islands.

I made friends with the kids who moved next door and we’d spend summers exploring the islands, looking for fossils, feathers and bones, making up stories about where they’d come from or how they’d landed there. Taking picnic lunches, throwing sticks for the dogs and swimming.

We built a bridge across the north flowing river so we could get to the island without getting our feet wet. Stone pile sculptures magically appeared, as did a stick hut where we could hide out from the strong, summer sun.

Finding a new flow

Three  more May 1sts passed, all cloudless, sunny and warm. My hair grew back, and so did the cancer. The new drugs I was on fought it back until the river flowed north again that summer. By then, people were finding their way to sedge island to fish, leaving trash and the rotting spoils of their catch. Scrubby shrubs filled in between the sycamores. The kids were now older and we stopped our treks to the island, except for the dogs who still liked to walk its perimeter while chasing sticks.

Last May 1st was dark and overcast, and yet my mood was buoyant. I’d just come home from a writing retreat with plans to sign up for summer triathlons, eat healthy and start writing projects anew. I’d moved my treatment from a community hospital to a research setting. The new regimen was working and my options for future treatments, endless. I’d weathered the emotional move from one oncologist to another.  The river flowed north, but I was used to it.

Defying logic

Here I am today, another May 1st. Sunny, cloudless, warm. Tonight I’ll go to dinner with my husband and my mother. We’ll talk about my stepfather, our losses and the ones we still have yet to endure. The sycamores on sedge island are now about 15-foot tall, standing nearly upright. A bore infected the aged ash trees along the river bank. Their rugged bark looks starkly naked against the backdrop of the maples now budding. On my way back from the river, I walked past  pear trees in bloom. The pleasant fragrance caught me off guard. My throat tightened and tears welled up.

Life has turned upside-down. An author whose book on resilience got me through my darkest hour is now under indictment for enslaving a woman and taking photos of her. His words which once soothed now ring hollow. My family as I knew it has gone. Others have abandoned me, replaced by new friendships with deeper roots.

Yesterday I ran a half marathon with my other sister, her husband and my husband. We went out for lunch afterwards and my niece and nephew fought over who would sit next to me. This summer, I’ll take them to sedge island. We’ll look for artifacts and make up stories and I’ll show them how, defying all logic, the river runs north, but still it flows.



This post is dedicated to Stephen R. Hance, 1948-2008, who believed in me always. Pictured here, with my late sister Tracy Johnson Pollick. They always remind me that no matter what direction life takes, go with it, because even when a river flows up, it will eventually find its way down.






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72 thoughts on “A river runs north

  1. nancyspoint says:

    Hi Liz,
    Life has turned upside-down – no kidding! I am very sorry your family has experienced such loss and heartache. Cancer is brutal, as was the incident with the tree coming down and killing your stepfather. As you so eloquently wrote about, May 1st continues to come year after year, and here you are. We move forward somehow navigating as best we can each challenge life throws our way. Thank you for sharing about some of yours in this powerful read.

  2. Charlene McCaw says:

    Blessings to you and your family, Liz.
    This is beautiful.

  3. I’m so sorry for your lost some. I was talking to another blogger this morning about how some people cannot connect the fabric of their lives. You do not fall in that category. Thanks j you for a beautiful post.

  4. K.M. Sutton says:

    This was beautifully written. Sending you so much love. ❤

  5. Melvin Evans says:

    Reblogged this on Beyond the Fog and commented:
    A Beautiful Story of Resiliance

  6. LeahNaomi says:

    Touching and beautiful written. Sorry for your loss.

  7. Madmom says:

    Hey I enjoyed your post, I’m a recovering addict and I just found out my mom has breast cancer three days ago and they want to do surgery and take both breast already, your post helped, I hope you can follow me as well and we can reach !more people?

    • Thanks Madmom05. And yes, you earned a follower. I’m sorry your mom has had to join my club, but I will say she’s among a great group of women (and a handful of men) and she will be OK, because in the end we’re all OK. If it’s not OK, it isn’t the end. Sending healing vibes to both of you.

  8. Defying Logic is most important to identify your true commitment to yourself when facing internal devastated event in your life that will determine whether you should live gracefully or desire death, providing extreme thoughts can and will direct your next steps towards your decision with ongoing attitude and maybe unbalances option. My guess is? make sure your opportunity is persisted and clear in order to succeed your primary attentions that will ultimately define your successful that been approval by your heart.

