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."
"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.
"I was looking for every reason not to go," said Paul, who grew up in Annapolis and learned to sail years ago. "But you know how kids are. Sam and I went down to the water to take a look to make sure it was OK. It was sunny and the water was as level as glass. There was no excuse."
Married to Laura's older sister, Susan, for six years but without children of his own, Paul, 37, was a built-in playmate for Sam and Jen. On the way to the family's Tilghman Island retreat, he stopped to buy Trouble and other games for the kids and balls for the families' three rambunctious Weimaraner puppies.
"When I arrived at Tilghman, I saw Sam playing with the puppies on the lawn. They were all over him, and he was giggling. He had the most hilarious giggle. It looked like that Kodak commercial.
"We rode bikes and played softball. It was one of those kinds of weekends."
The Tilghman house, located on the tip of Bar Neck Cove, was built two years ago by Paul and Susan Weber on land purchased by Susan's parents, Sam and Donie Ely.
This was the family's first visit to Tilghman since January. Susan, Laura, the children and the dogs arrived Thursday. The rest of the family arrived throughout Friday and Saturday. Everyone except Laura's husband, John, who was not planning to join them during the Easter weekend.
So Sam and Jen won another round with Paul, and he slid the 16-foot, red fiberglass canoe into the water that lapped softly at the front yard of the house. Dressed in warm coats and life jackets, the children set out with Paul to explore Blackwalnut Cove at about 11:30 Saturday morning.
The stand of trees around the cove sheltered Paul and the children, and they were unaware of the wind that began to rise almost as soon as they set out. When they found themselves pulled out of the cove by swift water, the breeze that greeted them there was gusting to 25 knots.
Facing up river toward Harris Creek, Paul tried to turn the canoe to his left. He was trying to head back into the cove but, failing that, he would have settled for any point on the shores of Tilghman Island.
"Then we'd just walk home."
But the front end of the canoe -- riding high on the water with just Jen's weight in it -- acted like a sail. The wind pushed the canoe farther and farther away from shore, into the spring flood tide of the Choptank River.
"We tried to turn back into shore three or four times. But all we did was get farther and farther out. So I decided we'd just ride the tide and go back home when it changed. In another two hours, it would have."
There was no panic. The three sang songs and drifted toward Harris Creek in the warm sun. They were in sight of the house. Paul thought how embarrassed he was going to be when he had to walk home, carrying the canoe.
Suddenly, a renegade wave hit from the right, capsizing the canoe.
"It was like a big hand lifted the canoe and flipped it over," Paul said. "Jen was thrown away from the canoe and Sam was under it. I reached to get Sam, and he grabbed me around the neck and knocked my glasses off."
The water temperature was 54 degrees, shockingly cold when compared with the unseasonably warm spring air.
"I tried to flip the canoe. I was going to leave Sam on it and go get Jen. But the chop filled it with water, and it went below the surface.
"Jen had a paddle and I told her to reach it out to us. I tried to swim to her with Sam, but she was being carried farther and farther away."
"We had voice contact with Jen for about 15 minutes."
The children never panicked. Sam and his uncle joked about the size of the waves that knocked them under, sang songs and talked. Paul told him that a boat or a plane, out on such a beautiful holiday weekend, was bound to see them.
One sailboat passed between the boys and Jen. Paul and Sam shouted for all they were worth. But the boat was on the wrong tack and the sail blocked the sound of their voices, and the wind blew their cries back into their faces.
"That was our best shot, right there."
Paul lay on his back in the water for a time and pulled Sam up onto his stomach. It was breezy, but the air was warm compared with the water. An adult might have 60 to 90 minutes before losing consciousness in the deceptively cold water of springtime. Six-year-old Sam had much, much less.
"One of the last things he said to me was, 'Uncle Paul, did Jen die?' I told him she was fine, because when we last saw her, she was. We said a prayer.
"It wasn't long after that I noticed he wasn't talking. He was just floating. That's when I realized he was gone, and that's the point of despair I'm working back from.
"That is the low point of my life. I was out there in the water holding a little dead boy. All I could think was that I had to bring him back to his mother."
Paul slipped in and out of consciousness during that endless afternoon in the water, but he kept a tight grip on the collar of the little life jacket.
"I was shutting down when I looked over and saw it was empty. Sam had slipped out. I was disgusted that I didn't have him anymore. I don't know why I didn't go under. I had failed. I had no real desire to live."
It was 2:30 p.m. Paul and the children had been gone about three hours. Just the faintest current of alarm passed through Laura.
When Susan woke from a nap, Laura told her she was worried. Susan cheerfully reassured her sister. Perhaps Paul had paddled up into Tilghman for lunch with the children.
Susan told Laura she was going out for some groceries, but in fact she drove the roads along the shore, looking out over the water for some sign of the canoe. Then she drove to the resort community of Tilghman-on-the-Chesapeake and asked general manager Bill Davis if she could climb to the top of the yacht club porch and look out over the water.
"I'm probably overreacting," she told him.
While she searched the horizon, Mr. Davis called the Coast Guard, but he was told there could be no search unless they were certain Paul and the children were missing.
"So I put out a call on my radio to all local boats to be on the lookout for a red canoe with a male adult and two small children," Mr. Davis said.
It was about 4:20 p.m.
Suddenly, a Mayday call came over Mr. Davis' radio from Charles Luskey aboard his boat.
"He said, 'I am about one mile east of the Knapps Narrows. I have a man and a child in the water. The man appears to be OK, but the child doesn't.' "
Susan collapsed into a chair as Mr. Davis grabbed the keys to a 16-foot Wellcraft. He and a friend went ripping out of the Tilghman-on-the-Chesapeake marina.
