Gathered at the River

by Bob Bach

Parkinson’s is a nasty disease and one of the most common neurological disorders of the elderly. It is caused by progressive deterioration of the nerve cells of the brain that control muscle movement. It took hold of my mother, Anna Bach, shortly after my father died in 1982. It was sad to see a gradual progression of shaking, trembling, slow speech, and confusion. But there was always a gentle sweetness about her, and she never lost the little twinkle in her eye. She was a descendant of Swedish immigrants, born and raised on a grape farm in Fresno, and came to the mountains in the late 1920s as a high school home economics teacher. She was married in 1939 to the local preacher, Fred Bach, and together they planted Community Covenant Church of San Andreas. At the age of seven, I was adopted into their home. Anna loved to cook, sew, play the piano, and when she became unable to do these things any longer, she slid rapidly downhill. She died quietly in 1986, and there is no doubt that Parkinson’s disease weakened her system and made her susceptible to various other ailments.

Even though it was difficult for her to get around, she loved outings – especially in her final years. A little change of scenery, some fresh air, and a new venture would always seem to send a burst of energy through her frail body. It was on a warm summer day that we decided to take her to a popular picnic and swimming area located alongside the picturesque Mokelumne River. A short distance upstream from the bridge which spans the river and serves as the dividing line between Calaveras and Amador counties; this sandy little beach was a perfect spot for a family outing. The river, which roared down the canyon, quieted at this point making a terrific swimming hole before resuming its rapid course downstream. A pleasant place for a picnic was nestled beneath some big oak trees, and the neat little sandy beach led right into the cool water. We unloaded the car, settled my mother into her wheelchair in the shade beneath the trees, set out the potato salad, chips, sandwiches, jello, and lemonade for our picnic, and watched our children frolic in the river. It was a beautiful day – deep blue sky, bright sunshine, chirping birds. My mother seemed so content as she nibbled on a sandwich and occasionally let out a peaceful sigh.

Shortly after we had settled in, chattering voices could be heard coming down the trail from the road above. A group of young men and women appeared on the scene and, just like that, peeled off all their clothes and jumped into the water just a short distance from where we were gathered. I saw my mother glance over at them and then look back at me. I pretended I didn’t see anything. No words were spoken, but I could sense that something was going on in her mind. Our children were oblivious to anything but their own joy of jumping off the rocks and splashing one another. “How about a little jello, Mother,” I said nervously. “O.K.” she whispered, as she stared me down. Meanwhile, the skinny dippers had come out of the water, and like seals, were stretched out on the rocks, basking in the late June sun. “Would you like to go home now, Mother?” I asked weakly. “Not just yet,” she answered softly. “Not just yet.”

It was quiet in the car on the way home. The children were tuckered out from an afternoon in the river, and I hadn’t yet figured out the right words to say. My wife, Marlene, was in the back seat with the children, eyes closed, head resting strangely on her hand. My mother was in the front seat with me. She was slumped down and her chin was on her chest. “Did you have a good time today, Mother?” I asked feebly. “Yes,” she whispered. “I’m sorry about the skinny dippers,” I continued. “We would have gone somewhere else had we known they would be there.” I was stammering now, and then it got real quiet. The silence was heavy. And then my mother raised her head and spoke in a surprisingly clear voice. “We used to do that down in the canal when I was kid in Fresno.” I heard a snicker come from Marlene in the back seat. I grasped the wheel firmly in my hands and stared straight at the road. No words could find their way out of my mouth.

That evening after we had put my mother and the children to bed, Marlene and I slumped down onto the sofa. “About your mother skinny dipping in the canal in Fresno?” Marlene said quietly. “Yes?” I answered. “Do you think that maybe Parkinson’s has her a little confused?” she asked. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “And we’ll never know, will we?”

“Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river –
Gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.”