The Ohio River is the most polluted river in the United States. In this series of essays entitled ‘The Ohio River Speaks,‘ Will Falk travels the length of the river and tells her story. Find the rest of Will’s journey with the Ohio River here.

The Ohio River first spoke to me through my grandfather.

I was at my parents’ house in Castle Rock, Colorado. It was August, 2017 and my mother’s aging parents were visiting as part of their last major trip away from their Owensboro, Kentucky home. I was scrambling to finish a draft of the first document we filed in a federal lawsuit seeking rights for a major ecosystem, the Colorado River, and my grandfather asked me what I was working on.

I wasn’t sure if I should tell him the truth. My grandparents are devoutly Catholic. They pray the entire rosary at least once a day. They never miss Sunday Mass – though, they would prefer to go every day. My grandmother spent a year and a half in a Poor Clare convent before it was determined that being a nun was not her vocation. And, ever since they learned I no longer believe in Catholicism or their version of God, they’ve never missed an opportunity to remind me that all I need to do to avoid hell and return to a state of grace is to go to confession and then receive the Eucharist. So, I didn’t know how a conversation with my granddad about respecting the rights of the Colorado River as a living, sacred being would go.

There was something else behind my hesitation to engage my grandfather in a conversation about my radical environmental perspective: a fear of my grandfather’s disapproval.

My years in psychotherapy have taught me that I am particularly vulnerable, addicted even, to a need for my family’s approval. This fear often leads me to avoid sharing too much about my work with them. If there’s a chance my family will reject my work, I prefer not to broach the subject.

Meanwhile – excepting a few times when I want to talk about Notre Dame football or my favorite band, Phish – all I ever really want to talk about is how to protect the natural world. This combination of my fear of disapproval and passion for protecting the natural world has, too many times, caused me to simply refrain from interacting with my grandparents for long stretches of time. And, this makes me feel tremendously guilty.  But, something – or someone – urged me to tell the truth. And, to my surprise, my grandfather listened intently as I explained why I was fighting for the rights of the Colorado River.

When I finished, my grandfather sighed and told me the following story:

In 1952, my grandfather was 17 years old and the United States was embroiled in the Korean War. To avoid the hand-to-hand horrors he likely would have faced if he had been drafted into the US Army as an infantryman, my grandfather convinced his father to sign waivers allowing my grandfather to enlist in the US Navy before he turned 18. After serving for a year and a half, and fortunately with no experience of combat, my grandfather returned home to Owensboro.

Not long after he got home, and with fond memories of fishing for catfish on the Ohio River as a boy, my grandfather asked his father if he wanted to go fish with him on the river. My great-grandfather, however, told my grandfather not to go fishing on the Ohio River because the river was now “so nasty, you couldn’t hardly enjoy being down there.” But, my grandfather wanted to see for himself. So, he took a rod down to his favorite spot along the Ohio River. One cast was all it took for him to learn that his dad was correct. My grandfather recalled that when he reeled his line in, “it was so covered in tar and gunk from that one cast that I had to go home and boil my line if I was ever going to use it again.” That was in 1953. In my grandfather’s words, “The Ohio River has been filthy for ages.”

A few moments passed as he reflected on his memories.

Then, my grandfather told me, “I sure wish you’d do some work for the Ohio River, Will.”

This statement stirred something deep within me. For the first time in my life, I saw a chance to connect with my grandfather through the work I was most passionate about. I still had a lot of work to do for the Colorado River, but I knew I had to do something for the Ohio River.

While I was traveling with the Ohio River in Pennsylvania, my grandfather had a stroke at his home in Owensboro, KY. My mother made the trip from Castle Rock, CO to help her siblings take care of my grandparents. Following her example, I made the trip from northern Pennsylvania to western Kentucky to offer my help.

The day I arrived, my mother, my grandmother and I, went to the hospital my grandfather was in to transport him to a stroke rehabilitation facility. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, the short ride from the hospital to the rehab facility was likely the only face-to-face time I’d have to see my grandfather for weeks.

