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He Chose to Chance the Rapids

Lessons Learned from My Nephew - A True Story

By Dana CrandellPublished about a year ago Updated 4 months ago 9 min read
Top Story - March 2023
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He Chose to Chance the Rapids
Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

“You were his favorite uncle, you know.”

My sister's words felt like an ice pick in my heart. It wasn't her fault; she had meant to make me feel better. On that day, sitting there with my siblings, the surge of emotion was too much to hold back, especially after the stress of the past 48 hours. I couldn't respond, for fear that the dam would break.

The call had come just 2 days earlier. Janie and I were just a few miles from Casper and looking forward to getting some rest. I had been taking a break from driving and Janie was behind the wheel when my cell phone rang.

“Dad?” The tension in Jay's voice was palpable.

“Yeah. What's up?”

“They think Brandon may have drowned.”

We were nearly home from a week-long stay with my sister, Sharon, our mom and the family. We often met at their country home, since the location on the west side of the Rockies was between our home in Wyoming and the rest of the family, in the Texas Panhandle. It also offered the advantages of nearby trout fishing and a great view of the Sangre De Cristo range.

There are several things my siblings and I share. One of those is a love of music, and when we went to Colorado, the guitars came with us. Singing together was a tradition we had all learned as children and at the time, it was still a part of every gathering. We all passed this down to our children and they all loved to join in.

Fishing is another family tradition and for me as well as my sister's husband, Arnold and their youngest son, Brandon, fly fishing for trout was an absolute must when we visited. It had become a habit for Brandon and I to fish together, and we had an ongoing, friendly competition. The fishing was the important thing.

We had just spent our last vacation day at a lake near their home. There was a monster fish that Brandon had been trying to catch, and he needed to show it to me. Sure enough, in a small, secluded pool, there was a lone trout, and it was a trophy fish by anyone's standards. Unfortunately, it was also in full possession of its faculties and well aware of us.

We stood and watched it for a while and decided that it deserved to live out its days in peace, but he was determined to catch it, take a picture, and then release it. We had never really needed to keep any trophies; we ate the fish we kept and this old hog would be less than ideal for that. We spent a while longer at the lake, then went back for dinner.

Janie and I had left the next morning to head home. My son, Jay, had come with us, and had asked to stay there for the remainder of the summer to work. Sharon, Arnold and their sons, Keith, Shannon and Brandon, ran a highly successful chainsaw carving business. Any member of the family was always welcome to help carve, paint, haul wood, sharpen saws, and so on.

I readily agreed to let him stay to earn a little extra money and spend some quality time with his cousins, especially Brandon. Jay was in high school and a few years older, so he had a better rapport with the older boys, but time with Brandon was important to us all, with good reason.

Brandon had been born with cystic fibrosis. For those who don't know, CF is an incurable, genetic disease that causes severe problems with the lungs and digestive system, due mostly to excessive, thick mucus buildup. Children born with CF suffer from side effects such as reduced weight, impaired muscle growth, lung infections, osteoporosis, diabetes and reduced life expectancy. At fifteen years of age, Brandon was one of the “older kids” with his condition.

Those fifteen years had been hard-earned by Brandon and his parents. Exhaustive treatments, surgeries, medications, hospital stays and doctor visits were the norm. He was short, with a slight build and often tired easily. He was as aware, as we all were, that his chances of growing old were slim. It never stopped him from fighting.

I don't know if it's common for CF kids to be downright feisty, but I can understand that it would be the best way to cope with the knowledge that you didn't have much time in this life. Brandon gave his doctors and teachers hell. He gave the family hell. He gave life hell. As strange as it may sound, it was one of his most endearing qualities and one of the reasons I loved and admired him.

With my mind scrambled and an ache in my chest, I called Sharon as soon as Janie and I made it to the house. She explained that Brandon and a friend, James, had gone back to the lake to try for that fish. They had stayed until late afternoon, and when they decided to leave, they realized all of their gear was on the other side of the lake. To save time, they decided to swim across a short span to retrieve it, then walk around to the road home. Halfway across, Brandon started to have trouble and before James could get back to him, Brandon went under and didn't come back up.

I can't imagine what the experience must have been like for James. I don't know exactly how he got word to the family, but it had to be brutal for a teenage boy and I know it's a memory he'll never shake.

