Emma scoured the bank of the Ohio River to find the flattest, roundest
rock. She grabbed a dark gray half-dollar-sized one, right where the water
met the shore.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! I found a perfect one.”
Emma grabbed the rock and ran over to me. I was about ten feet away looking
for my own.
“Watch out for the wood.” I pointed to a pile of dry-rotted planks near the
Emma held her trophy up close tomy face. All the rocks were flat and large,
but this one looked like it had tiger stripes. Emma loved the baby tigers at the
zoo. In fact, she loved all animals, as long as they were “cute.” She tried a few
times to call the fluttering ducks over from across the river.
“Great.” I smiled. “You ready to try?”
“I’m ready for my rite of pathum.” Emma bounced up and down.
“Passage, honey. Rite of passage.”
Still bouncing, Emma said, “Passage. I’m ready for my rite of passage, Daddy.”
Her head nodded with each word.
It would be Emma’s first attempt to skip a rock. She beamed.
“Hold it like this.” I fixed the stone between her thumb and finger. I gently
squeezed her hand.
“Okay, okay, Daddy,” she blurted and whined. “I got it. I got it.”
“Now throw it like this, but faster.” I took Emma’s arm back to the side and
moved it forward along the same path. “And be careful not to hit anything.”
Emma thought for a moment. “What if I hit a fish?” She furrowed her brow
then her eyes grew wide. “Imay kill it!” She dropped the rock and backed away.
Her hands covered her gasping mouth.
“Emma, you’re not going to kill a fish.” I stepped toward her as I slid an arm around her. “The rock slows down once it hits the water.” I picked up Emma’s tiger-striped rock and placed it back into her hand. “I just don’t want you to hit anything before it hits the water.”
Emma gripped the rock a few times before the tips of her fingers turned a pinkish-red as she squeezed it. She threw it just how I showed her. Sort of. The rock plopped into the Ohio River. Emma growled. She was definitely her father’s daughter.
“Good form, honey. But you gotta do it a little bit faster.”
Emma let out a deep sigh as she rocked her head back.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get it soon.” I often took advantage of Emma’s competitive spirit, especially when she was about to give up at something, so I made a confession. “You know, I didn’t skip my first rock till I was at least seven.”
My brother, who was twelve years older, taught me to skip rocks.He talked about how skipping rocks was something every kid needs to learn–a rite of passage.
Emma widened her eyes, and a smile grew on her face. She tried a few more times before she skipped one twice. The next one skipped three times.
“Way to go, Emma!”
She sang: “I’m better than you were! I’m better than you were!”
“Yes, you are, honey. Two years better.” I smiled.
Emma gripped another flat rock and held it out. “Your turn.”
Emma laid the rock into my hand. I flipped it a couple times before I clutched it tight. I looked back over my left shoulder.
I unloaded the flat projectile.
The rock didn’t skip. It didn’t even touch the water as it slipped out of my hand and whipped into the air. I didn’t notice the duck fluttering down to the water when I took aim. The rock struck its head as it went to land, killing it apparently instantly. Emma gasped, then screamed.
She cried as feathers floated down.My hands framed my face as I stared in disbelief. The duck’s lifeless body bobbed on the water. I looked at my horrified daughter as she looked back at me.
I took two steps and enveloped Emma.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Tears streamed down her face.
“I didn’t see it, honey.”
I thought about the odds of this happening–the rock slipping out of my hand, the duck fluttering down near people, the rock striking the duck just as I unloaded it. It seemed unlikely, but still it happened.
“You...killed...it,” Emma screamed as she sobbed between each word.
I stroked Emma’s hair as I held my arms tight around her. “Oh, Emma. It was an accident.” I tried to be soothing, but it seemed forced, and thus fake. “I didn’t see it. I’m so sorry.” I held her tighter, rocking her back and forth. “Shhhhh.
It’s okay. Shhhh.”
Emma pulled her head back and looked at me. “What are we going to do?” she quickly asked. “We need to bury it.” She pushed me away looking around at everything.
“The ground’s too hard to dig, honey.” I searched around the bank of the river. “But I have an idea.”
I walked to the tree line and grabbed an old dry-rotted broken wooden plank lying on the bank. As I paddled the water with the plank, the duck floated to shore. I slid the plank under the duck. “You know, some Native American tribes used to send off those who died along the river—after all, Ohio is a
Native American word for ‘good river.’ I think we should send the duck off like they did.”
Emma nodded. She gazed at me carefully take care of the duck.
“Do you want me to say a prayer?”
“Yes, Daddy. I think Elizabeth would like that.”
“Elizabeth?” I tried not to smile. Emma often named things she loved and she loved all animals–even the “hibernating” lady bugs that she kept in a small wooden jewelry box in her room. She nodded, eyes red and wet. “Yes. Elizabeth.
That’s her name.”
“That’s a great name.”
Though it was painful because of the rocks, I knelt next to Emma and placed an arm around her shoulders. We bowed our heads as I prayed. “God, look with love on this dead – um, duck –and make this duck–”
“Elizabeth,” Emma interrupted.
“Oh, yeah. And make–Elizabeth–one with You and Your Son as–Elizabeth–comes before You. Amen.”
“Amen,” Emma repeated.
We each placed a hand on either corner of the plank and gave it a gentle push into the river. I picked up Emma, resting her on my hip, and we watched the funeral bed float under the glow of twilight.
Death was just an idea to Emma. Emma knew things lived and died, but she had never been this close to it. There’s an irony to the twists and turns life lays out as Emma experienced two rites of passage this day.