Southwest Wisconsin has always been my getaway. When there is little peace to find, some of it can usually still be found here. I am not much for the rugged outdoors. I am not known for schlepping in the mud, eating bugs, cooking over wood fires, or burying what I leave in a hole. I don’t rough it well. I am more for backdrops and nostalgia, scenery and landscapes. When I need that I travel west from Dodgeville. The rolling hills, the farmland, and of course the rivers contribute to that sense of peace.
Today Malcolm and I had to go to Richland Center. We took a small detour to drive along the Wisconsin from 14 to OO. This is because of Angela. I was not trying to get a look, and not hoping to find anything helpful, but I was curious how the river felt. I was sure it would be different but was not sure how. It is calming to watch kayaks and canoes paddle silently across still water or to ponder how long someone will sit with a pole in the water before giving up. For me it’s about as long as it takes for the worm to try and escape from my hand. Being near this is peaceful.
But today it was different. There were no poles in the water. There was no recreation happening as far as I could tell. There were a few kayaks and canoes around but they were there for a different reason. At least it felt different. The river did not project peace. The feeling was more somber. It had a secret. It didn’t feel as though it wanted to keep the secret but it has one nonetheless.
We pulled over at one of the few places where it’s possible and I got out. A low flying plane passed overhead. I stared at the water a moment, and then watched the plane bank out of sight assuming it was coming back for another pass. Another car stopped near and a few people stepped out and did the same. I got back in the truck and Malcolm mentioned the plane. He noticed it was flying pretty low. He wanted to know why. I told him. A little girl was with her friends playing by the water. She fell in. The water was too fast for her to get back out and the other kids couldn’t help her. People are searching for her and they cannot find her. It’s been a few days now. He wanted to know if she died. I told him she did. Everyone is avoiding saying this out loud because it’s hard but he needed to hear it. Finality is hard. Death is a hard concept for a 5 year old. All I could tell him is it was a terrible accident and that is why we can’t let him play by the water like that by himself. He said he wouldn’t. I said that’s good because he can’t. I’m torn about that, but tragedies such as this tend to push you toward caution and sometimes overprotection. So be it.
Malcolm is 5. Angela just turned 5. They are a couple generations removed from the generation of freedom and self discovery that my mom had on the farm, and recently removed from my generation where it was still acceptable to ride off on your own and play from sun up to sunset. You went home when your name echoed through the trees or neighborhood. Moms didn’t need cellphones. They had pipes to rival any loudspeakers on the market today.
We would play, and start all kinds of mischief. Between Kessenich’s on Fair Oakes there was a pretty sweet albeit unsanctioned bike track in the trees and also old porno mags. I was young enough that I preferred the track over the mags. They were confusing. At Olbrich Gardens in Madison we would jump in and out of the fountains, my older brother and I ruining our genuine Disneyland Mickey Mouse watches in the fun, because who buys a kid a watch that isn’t waterproof? The groundskeeper would chase us around, never able to chase us out because of his limp. If he got too close we would go in the building and use the elevator as a strategic escape to throw him off our trail. On other days we would ride to the beach and go swimming. On our own in Lake Monona. I limped home after cutting my foot on glass in the water or after playing in swampy Starkweather Creek and finding a leach attached to my foot. I thought I was dying. No adult supervision there. We survived. There is a little lingering trauma perhaps. But we lived. There is a possibility that we did not. There is always that possibility. Now we worry about bullies and gangs and guns and drugs and many other things other than water and wind and cranky old caretakers with a grudge.
It didn’t take long for the blame to fly, once word spread that Angela fell in and could not be found. How could they let her go? Who was supposed to be watching her? Somebody has to pay for this. I hope they are prosecuted. The list goes on. It’s a bit startling. We did the same things when we were kids. Granted it’s a bit different near a fast moving river, but if you grow up near the river, maybe the assumptions are the same. You know it and its power, and its danger and you respect it. And you know what could happen. She was a little girl out playing and made a mistake. A tragic, terrible thing happened to a little girl. The river took her. Nobody gave her to the river. Nobody decided to let this happen. Kids were playing. We played. We did the same things. We had different outcomes. We should not use our fortunate paths to sit in judgment.
I do not know this family, as far as I know. I do not know their pain first hand. I have, however spent much time with families in similar circumstance who try and find meaning in meaningless loss. The surreal task of making memorial arrangements for a child. Parents, family, and friends will ask why when that is a question that can never sufficiently be answered. There is never a good answer.
I am a reluctant atheist. I came to this title after understanding what I do about god and religion and then began to wonder if I have done enough to earn the one life, the one shot I have on this earth. The jury is still out. Whatever you believe I think we can agree on one thing. Angela’s legacy, impact is set. She has earned her spot, however brief, on this earth. Her energy is forever cast in the waters of the Wisconsin River. Her story will forever be associated with that spot and she will be able to teach us all a lesson about love, loss, protecting the ones we love and how quickly those we love can be taken from us.
The search for Angela continues. At some point they will either find her body or just simply run out of places to look, and the volunteers will run out of funds to continue. The river might give up its secret now or in the future or never. For the sake of the family and friends and communities affected, I hope they find her and soon. I hope the family can experience whatever closure comes from laying her to rest in a place and manner of their choosing, in line with their beliefs. This is how we find comfort in death. Funerals and rituals are for the living. Angela on the other hand is at rest. She has found her peace. It is in the river that so many of us turn to for peace when our minds call for it. Someday, the somber mood felt on the river will slowly give way to peace. Not because we have forgotten. But because the pain of loss will give way to the joy of remembering her life and the impact she had on those around her. Even those of us that did not know her know her story. We have seen how she lived through pictures and brief stories. I hope as time goes on we get to know more about her.
What we can do for now is support the family, friends, and searchers as they continue to look for her and for answers. There will never be a time for us on the outside to assess blame or judge. If we support and learn and reflect we can all take something away from Angela’s peace.