A mother's grief prompts fundraising

On July 14, 2000, my world came to a screaming halt. My son Nick, so full of life, was doing what all 20-year old boys should be doing on a hot July afternoon. He and his friends had gone to their favorite swimming hole on the Illinois River outside Grants Pass.

In the blink of an eye everything went wrong. Nick was trapped and, despite the efforts of his friends, he drowned. The boys have been going to this swimming hole for years, but what they didn't know and we did not discover until three weeks after his death was that because it had rained the week before the hydraulics in the river had changed. The normally safe swimming hole he was so fond of had become a death trap.

Immediately upon being notified I went to the river. Josephine County Search and Rescue had begun efforts to recover my son's body. But because of the volume of water they could not locate Nick. It was not until Sunday, 16 July that we knew for sure where Nick was.

Search and Rescue divers made many attempts to recover my son's body. There were several reasons why they were unsuccessful. First was the volume of water, second was the lack of proper equipment. At one point a grappling hook was duct-taped to an aluminum pole and a diver attempted to pull him to the surface. I watched in horror. It seemed so barbaric. Images of my son being gaffed like some kind of animal ran through my head. I could not stand the thought of it. However even those attempts failed. I made up my mind right then and there no other mother would ever have to watch such a thing.

Search and Rescue is a volunteer, nonprofit, non-funded organization, and these brave men and women risked their lives and donated their time trying to recover my son; they spent all day Saturday and Sunday trying. Sunday evening they left just as they had done the two previous nights, only this time they weren't coming back. They had to go to work Monday morning just like everyone else in America does to support their families. My boyfriend, Vern, and I were alone again.

Perched in my usual spot above the river with my flashlight, watching, praying. I have never felt more helpless and hopeless. They were not sure Nick's body would ever be recovered. They could finally see him but could not reach him. It was another long night. I did not know how we would ever get Nick back from the river he loved so much, but I did know I would not leave without him.

As I sat on my rock early Monday morning a river otter swam up the river and popped his head up, looked at me and went back down river. I have always tried to be grateful for even the smallest gifts and felt very fortunate to have seen the elusive river otter. Many people spend all their lives frequenting the river and never see an otter.

When I was telling Vern about the otter, we saw it again. I don't know why, but I told Vern we had to follow the otter. Because of the rugged terrain it took some time to search the river between the falls and the bridge.

We came over a rise and there was my Nick, in a very calm pool, the kind of water Nick called glass, it was his favorite kind of water conditions for wakeboarding. Vern swam across and brought Nick back to me. I was finally able to hold my child. While Vern ran for help, I cried, I screamed, I rocked my baby and I prayed. It took over an hour for help to arrive and as I sat with Nick's head in my lap I would have given anything to have been able to draw Nick back into my womb and give him life as I had done before.

I should tell you a tittle about my son. He was an avid outdoorsman. He enjoyed many outdoor sports such as snowboarding, rafting, kayaking, hiking, surfing, swimming, baseball, soccer, wakeboarding, camping, golf and fly-fishing, fishing any time. He worked part-time in the winter at Extreme Board Shop in Grants Pass. In the summer he was the assistant boat house manager at Galice Resort. They rent rafts and do guided fishing trips on the Rogue River.

Nicholas was interested in preserving the environment and was pursuing studies in ecology, the environment and environmental education at Southern Oregon University. He took to heart at a very early age his grandfather's belief that when in the wilderness you should leave no trace and even pick up after others who were thoughtless. It was not uncommon for him to chase down drivers he observed throwing litter from their cars, especially if it was a lit cigarette. He called their attention to what they had done and why they should not do it again; being witness to such passion made me very proud to be this young man's mother. Nick had such gusto for life.

There is a Nick-shaped hole in my universe. I am determined to make one good thing come from this overwhelming tragedy. To date we have donated over $100,000 in equipment and training. I will work until forever to help Search and Rescue get the training and equipment they need to help those who find themselves in dire situations.

"We are, each of us, Angels with only one wing, we can only fly by embracing each other." — Luciano de Crescenzo

Jana M. Jensen is the owner of Cycle Analysis in Jacksonville.

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