Jasper felt a little disoriented. Although he was laying down and his eyes were closed, for the life of him he couldn’t remember going to sleep.
There was a gentle, calming rocking that felt nothing like any bed he'd ever slept in. He was also so completely comfortable that he almost didn’t want to open his eyes.
Curiosity got the better of him.
The first thing he noticed, after his eyes had adjusted to the unexpected sunlight, was the unfamiliarity of his surroundings. Both to his left and right were the smooth curved wooden panels of a canoe. Above him showed a clear blue sky, softly interrupted with a few wispy clouds. The air felt crisp without a hint of humidity. The only things he could hear were the chirping of birds and the soothing sound of slowly moving water.
Sitting up, Jasper allowed himself to more fully take in all that was around him. Feeling himself ensconced inside a wooden canoe, he sensed being drawn by the current of a meandering river. Colors appeared more vibrant: the cool blue water and the multiplicity of greenery framing his view. The trees reminded him of his youth in Mississippi. There were elms and locust and white ash, even an abundance the favorite of every Mississippi lad: the majestic, fragrant magnolia.
Jasper hadn’t known peace for quite some time. Yet in this canoe, on this river, he felt a sweet familiarity. It lightened his soul.
Almost instinctively, Jasper lowered his hand into the water, just as he had done when he fished with his father. He pulled his hand out, allowing the cool water to drip into his mouth. It tasted like childhood, a few drops just enough to quench his thirst for its memory.
The canoe, as if being guided by the river itself, stayed exactly between the two riverbanks, even as the waterway bent to Jasper's right. The turn slowly revealed an opening on the left side of the river. From a distance, Jasper saw a man, standing with his eyes fixed on the river. The man, although too far at first to recognize, gave Jasper a feeling of profound joy. As the canoe continued its unerring way, the man came into sharper view.
He appeared to be an incarnation of Jasper’s father, long since dead. Upon seeing him, Jasper's left hand became enclosed in his old baseball mitt, an exact replica of the one Jasper used to play catch with his father. At the same moment, the man patted his own glove.
Throw me one, son.
Looking down, Jasper saw a brand new baseball in his lap. Jasper’s heart leapt as he grabbed the ball, throwing a perfect strike to his father, just as he had done more times than he could count as a boy.
With the ball now tucked tightly in the webbing of his glove, Jasper’s dad waived to his son and tapped his chest. Although no words were spoken, Jasper felt his father communicate his unconditional love for him.
As his dad slowly passed from his sight, Jasper felt nothing but gratitude for the chance he had been given to play catch with his dad one last time.
The next time the river changed course, it veered to Jasper’s left. The change in direction allowed a clearer view of the whole.
Jasper saw another person standing on the bank. Even from afar, Jasper first recognized his wife's flowing red hair. He had not seen her since the day she had passed away in his arms. Even as the disease named for a famous baseball player robbed her of her strength and her beauty and her voice and her life, on this side she was whole and beautiful and smiling the smile that had first melted his heart.
Firmly held in her right hand, she held a dish of her famous cornbread. With her left hand, she held out a large piece, just for him. Without moving, he tasted the warm buttery bread in his mouth. She silently waived to Jasper, blowing him a kiss, which he returned with deep affection. Their brief encounter ended without a trace of melancholy. The moment existed to be savored, not questioned.
Now for the first time since Jasper had awoken in the canoe, the river became perfectly straight.
As the setting sun reflected off the river, its beams hid his final destination from view. When he turned back from taking one last lingering look behind him, the figure of a young girl now sat with Jasper in the canoe.
It was his lovely daughter, Eve. She looked picture perfect with none of the injuries from the accident that had taken her life. He sat up and took her into his arms. As they embraced, there were no tears, just an ethereal sense of rightness. Just as with his first two silent encounters, no words were spoken. Instead, Eve took her father by the hand and guided him back to the floor of the canoe which was just wide enough for father and daughter to lay down side by side.
With a smile, Eve slowly closed her eyes. Jasper understood. He, too, closed his eyes while holding onto Eve’s hand like a trusting child.
In that moment Jasper felt a greater peace as the canoe disappeared into the far distant horizon.