From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Sugar River

It was the last day of our family camping trip in Wisconsin. We had been driving for nearly three hours. It was a really hot day, and I thought I couldn’t stand another minute in the car. My younger brother and sister were squirming and fighting, and I had to sit between them, so, of course, I was getting the worst of it from both sides. I’m three years older than Aaron, and five years older than Emily, so my parents expected me to be more mature and try to keep the younger kids apart.

I was trying really hard to ignore them and just read my book, but then Aaron reached over and pinched my arm. I couldn’t take it anymore. “Cut it out!” I screamed at him, grabbing both of his hands in anger.

“Ow, you’re hurting me! Let go!” he cried.

My mother turned around and gave me a stern look. “Leave him alone! You know you have to be patient with him!” I let go of his hands with a sigh. My parents were always telling me to be more patient with him, but it really wasn’t fair. Just because he had learning disabilities, just because he was a “special” kid, he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with stuff like that. But he knew he could, and that I couldn’t pinch him back. He grinned at me. I glared back at him. He was such a pain.

Finally we rounded the last turn on the dusty country road, and the sign came into view: “Sugar River Tubing”. My brother and sister were out of the car almost before it stopped moving and raced toward the ticket booth.

I followed them more slowly, but I was pretty excited to be there, too. We would be provided with large inner tubes, driven several miles upstream in a van, and then would spend the afternoon lazily floating back down the river.

From the clearing where the shack stood, we couldn’t see the river, since the trees were thick with leaves. We followed the attendant over to a beat-up old van and climbed inside. After about ten minutes, we reached the drop-off point a few miles upstream.

As we got out of the van, the driver went around to the back and pulled out our inner tubes.

“Just walk down that path to the river,” he instructed us.

My mother gestured toward the inside of the van, where several life jackets lay tangled in a heap. “What about the life jackets?” she asked.

“Well, we’re required by law to have those,” he said, “but you won’t need them. The water’s really shallow. In some places you might even need to stand up and carry the tubes because they’ll scrape the bottom.”

We were already heading down the path, so despite her misgivings, my mother agreed to forgo the life jackets. She probably decided it wasn’t worth the arguments she would get from us if she tried to make us wear them. After all, I wasn’t a baby! I was fourteen, and I’d known how to swim since I was five. Emily knew how keep her head above water for a long time, and even though Aaron was “disabled,” he was a natural athlete and was a better swimmer than I was. As I followed my brother and sister down to the river, I heard the tires skidding on the loose gravel as the van turned around and disappeared down the road.

When I caught up with the kids, they were standing silently on the riverbank, surveying the water. Instead of a shallow stream, we saw a wide, quickly flowing river. My father stepped closer to the edge and studied the water for a moment.

“I think it looks okay,” he said. “I can see the bottom; it doesn’t look too deep. Just let me get in first, then I can help the kids get on their tubes.”

He stepped off the riverbank with a splash; the water was up to his chest—and apparently colder than he had expected.

“Jeez Louise, that’s cold!” he exclaimed, and then grinned at us. “Okay, who’s first?”

Within a few minutes, the rest of us had managed to climb onto our inner tubes, and we started floating downstream. I quickly realized that this was not going to be quite as much fun as I had thought. The water was flowing so fast that it was difficult to steer the tubes. The current kept pushing us to the sides of the river, where we found ourselves constantly having to paddle and push off the riverbanks in order to avoid being scratched by the branches overhanging the water.

As we made our way down the river, our tubes began to drift away from each other. Whenever there was a bend in the river, we would lose sight of at least one of the others, and my mother began to get nervous.

“Can you see Aaron?” she asked me at one point, as we rounded a bend. She was always checking up on Aaron.

As we came around the bend, I spotted him. He was pretty far ahead of us, which wasn’t surprising. He always insisted on being first, no matter what it was. Whenever we went somewhere in the car, he would push me and Emily out of the way to get in first, even though we all sat in the backseat anyway. And when my mother put a platter of food on the table, he would grab to take his piece first, as if there wasn’t a whole refrigerator full of food. It was really annoying, but everyone was always making excuses for him because of his learning disability. I knew that I was really getting too old to care about things like that, but I couldn’t help it.

Aaron was still pretty far ahead of us on his tube, and I could tell that it was even making my father nervous. Since I was by now much closer to him than either of my parents, my father told me to try and catch up with him. I started kicking and paddling, and gradually began closing the distance between us.

As the river straightened out, I saw that there was a fallen tree extending nearly all the way across. Aaron was heading straight for it.

“Aaron, watch out!” my father yelled to him. “Try to paddle over to the right!”

Either Aaron was too far away to hear him, or he was just ignoring him, but he didn’t even look up.