  9. LULU says:

    This is so beautiful and inspirational. God bless you and your family.

  10. Pete Mercer says:

    Incredible writing Liz. Beautiful and devastating.

  11. becausemilly says:

    What a roller-coaster you have been on… Yet still you are positive and happy and seeking out new experiences. Incredible courage xx beautifully written piece as well x

  12. nfdubbs says:

    Reblogged this on Nweezie Speakeasy and commented:
    A beautiful piece on the resilience of the human spirit in the face of darkness. I loved the journey this took me on.

  13. Nana says:

    Beautifully written… A heroines journey … Can I reblog ?

  14. This was well written. You did a wonderful job weaving the connections between your life and the ever changing landscape of river life. It left me thinking about my youth spent living along the Delaware River and how i used it’s dark beauty as inspiration for my writings over the years.
    Holding you and your family in the light.

  15. Reblogged this on Kindness Blog and commented:
    A beautiful post.

  16. rspkaimosi says:

    That was beautiful….

  17. good12stars says:

    Thank you for your comments about breast cancer. It is one of the leading causes of death worldwide.

  18. ElysianPark says:

    Beautiful and heartbreaking…..I am sorry that you have had so many losses. You are a very strong woman. Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

  19. ezeoje says:

    Sorry for your loss. Life is not over yet until it is over. Forge ahead.

    • Thank you ezeoje. You’re right. Life isn’t over yet, along with it’s hardship, losses, sorrows, joys, accomplishments and serene moments. And I have big plans for being present for all of it.

  20. spicysalojo says:

    Hi Liz,
    You can never predict the waves, so is life. GOD has an absolute plan to share your story to others and give them a great hold to move on. Inspiration and inspiring people are hard to find these days. Praying for you and your family. Loads of lobe from India.

  21. spicysalojo says:

    Sorry it’s loads of love…. Typing error…..

  22. Beautifully written, flowing with truth of life’s sorrows and joys. May you always have just the right amount of flow and may it hold you buoyant and safely afloat over life’s changing currents.

  23. What a great,inspiring story of hope and gratitude…

  24. Admin says:

    I am so motivated by this piece. Sorry for your loss.

  25. What a powerful post…so moving…so courageous and insightful for you. I feel for your loss…you have been through so much…and yet you have the strength to carry on and learn, observe and grow. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt message.

  26. sgmdilse says:

    Heart-rending narrative. Wish you more strength and positivity each day.
    I too lost my younger brother to cancer. Life has never been the same.

  27. farwaabbas15 says:

    Very elegantly shaped and written. Bravo

  28. I’m so sorry for your loss. This resonates in me – the pain, the times in my own head, the questions, the perpetuating madness of the unfairness of life, how it affects the best of people and without warning. All of the short stories of your life in this post show that the river does indeed run north and your recognition in that might provide moments of courage and moments of thoughtlessness for you… I know it did, me. Thank you for sharing your experience and showing us how certain narratives are connected, even in ways we cannot solely see with our eyes. Sending you love and many blessings.

  29. zu n says:

    Good one 👍

  30. Kiki says:

    What a post filled to the brim with sadness, power of overcoming, giving in but not giving up, an upload which made me read because of the title…. and I’m glad I did. When I was a child (actually still now….) I had a ‘geographical problem’. I often ‘made rivers flowing ‘upwards’ in my tales, in school tests etc. I just couldn’t get the sense of their direction. Same with lakes, some always would flow upwards. So, the content of your writing here is anything but about ‘flowing north’ but all about flowing at all, forming, re-forming, about overcoming, going ahead.
    I’ve two sisters with breast cancer and was under ‘suspiction’ too, many years back. But I was the one being able to jump off the cancer bandwagon and I’m deeply thankful for this, every day. I wish you the very best on your way ahead, you had so many losses to count and are not at the end of your ‘travel road’. I do hope that you’ll always have the help and kindness of others to get to through, and the hope and courage to face each day. That you’ll have the patience to hold things in perspective and the love of others to sustain you. Bless you!

  31. blakejr7 says:

    Very good writing

  32. Albert Cox says:

    Reblogged this on Albert Cox.

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