The County Sheriff was called, but by the time they reached the lake with a boat and divers, it was too dark to work and they would be dragging the lake the following morning. We wouldn't have absolute confirmation until they located a body, but we knew it would come, and it did.

After a rough night's sleep and a day to contact business customers, withdraw funds, do laundry and repack, Janie and I had made the return trip without any major incidents. As we pulled up to the house, the realization hit me that this time, Brandon wouldn't be standing outside, fly rod in hand, to greet me with that expectant grin. Now, here we were with the rest of the family, shocked, heartbroken and weary to the bone. Sharon's “favorite uncle” statement had flattened me, and for a while, I simply listened to everyone else.

Over the next several days, we all prepared a memorial service. Brandon had, long ago, told his parents he wanted to be cremated. I could understand why he would be happy to let the body he had been given be reduced to ashes. I could actually take comfort in the fact that he was free of the restrictions it had placed on him. I wrote that down as one of the things I would say when the time came to speak at the church.

I would also be reading a page written by my daughter, Lori, who had loved Brandon dearly, but couldn't take leave from her job. She had described him as an angel, loaned to us for a short time. I couldn't disagree.

We built a box from cedar slabs in the carving pile to hold him for the cremation. We three uncles sat down outside with our guitars and learned to play and sing his favorite song so we could sing it at the service. That was the last time I'd be able to sing it to the end.

The day of the service, family and friends gathered in a small church, read our tributes, and said our final goodbyes. As the building emptied, a sudden downpour drenched us all with warm rain. Arnold turned his face to the sky, arms wide, and danced, saying, "Brandon knows I love the rain in the daytime!"

The family returned to the house and we all prepared, reluctantly, to part ways. Before leaving, however, there was one more trip to plan.

The following month, on Brandon's birthday, our family gathered again, at a place you may know, called Blue Mesa Reservoir. It's a long, deep lake, nestled in a canyon between Gunnison and Montrose, Colorado. There's a favorite family fishing spot there.

Above a creek that leads to a secluded cove on that lake, there's a plaque nailed to a tree. Buried at the base of that tree are a few of Brandon's ashes, along with a few gifts from the family. I tossed my gift to him into the creek below, in honor of the times we waded the streams together. The remainder of his ashes were given to the breeze.

The waters that helped form the bond between Brandon and me had also taken him away. I have to believe they took him home. He gifted me with a lifetime of memories, and the wisdom and tenacity of a young heart that knew, too well, that life is a gift with an unknown expiration date.

Many years have passed, along with much water under a number of bridges. Janie and I dissolved our marriage after eight years together, and I am, happily, fourteen years into my third marriage, with a woman who patiently deals with the temperament of a writer. Pam and I are currently back in the Texas Panhandle, but will be returning to Wyoming soon. Jay is there, Pam's grandkids are there, and the streams are calling me home.

My brothers are also in Texas, though we don't spend much time together. Mom passed 2 years ago and Arnold is gone now, too, no doubt fishing with Brandon somewhere. Sharon and the boys are still in Colorado, carving bears. We talk occasionally. Life demands too much of our time.

I am blessed with memories of grand adventures with my family, and Brandon is the star of many. I will be attempting to “put them on paper” in a book I hope to write, about the life lessons I've learned while fly fishing. Yes, it sounds corny, but those who have found themselves connected to the rhythm of the universe while surrounded by nature will understand.

The song posted with this story was Brandon's anthem. I've never met another soul that lived it the way he did. Please, listen closely to the lyrics, and try to understand it from his perspective.

“Choose to chance the rapids, and dare to dance the tide.” ©Garth Brooks and Victoria Shaw

***

This one was difficult. There's so much more to be said, but those stories will have to be told separately. Time to get off my butt and write them. Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this story, please leave a "heart" and a comment. Tips are appreciated, but never expected. BETTER YET: Consider making a small donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, in honor of Brandon Clemans.

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About the Creator

Dana Crandell

Dad, Stedpad, Grandpa, Husband, lover of Nature and dogs.

Poet, Writer, Editor, Photographer, Artist and Tech/Internet nerd. Content writer by trade. Vocal Creator by choice.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  1. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  2. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (31)

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  • Sirena Carroll - The Blind Single Mom4 months ago

    This story smote me right in the heart. You communicate Brandon's loss in such a way as to convey both tragedy and joy. Losing him broke hearts, but from what I read, it didn't break spirits. He lived on in everything you did, in the music you played and listened to and in the lessons you carried forward with you. Those memories built beside the water ring with such nostalgia, sweetness and bitterness entwined. Thank you so, so much for sharing this with us.