As I was helping him into the car, halfway between the seat of his wheel chair and the car seat, my grandfather’s legs gave out. With my arms in his under pits, I quickly realized I was not strong enough to lift him into the car and he started to slip from my grasp towards the parking lot concrete. My father’s father had died two-and-a-half years earlier after slipping on ice in a parking lot and hitting his head, and scenes from my other grandfather’s death flooded my imagination.

I overreacted. I jerked my grandfather close to my body while my mom ran for help. My 93-year-old grandmother, who suffers from dementia, forgot her age and lunged in to try to help.

My grandfather panicked as he felt himself slipping towards the concrete. His breathing stopped. He slumped against my chest. And, his eyes rolled back in his head. I thought my grandfather was dead. Oh my God, I thought, the last words my grandfather heard in this world were the ones I frantically said to my mother: “He’s just too heavy…”

This moment will always be frozen in my memory.

My realization that my grandfather was utterly dependent on me as his body slumped against mine was deeply unsettling. The natural order of things had been disturbed. Generational roles were reversed as I cradled a man who had cradled my mother who, in turn, had cradled me.

Fortunately, hospital staff quickly arrived and helped me lower my grandfather to the ground. He wasn’t dead; he had just passed out. And, he quickly came to a few moments later with the hospital staff surrounding him. When a nurse asked him his name, he coherently answered “George Taylor.”

My mother was busy asking the staff if they really thought my grandfather was ready to leave the hospital. A nurse had her arm around my grandmother, speaking softly, calming her down. I stood in a daze. What if the last few moments had been the last few moments I ever got to spend with my grandfather?

Just a few days before, I struggled with a part of me that did not want to make the 11-hour drive to Owensboro. I was tempted to rationalize my reluctance by telling myself the needs of the Ohio River were more important than the needs of my family. If the needs of a single human family are great, how much greater are the needs of the Ohio River, the mother of all life within her basin? Then, I tried to justify my reluctance with a lukewarm insistence that there really was nothing I could do in Owensboro, that my mother and my aunts and uncles had everything under control, and that the best thing I could do for my grandfather was to continue the work he had urged me to do.

This felt wrong. It felt worse than wrong. It felt downright shameful. What kind of a grandson doesn’t want to help his grandparents at a time when they’re incapable of helping themselves?

As I drove through the Ohio River basin from Pennsylvania to Owensboro, I continued to ask myself why a part of me didn’t want to make the trip. Hot, frustrated, and impatient from 7 hours of driving, as I was stuck in traffic on the Brent Spence Bridge, which crosses the Ohio River between Cincinnati, OH and Covington, KY, I rolled down my window and asked the river:

“Are you trying to teach me something through my family?”

A few moments later, I saw what appeared to be, from about half-a-mile away, a grandfather fishing with his grandson in a small aluminum boat. I remembered the way the Ohio River first spoke to me through my grandfather. I recalled the stirring deep within me that accompanied my discovery of the means to make my grandfather proud while also helping the natural world. I also remembered that arriving at this discovery required that I overcome the fear of my grandfather’s disapproval.

Two days later, squinting in the sun reflected off the hospital parking lot’s white concrete, dazed by what I thought was my grandfather’s death, and profoundly grateful to be given more time to heal my relationship with him, I realized what the Ohio River was trying to teach me.

For years, I had insisted that we fail to protect the natural world because we fail to treat the natural world like family. But, I said this while interacting with my own human family in problematic ways. How could I continue to say “we must learn to treat the natural world like our family” with a straight face if I was treating my family with fear, anger, and guilt?

I came out of my daze to hear my grandfather trying to get my attention. He said, “Thank you for being here, Will. If you hadn’t been here, I might have really hurt myself.” As feelings of pride welled up within me, I committed to learning how to treat my grandparents with compassion – not fear, anger, or guilt. And, if I was understanding the Ohio River correctly, I hoped that I just might find a glimpse into how, as a culture, we can learn to treat the natural world like family.

Featured image: Ohio River via Pixabay

You can access the original publication and the whole series here: