My brother Chad disappeared Feb. 8th, 1998 in the Spoon River at the Bernadotte dam.
He was 23 and living with my parents on West Washington Street in Macomb. Tom and I had been married 6 months and were living in Tarrytown, New York.
The phone rang at 11 pm. My dad told me to sit down, and then I heard him speak these crazy words: Chad and his friend took a canoe out on the Spoon River above the Bernadotte dam. The current pulled them over the dam, flipped the boat, and sucked them down. His friend was hospitalized after the current spit him out. I sat down. Chad knew how to swim. Why was my dad telling me this? My brother doesn’t just disappear.
The next day we flew from LaGuardia to the Quad Cities. In the house on West Washington, my mom was inconsolable. Beloved members of the First Christian Church where my dad was minister brought food and sat around the table. Everyone cried and hugged. Mrs. Vitale sent salad with their signature vinaigrette.
We piled in the minivan and drove to the dam. Snow had been melting so the current was swift, the water high, and the dam hidden except for a shift in the river flow. 50 feet below the dam, a recovery worker dredged the river bottom in vain. The undercurrent was so dangerous that recovery workers were not allowed to get close enough to the dam to find Chad’s body.
In 2008, the State of Illinois would try to mandate an exclusionary zone around the dam. Anglers objected, saying the dam was safe and drownings were rare: some drunk soldiers drowned in the 40s, and then someone “20 years ago.” They would ignore Chad’s death. It makes me wonder how many other Bernadotte drownings are not counted. Fishing is good, but forgetting the dead is not.
Back in Macomb, people would fill every corner of the church, upstairs and down. My mom continued to be inconsolable, a wreck. Her friends propped her up. Macomb can be an amazingly supportive community.
After the first year of grief, my father wrote in the church newsletter about losing a child: “Some have described it as losing a limb,” he said. “Therefore you will always live with a limp.” 16 years later, the wounded body metaphor rings true: a young man is gone, his survivors injured forever. Grief resides all over: the cells of muscles, the blood in our veins, the tips of our fingers, the gut and heart.
My father loved Macomb, but could not bear to stay here, so he and my mother moved. My mom had many friends here--some of them were outcasts, people who found our kitchen a safe place to talk.
Chad had visited me when I was working in a home for abandoned girls in Argentina. He didn’t speak much Spanish, but when he strutted around the kitchen clucking like a chicken, the girls understood him and laughed. Chad and I sat at a sidewalk café in downtown Buenos Aires and talked about the future that he was unsure of. Years later, he stood next to me when Tom and I got married in the First Christian Church.
I anxiously face Chad’s death day every year and am relieved when Feb. 8th has passed. The days get longer. My children keep growing. I invest myself more deeply in this community. And I’m grateful.
Holly Stovall is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.