When I was a medical student on the cardiology service at Stanford, we admitted an elderly pediatrician one night with a heart attack. He was a gracious, generous man who in his retirement continued to volunteer providing medical care to juveniles involved in the justice system. At first he seemed to be recovering well, but within a few days his heart began to fail, and his weakened heart could no longer pump enough blood to keep his lungs clear and his blood well-oxygenated. While we gave him diuretics to drain excess fluid and other drugs to stabilize his rhythm, he ordered takeout food from a local Chinese restaurant and invited the nurses, house staff and students to a dinner party in his room. Of course, he couldn’t eat any of the food himself.
One morning on rounds the attending physician asked our patient how he had passed the night. He gave us a sad smile. “I have seen the dark river,” he said.
Two days later he died quietly.
“I have seen the dark river.” That phrase has echoed in my mind ever since. At the moment he said it, all of us listening understood that our patient had foreseen his death and accepted it. I often imagine him coming down to the dark river and gazing across it. On the other side, beyond the fringe of trees, children play in sunlight on the grass. Maybe they are children he cared for, some he lost, all during his long career. Maybe they are simply other children like the ones he knew.
The waters of my pediatrician’s dark river move slowly. They swirl, but gently. They reflect the stars, but there is no moon.
A reader once told me that crossing water in a story or myth means death. In Christian imagery, crossing the river Jordan is associated with spiritual death and rebirth. Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection of poetry, collected by her husband Ted Hughes, is called Crossing the Water. The title poem, haunting and beautiful, shares the metaphorical death that is despair and then hints at a rebirth of hope.
Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
In THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, Kiran crosses the water a number of times, but each time creates a crisis and perhaps a kind of death. There is the death of his dream of becoming a soldier, the death of his belief in his own bravery, and then the very near physical death of his swim across the lake—this time, finally, leading to a kind of spiritual rebirth.
In life, I think, we may cross the water many times in different ways. But in the end, and this is nothing to fear, each of us will approach and finally see, in all its clarity, the dark river.