The death of two children in a canoe accident robs a family of its tomorrows. Now they must find a way to fill up the future until the reunion their faith promises.

SWEPT AWAY:

October 08, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN STAFF

It was the weekend after Easter, and 10-year-old Jennifer Thompson looked like a poster for the season. She wore a flowered dress, the perfect spring dress, and carried a nosegay of daisies. Her blond bangs were combed as straight and perfect as the pickets in a fence.

In the tiny Upper Cross Roads Baptist Church in Baldwin, Jen Thompson's girlfriends gathered in their spring dresses, too, to mourn the young girl swept out of their lives when a canoe overturned on a bright, breezy afternoon.

Around Jen's shiny white casket were heart-shaped wreaths in pink and purple, the kind 10-year-old girls would choose as a tribute to a friend. Pinned on the wreaths were little farewell notes written in the curvy, looping penmanship of young girls.

Jen's grandmother, Donie Ely, stepped up to the casket and gazed down at her only granddaughter, the child who had charmed the reserved older woman like a sprite. She stroked Jen's arm with lingering, loving sweeps of her hand, and kissed her before the casket was closed.

A matching white casket stood next to Jen's on the altar steps, awful in its emptiness. Like his sister, 6-year-old Sam Thompson had slipped into the sleepy death of hypothermia. But his anguished family was still waiting for the Chesapeake Bay to give up his body.

The church was packed with mourners as the children's parents, Laura and John Thompson of Bel Air, made the long walk down the center aisle to the first pew. There, Laura's mother and father and her two sisters waited to comfort her. They stroked her and rubbed her back, keeping constant, gentle hold of Laura, fearing perhaps that she would fly away from them to some painless place.

John, who would never speak publicly about the deaths of his children, sat stone straight next to his wife. In the space between them in that pew, there was already a great distance.

Also in that first pew was the children's uncle and favorite playmate, Paul Weber, who had cheerfully given in to their pleading for a canoe ride at the family's weekend home on Tilghman Island. His spirit was as numb and lifeless as his body had been when they found him in the water, near death himself, but still clinging to the life jacket from which small Sam had slipped.

In the hours after the canoe capsized in the Choptank River, his only thought had been to return the boy who had died in his arms to his mother. And he had failed.

As Sam and Jen's disbelieving family gathered to pray, watermen from the Eastern Shore communities around Tilghman were searching for the body of a little boy they had never met.

These men, who could be as unforgiving as the bay in their judgment of an amateur canoeist, found themselves grieving for a family that did not live or work among them but only vacationed in the big, new house at the tip of the island.

In the days after the accident, they searched the water at the end of each workday, determined to find Sam and return him to his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Without Sam, there could be no peace for a family that had lost its only children, that had lost its very center.

The church was soon flooded with the soft, breathy notes of a flute. It was a recording of "It Is Well With My Soul," the song Jen had played on her flute to win a fine arts competition at Harford Christian School just weeks earlier.

The hymn was written in 1873 by Horatio G. Spafford, a Chicago businessman, while he gazed over the railing of a ship at the spot where a previous vessel had sunk and his four daughters had drowned. It was a hymn of faith in adversity, and Jen had learned it with surprising ease. Now, it was being played to comfort her family.

From the pulpit, the Rev. Robert Condict pronounced the forgiveness Laura had already bestowed on her brother-in-law, Paul Weber.

"Paul," the minister said, "you were there when the children needed you. Because of your strength, they died without pain or struggle."

After the funeral ended, the pall bearers piled the wreaths and flowers in the graveyard behind the church, on a spot not far from a playground and swing set. But the men loaded the two white caskets back into the hearse and drove away. They would wait for the boy before they opened the ground.

"They say that God does not give you more than you can bear," Laura Thompson, 36, would say later. "I could not have buried both my children that day."

The outing

"I truly believe the only thing I could have done differently was not go," Paul Weber said weeks later.

His strength, sapped near to death by five hours of treading water in the Choptank River, cold and fast-running on that warm day in April, had returned, though he tired easily in the afternoons, he said.

He spoke softly in the empty coffee shop near his law office in Annapolis. He delivered the facts of that day in the precise speech of a lawyer, keeping a safe, verbal distance between what happened and what he must have been feeling.

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