  • Mother Combs4 months ago

    Such an intensely beautiful tribute to your nephew. My heart goes out to you and your family at the lost of such a wonderful young soul.

  • Amelia Moore4 months ago

    sad and intense, but beautiful. great job!

  • Novel Allen5 months ago

    Loss is never easy, we have all faced it at some time. our story was heartfelt and so well articulated. RIP Brandon and all family members resting with the angels. Really great story, if a bit sad.

  • Veronica Coldiron8 months ago

    Wow. It's been a long time since I connected with writing in a way that makes me cry, but this was so powerful to read. I think old wounds never heal because sometimes we just need to feel them to remember. I'll be keeping you and your family in my prayers and am looking forward o reading more in the coming months.

  • Paul Stewartabout a year ago

    You did Brandon proud with this piece. I felt all the highs and all the lows you described and it felt like we all, everyone reading it, got to know this young man who was obviously awesome, a little bit. I am truly sorry for your family's loss. Congratulations on this being a Top Story too. Well-deserved.

  • Kayla Lindleyabout a year ago

    Here's my thought- there is no manual that someone gives on how to grieve when a loved one passes. Period. Its raw and painful. It's just apart of the spectrum of life. That being said I thought this piece was beautiful, and I am so sorry for what you have gone through. I know it must be really hard to have had this happen. But if you need to talk we are here for you all! Well done on this piece. -Kayla

  • Jason Aabout a year ago

    Great song, great story.

  • James miaabout a year ago

    That's great. I was impressed by your writing. I am happy to see such a topic. Please come to my blog and read it. Website: https://marykayintouch.site/

  • Loryne Andaweyabout a year ago

    Thank you for sharing with us your memories of this vibrant and fiery soul. Thanks to you, his story will be remembered by all who read this. Take care ❤.

  • Katherine Silvey Batesabout a year ago

    Thank you for sharing the story of such a feisty, free-spirited soul with us. You honored him through written word so beautifully; you honored your whole family. My heart aches for the grief you all share and what he had to endure during his life. He also lived spectacularly with wonderful family, friends, the trout, and the river.

  • Samia Afraabout a year ago

    Bittersweet. Thanks for sharing your story and honoring your nephew.

  • Kelli Sheckler-Amsdenabout a year ago

    How heartbreaking! Thank you for sharing such a personal story. Congratulations on the top story

  • A. Lenaeabout a year ago

    What a beautifully-written tribute that honors such a special and fierce individual. As someone familiar with my own brand of grief, I believe this is such a powerful way to heal and live, by writing about the ones you love. I'm sorry for the loss you and your family experienced. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  • R. J. Raniabout a year ago

    Hi Dana, I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing such a touching and personal story with us and letting us share in the way you cherish the memories and time spent together.

  • Kristen Balyeatabout a year ago

    I’m so sorry for your family’s loss! Thank you for sharing with us- I truly felt every word…you wrote the grief so beautifully. I’ll be looking forward to reading your book! I connect to your reasoning very deeply- there are so many lessons to be learned in the teachings of nature- we just have to listen. 💫

  • KJ Aartilaabout a year ago

    A heart-breaking, but beautiful story - thank you so much for sharing it. ❤️

  • Sonia Heidi Unruhabout a year ago

    What a moving tribute to a fiesty soul. Love and pain go hand in hand. I'm glad this was top story so more people can get to know Brandon.

  • Caroline Cravenabout a year ago

    Gosh. This was beautiful and so sad.

  • Lori Meltonabout a year ago

    So very moving, Dana! Thank you for opening your heart and sharing Brandon's story. My cousin's son has CF. I could relate to everything you shared. My heart goes out to you and your family for this unimaginable family tragedy and loss. You're very talented and I believe the things that render us the most vulnerable to write about are often the most relatable - and beautiful. Congratulations on your Top Story! <3

  • Mark 'Ponyboy' Petersabout a year ago

    Awesome. Thank you for sharing!

  • Awesome ✨ and Congratulations 🎉

  • Ahna Lewisabout a year ago

    Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing this story of Brandon. And congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Babs Iversonabout a year ago

    Right now, can't write too emotional.💕💖💕

  • Dana Stewartabout a year ago

    Congratulations on Top Story, Dana!

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