Suddenly I got scared. The current was pulling Aaron’s tube really fast, and I could see that it would only be a matter of seconds before the tube would slam into the log. He was moving fast enough that he could be badly hurt. I kicked and paddled as hard as I could, and I had almost caught up to him. I screamed, “Grab my hand!” But just as I reached out for him, his tube smacked into the tree. The force of the impact caught him by surprise, and he was catapulted off the tube into the river. Instantly he disappeared under the water. I immediately jumped off my tube—and was shocked to realize that I couldn’t touch the bottom. I grabbed onto the tree for support. The current was so strong that I was nearly sucked underneath. Frantically I looked for him—the tree’s branches formed a dense thicket under the water, and I knew that if he were caught in there he would be trapped.

Suddenly I saw them—his two little hands sticking up out of the water, desperately grasping at the slippery trunk. With one hand hanging on to the tree, I grabbed his wrist with the other hand. With every ounce of my strength, I fought to pull him above the water.

He came up gasping and choking; he threw his arms around my neck and we hung there, sobbing with fear and relief. He had lost his glasses; his face and arms were scratched from the branches; but he was safe. A moment later my father was there. He helped us up onto our tubes.

I still couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t let go of Aaron’s hand. After making sure that neither of us was hurt, my father said, “Let’s get out of here. Maybe we can climb up out of the water and walk back the rest of the way.”

I reluctantly released my grip on the trunk, and the three of us worked our way around the end of the tree and back into the current. My mother and Emily were huddling under the branches of a small bush overhanging the water, where the current had dragged them. I could see the fear in my mother’s face, and I was at that moment very thankful that she had not seen how close we had come to losing Aaron.

We surveyed the riverbank, but it was too steep to climb. We had no choice but to continue downstream on the tubes. We linked hands to form a chain and pushed off from the riverbank. The fifteen minutes it took to reach the dock seemed like an eternity. The young man who had dropped us off leaned over to help us off our tubes and out of the water.

“How was it?” he asked brightly.

My father just glared at him. The rest of us headed off to the car, leaving my father to fill him in on exactly “how it was.” When he came to the car, he said simply, “He said they had a lot of rain last night and they didn’t know the water was so deep. They’re closing down for the rest of the day.”

We set out toward the nearest city, in search of a mall that might have an optometrist, where my parents hoped to replace Aaron’s glasses. Emily sat up front between my parents, and Aaron fell asleep with his head in my lap. For once, it wasn’t annoying to have him leaning on me. It felt good. His hair was still damp and his face was streaked with mud, but he actually looked kind of cute.

As we drove into the mall parking lot, Aaron stirred. Gradually he sat up, his face flushed from the heat. He squinted in the late afternoon sun. I had never seen anything so beautiful.

“Are we there yet?” he asked.

I just smiled. “Yes,” I said, “we’re there.”

“Can we get ice cream?”

“You bet,” said my father, glancing at him with a grin.

One evening a few weeks later, my parents went to a movie, and I had to stay home and baby-sit. I was in Aaron’s room, looking for his new glasses, which had flown off his face while he was doing back flips on his bed. After we found the glasses under the dresser, he put them on and adjusted the slightly bent frames. Then he looked up at me. “You saved my life,” he said seriously. I was so surprised, I couldn’t speak. Aaron rarely said anything nice to me, and he hadn’t said anything at all about the incident. I didn’t think it had made any impression on him at all. But before I could think of what to say, the moment was over, and Aaron resumed doing flips. I don’t think he noticed the tears in my eyes.

Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and I can see things in a more mature way.

Now that I thought about it, Aaron hadn’t been nearly so annoying lately. Not that his behavior was any different. He’s still the same kid he always was. He still pushes me out of the way to get through the door first, and he still makes a big scene if he doesn’t get to pick which TV show we watch. And my parents still give into him. But lately I really don’t mind.

Even though there are still some times when I can’t stand him, it’s a little easier for me to be patient with him. I can even see why my friends think he’s cute and funny. In a way, I’m actually glad that he’s my little brother.

Aaron knows what I did for him that day on the river. He knows that I saved his life. But I’m sure that he doesn’t know what he did for me that day. Aaron showed me that I did have it in me, after all, to be the kind of big sister my parents wanted me to be, the kind of big sister I always knew I should be. Aaron helped me bring out my best that day, when I grabbed onto his slippery little hands in the water and held on as tightly as I possibly could. He needed me—and I needed him, too. I held on to him then as if both of our lives depended on it. And I’ll never let go. That’s what being a big sister means. Our lives depend on each other, and that’s always and forever.

Phyllis Nutkis

Aaron’s thoughts about the river that day.

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