The Sound of Still Water

Break wall

I was an active kid growing up in Western New York. 

I lived on a bicycle and played sports year round. In the summers, I was dirty from head to toe. Winters were spent hurling our bodies down sledding hills. Our mothers would have to holler down the street to get us back inside. As far as physical play was concerned, my friends and I were junior All Pro child-maniacs. We ran, ate, played, and slept - that was life. We could disappear into the woods for hours untethered from adults. It was madness. It was freedom.

The first time I found a dead body I was 9 years old.

My cousin and I were walking down on the rocks along the Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo, N.Y. We saw what looked like a green puffy jacket floating on the surface of the water, silently bumping against the giant boulders of the break-wall. The lighting was perfect. The water like glass. And there it was: I could make out shoes and legs dangling beneath the surface of the jacket. I remember pointing and shouting, “there’s a dead body in the water!”.

I was fascinated and excited. I don’t remember being scared at all. My Uncle, who was walking about 50 yards behind us - was yelling that it was just a sleeping bag and to keep moving. He didn’t want to deal with it. We detected panic in his voice. We were 8 and 9 years old - as soon as we heard his voice change, we sprinted down the rocks to the investigate. I quickly found a stick and starting poking and prodding the jacket. I needed visual confirmation. I don’t know why. I managed to get under it with the stick and use the rocks to make a lever. I barely had to touch it to get it to roll over. The body was bloated and full of gas. The person had been dead for while. The first thing I noticed were his eyes. The eye lids looked like they’d been eaten away by fish. A thick yellow-tinted foam oozed from his nose and mouth.

This was indeed a dead man.

What stands out to me about that day is the sound of still water and how quiet death really is. How matter of fact it is. How strangely natural it all was. Tragic, yes. But I was blown away to think that if no person were to find him - the earth would just consume and recycle him as if he’d never existed. And it occurred to me that I will die too, and the earth will reclaim my body someday. Impermanence began to wash over me. It wasn’t scary but enlightening. But I also stopped feeling like a kid that day.

Now, I had been to funerals and open casket wakes before - but this was a different level of death.

Trust the wind. Matthew Crane. 2022.
“Red Racer” Oil on canvas. Matthew Crane 2015.

There were no cell phones in 1993 so it took some time before the police could get involved. When the Police arrived, my Uncle was required to give a police report to investigators. This all lasted for what seemed like hours. The news eventually showed up, it became a frenzy. In the mean time, my cousin and I sat on the rocks and watched this man’s body bob up and down with the rhythms of lake Erie. We started referring to the body as “Bob”.

Look Again

After that day, I never really talked about the event. It would come up occasionally with friends or family, but I never talked to a therapist about it in detail. I just went on trying to be a kid. I compartmentalized it and began distracting myself with sports, competition and fitness. My body was one of a few things I had control over. I could go into the gym and sweat hard, and feel good about myself and my place in the world - win or lose. Physical exhaustion helped me sleep. If I missed a day, the hamster cage would spin all night.

It would be 15 years before a psychologist would help me process not just Bob - but all kinds of childhood trauma, domestic violence, and emotional abuses. When I finally opened up in therapy - I realized just how many questions I had about Bob that I never asked. Who was he? What was his real name? How did he end up face down in the Marina? Who was his family - did he even have any family? I went down a rabbit hole of news clippings and obituaries and found nothing. Did anyone mourn this man? There was a lot more to unpack in my mind than I ever imagined. It was beyond beneficial to finally talk to someone who was qualified to listen. For one reason or another, the opportunity for me to unload these questions wasn’t available when I was 9. I held on to them for years , unresolved. The very simple, logical answer that “it just happens” was unacceptable for me - until it became acceptable. But I couldn’t accept it without help.

While we can regulate our moods and stress levels effectively through exercise, it’s not enough. We often need to create new neurological pathways for our perspectives on traumatic events. We can’t bench press our demons away. There is no mileage marker for when trauma gets off our back. We must be open to discussing these things with another person, preferably a mental health professional. It restructures the brain internally and helps us change our relationship with the event.

Trust the wind. Matthew Crane. 2022.

Trust the wind. Matthew Crane. 2022.

In essence, tell someone what is bothering you, so you can hear yourself out loud. It may reveal secrets you’ve hidden from yourself. Then get your body moving into a sweat. Opening up to someone and allowing yourself to be vulnerable can be stressful. So follow it up with some kind of intentional movement practice. I personally choose the weight room. But it’s really just about committing to actions. Fold some laundry, clean your room, wash your car. Take a walk. Ride your bike. Do some push-ups. Move your body to some level of exhaustion. Do it again and again if you have too.


One more thing:

There are huge gaps in these stories. I’m trying to keep them relatively short reads. I will fill in the gaps as I move forward in my future newsletters. You’ll have to stay subscribed to learn more about my Major Malfunctions! If you have questions or something you’d like to add, please comment in the comment section!

If you can identify with my story please sign up for my email list. I’ll have interviews with survivors, folks in recovery, mental health specialists, veterans and more. Stay Tuned!
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