The Rising Floodwaters of Sadness

winnie the pooh

E. H. Shepard, “Surrounded by Water”

When my mother called yesterday from Sewanee, Tennessee to tell me that my father may be dying, Julia and I jumped in our car and drove the twelve hours. He was in a morphine-induced sleep when we arrived. I write this at the end of a long day and am feeling at the moment as though I’ve been bludgeoned.

This summer has seemed like a reprieve and a special gift. Although it began with my father slipping into dementia following a bladder infection, he then regained his faculties, and I spent two precious months listening to him recount World War II and Civil Rights era stories and talk about literature. Although I then had to return to Maryland, I stayed in almost daily contact and knew him to be as sharp as ever. Just two days ago he was working with my mother to find their weekly literary contribution to The Mountain Messenger, Sewanee’s weekly newspaper. And now this.

The passage they found had to do with rain since it’s been raining all summer in Sewanee, with rainfall 22 inches above normal. I share it here because the description of the rising flood waters in A. A Milne’s “Surrounded by Water” chapter in Winnie-the-Pooh also captures my sense that we are all about to be submerged:

It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet told himself that never in all his life, and he was goodness how old—three, or was it four?—never had he seen so much rain. Days and days and days…

[I]t was rather exciting. The little dry ditches in which Piglet had nosed about so often had become streams, the little streams across which he had splashed were rivers, and the river, between whose steep banks they had played so happily, had sprawled out of its own bed and was taking up so much room everywhere, that Piglet was beginning to wonder whether it would be coming into his bed soon.

At the end of the chapter, of course, there’s a miraculous rescue as Christopher Robin and Pooh turn an umbrella into a boat and save Piglet. I’m pessimistic that there will be any miraculous rescue here. This feels more like  William Cowper’s “Castaway,” about sailors looking on helpless as a fellow crew member drowns before their eyes:

He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
         To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
         That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
         And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
         Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.

The hospital is doing all it can and yesterday intervened as my father’s pulse started racing. But it feels is though the medical staff are just postponing the inevitable.

In the end, it may be our own metaphorical immersion in depression that we fear the most:

No voice divine the storm allay’d,
         No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
         We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

Pray for us.

Added note: There’s another reason why my father turning to the Pooh books hits me hard. As I wrote a while back, he named me after Christopher Robin because, he said, he envisioned having the kind of relationship with his firstborn that Milne’s character has with Pooh. I look back with gratitude at the adventures we have had together.

The “Surrounded by Water” chapter comes right before the final chapter, “We Say Good-Bye.” Although my father read the Pooh books to my brothers and me over and over, he would never read the final pages of that chapter, where Pooh says farewell to Christopher Robin and walks off into the sunset. He found it too sad.

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  • Barbara

    Dear Robin, I am so very sorry. Praying for you all. Barbara

  • Ruth

    Your blog has been a source of strength and reflection for me this past while, as I have coped with my father’s dying and his death. I am grateful that you have been able to articulate for me what I have been unable to. Prayers for you as you move forward through this process.

  • Gabriel

    Praying for your family, Robin.

    With a hug,


  • Robin Bates

    Thank you Gabe, Ruth, Kristina, and Barbara. A sense that there is a broader supportive community is vital at times like this. My friend Sue Schmidt sent the following e-mail and said I could share it:

    From Sue:
    After reading your post, this passage from Isaiah came to mind. (God is speaking to the Israelites in exile.)

    When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.
    When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.
    When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.

    Also, Psalm 139 (which was my grandmother’s favorite) has this wonderful set of lines in it:

    8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
 if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
 if I settle on the far side of the sea,10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

    May you feel the presence of the Spirit today, dear friend. You are loved.

  • kristina

    Praying for you and your family.

  • You and your family have been in my prayers, and shall be.

  • Meg

    Just spoke to Mother and am so sorry about your father. Winnie the Pooh (all the books)was my favorite thing to read to my children and I also found the ending too sad.

  • Pat Wiser

    Robin, the last time I visited your dad at home, he proudly showed me his Pooh books. I know that, eventually, you will find comfort in the adventures, Pooh’s and others, that you shared with our dear Scott.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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