Kre, her sister Paw and their mother and father went to the river that afternoon. They went to the place of sadness where the large rock that rests on the river bottom rises up from the top of the water. Kre carried with her a pillow, just one ordinary pillow. But, that pillow was the one that Kre’s sister Wiver slept with each night. There is an old custom in Kre’s culture that her family believed in, and in Kre’s world customs must be adhered to. The custom states that if a pillow is thrown into the water where someone was last seen, the pillow would float down the river to the place where the person could be found; where Kre’s sister, Wiver could be found.
For ten long and perilous years, now nineteen year old Kre, her younger sisters Paw and Wiver and her parents along with 43,000 other displaced Burmese citizens called the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand home. Life there for the family fleeing the violence in their home country of Burma was difficult and those living within the camp’s boundaries and fences were little more than prisoners.
There were times when Kre’s father would tell stories of his life in what is now known as Myanmar. He talked about the beautiful people and the beautiful land but also told the children that the family could never return to their home. He told them that returning to their homeland held only the promise of death. However, Kre’s mother and father did have a dream. That was the dream of someday living a life without fear in the land of freedom, America.
There came a day when the family’s dream of coming to America was finally realized. The family of five came to Washington State, then moved to Minnesota and finally found a home in the small Southwest Missouri town of Noel. Noel was home to approximately fourteen hundred people who enjoyed living in the tree covered Ozark hills and valleys. The waters of the slow moving Elk River flowed under the Main Street Bridge and below the bluffs that overhang the road leading into town which is often referred to as “The Prize Drive” because of its scenic beauty.
When the hot summer sun warms the waters of Elk River the tourists bring their campers and fishing rods to Noel, but only the local residents know the best fishing holes and Kre’s family knew of such a place. It was where the big rock juts out of the water alongside State Road DD just outside of Noel. That is where the family made plans to spend Monday afternoon, July 13th. Although no one in the family could swim, they all enjoyed spending time together near the water while laughingly assessing each other’s fishing proficiencies.
Kre drove the family to the river where Wiver, Paw and Kre’s mother would wait while Kre and her father drove to the local grocery store to get some food and drinks for the day’s outing. Before driving away Kre cautioned the three staying behind about getting in the water and reminded them that none of the three could swim. All acknowledged her words of caution and laughed as they waved goodbye.
Kre and her father were gone no more than ten minutes but Kre knew something was wrong as soon as she caught sight of her mother. Kre’s mother was crying while Paw stood by her side talking on her phone. Kre feared the worst as she quickly jumped from the car and shouted “What’s wrong, where is Wiver?” Without speaking Kre’s mother pointed to the water and the big rock. Kre didn’t yet understand and asked “What happened; where’s Wiver?” Kre didn’t want to hear the words and already knew the answers to her questions. She now recalls that she was very angry with her mother and Paw for ignoring her earlier warning, and to this day she harbors the haunting regret and guilt over those feelings of anger.
Kre’s mother, while still crying, said that the three had entered the water and waded out to the big rock. The three climbed onto the slippery stone and all at once Wiver fell into the dark, fast moving water. Paw also slipped but Kre’s mother grabbed her shirt which saved her from the same fate. Wiver was carried downstream as Kre’s mother watched and screamed her name, but there was no answer as the water soon swallowed Wiver.
Police and rescuers soon responded to Paw’s call for help but Wiver was gone. For three days more than fifty people searched for Wiver and what began as a search and rescue effort soon transformed into a search for Wiver’s body which ended at 11:10 A.M. on Wednesday, July 15th.
The two men in the small aluminum boat had been navigating the waters of Elk River during the daylight hours for the past three days. The two were searching for something they really didn’t want to find, but knew they had to find it. The two knew that their mission, and that of others on the water, must be brought to a resolution for their sake, and for the sake of others.
“Hey, there’s something over there,” the man in the front of the boat said. “I don’t see anything, where,” the man operating the small motor attached to the rear of the boat asked. The man in front raised up as to see better and while pointing to an object near a log said “Over there, near the log and just sticking out of the water, take the boat over there.”
Those who stood silently and watched as Wiver’s body was taken from the water swear that the river’s waters became calm, the wind ceased to blow and the birds in the trees no longer sang. It was as if all of nature was paying respect to the little girl found. For a moment, the world was at peace.
A week or so after Wiver’s funeral, and very early one morning when the night still cast darkness over the world, Kre was awakened by the touch and sound of her sister Paw. “Kre, Kre, wake up,” Paw said. “Paw, it’s too early, go back to sleep’” “Kre, Wiver came to see me while I was sleeping. She told me we should stop crying.
“Wiver said she was alright and we should not be sad. She told me she was in Heaven and some day we would be together again. Then she said she would never again come to me.” For a moment there was only silence in the darkened room then finally Kre said “I’m glad Wiver is in heaven and I miss her, goodnight Paw.”
Wiver loved so many things about life. She loved to laugh, tell anecdotes, the color green and life itself. She came from the refugee camp in Thailand with a dream, a dream to be free; A dream to be free in her new homeland, America. Her dream came to fruition but her fate seemed to be preordained when she went to the river that hot summer day.
WIver’s ambition was to someday teach young children and although that goal was never reached she constantly taught those around her how to laugh and how to appreciate all that life had to offer. When Kre prays she asks that Wiver know how much she is loved and missed but she also asks that Wiver remember that the three sisters will one day be together again.
Although Wiver’s death has caused so much pain to live in Kre’s heart, she knows that her little sister is free. Wiver is free from the refugee camp in Thailand and her soul is free from earthly restraints. She now lives in Heaven.
Kre and her family came to America to be free and if history has taught us anything, it is that freedom is not evergreen and often comes with a price: and for Kre’s family and Wiver, that price was so very great. I am constantly reminded that freedom is never really given to each of us but only offered as a loan; a loan whose payments are sometimes very high.
This story is not simply about the tragic drowning of a little girl but also about the dreams of freedom that lived, and continue to live, in the hearts of a family from Myanmar. It’s the story about a family that came to America and found the glorious light of freedom, but they discovered that the storms of heartbreak and tragedy inflict the oppressed and the free, alike. But, the family of, now four, knows that there will someday come a time when the group will once more be a reunited family of five, and they will be with Wiver.
On the day that the river returned Wiver to her family searchers found something else floating in the water; it was a pillow. Wiver’s bed pillow was found not far from her.
Kre now attends college and dreams of someday becoming a nurse.