At that moment, Mr. Luskey was struggling to pull Paul aboard. He had been in the water for almost five hours. He should have been dead.
"I remember getting on the boat," Paul said. "They tell me I kept talking about a little boy. I remember them putting me down below and just leaving me there. They told me later, 'We didn't think you were going to be alive. We didn't even want to go down and look at you.' "
George Welling, pilot of Tow Jamm, a 25-foot towboat, arrived next, and the water was churning under the boats like batter under a mixer. The Choptank was kicking harder than most people think it can. It took him three passes before he reached over the side and lifted the lifeless form of Jen out of the water.
Mr. Davis arrived next and jumped on board Tow Jamm to try to resuscitate Jen.
"I thought she was alive," said Mr. Davis. "I told George Welling to call for a helicopter and an ambulance and let's get the hell out of here. He put the boat into gear, and we were flying."
Before they left, Mr. Welling threw a buoy over the side to mark the spot. He had seen an orange patch in the water, and he knew what the empty child's life jacket meant. But in the haste to get Jen to shore, the buoy detached, setting the stage for the week-long search for Sam.
It was about 5:45 p.m. when Tow Jamm reached the marina at Buddy Harrison's Chesapeake House, the sport-fishing complex that has been a fixture in Tilghman since 1875. A rescue helicopter and emergency medical technicians were waiting.
"When we got to Buddy's place, the EMTs were shouting, 'Don't stop,' " said Mr. Davis. "Her lips were pink, and her color was good. I kept saying, 'Come on, honey. Breathe for Uncle Bill.' The EMTs threw me off of her, and they jumped on and started working. I thought we had her."
Back at the house, the phone rang in the kitchen. Someone official told Laura that the canoe had turned over and Paul and Jen had been found, but they were still looking for Sam.
Laura's mother came into the kitchen and found her daughter screaming, "Not my Sam, not my Sam."
The rescue helicopter was taking off just as Laura arrived at Harrison's. She jumped out of a moving car to get to Jen, but the EMTs would not let her aboard. She was certain, though, that her daughter was alive.
Laura went to the end of the dock at Harrison's to wait for word of Sam. As an EMT wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, Laura remembers saying to herself, "We're going to be on 'Rescue 911.' Jen is all right and they are going to find Sam, and we are going to be on television."
Night fell, and the search for Sam was called off. Numb, Laura walked back toward Harrison's and saw her mother and her younger sister, Sally Lewis, walking toward her. Children's Hospital in Washington had called, Laura could see it in their faces.
;/ "No," Laura begged. "Not both my children."
Susan went to be with Paul at Memorial Hospital in Easton,
where he was in critical condition. For an hour, doctors could not register his body temperature on their limited instrumentation. His lungs were scarred, he had aspirated vomit, and it would be two days before he could move his legs.
When he regained consciousness, Susan told him Jen was dead. "At that point, I hoped I would die," he said.
But soon his father-in-law, Sam Ely, arrived at Paul's bedside, stopping there before he went to Washington to bring Jen home. He wanted the healing to begin right away.
"From your strong hands to God's," said Mr. Ely, embracing Paul.
The next day, Easter, Laura went to her sister's husband, too. "I just needed to go to him and tell him I loved him," she said. "And he said, 'I don't know why. I couldn't bring them back.' "
In the week that followed the accident, the community of Tilghman both ached and chafed at the unfinished tragedy.
"At first, I felt very hard against the uncle," said charter-boat captain John Motovidlak. He had felt the wind pick up that Saturday and, like all men who make their living on the bay, knew instinctively it was not a day for a canoe outing.
"I was upset with him for going out there," he said. "But he was just trying to take the kids on a little boat ride. He just thought it was a pretty day."
Many of the watermen searched for Sam after their long workdays ended and during the last light of the lengthening spring days.
"I couldn't let it go," said Mr. Motovidlak. His two children are grown, but they were 6 and 10 again as he searched for Sam.
"Friday was my worst day," he said. "Sam's picture was on the front page of the paper. They talked about how he was afraid in the dark."
Mr. Motovidlak was frustrated as he watched Natural Resources Police divers search an area where cadaver dogs had signaled. He knew they were a mile off the mark.
Buddy Harrison Sr. went to the Natural Resources Police and said the community needed to make a concerted effort to find the boy.
"Even though they were not members of the community," said Buddy Sr., "what happened devastated the spirit of the community."
On Thursday, an anguished Paul Weber offered a $10,000 reward for Sam's recovery. But it was the family's suspended grief, not the money, that brought so many watermen to Harrison's Chesapeake House Sunday, the day after Jen's funeral and a week and a day after Sam had slipped from his life jacket.
"I have two little boys," said Buddy Harrison Jr. "If it was yours, you'd want him found, you'd want more done. We didn't need $10,000 to understand that."
Sunday morning, watermen from Tilghman, St. Michael's, Middle River, Bozman, Neavitt -- the whole mid-shore -- met at Harrison's Chesapeake House.
Buddy Jr., chief of the Tilghman Volunteer Fire Department, teamed with Maryland Natural Resources Police Sgt. George Ball Jr., whom the family had come to cherish for his compassion, to command the operation.
The 50 watermen and 10 Natural Resources Police put aside feuds and differences that morning. There were no enemies in the room as they charted the search.
"People who don't exactly get along with each other were sitting side by side," Buddy Jr. said.
They decided to start at the spot where Paul was rescued and drag to Bar Neck where the canoe had capsized.
About 30 watermen lined their work boats and their drag lines end-to-end over the area where generations of instinct told them they would find the little boy; 20 more outfitted their boats on shore and prepared to joined the line.
They didn't go 200 feet.
In just 10 minutes, a crab hook off the back of 23-year-old Michael Hayden's boat caught Sam's tennis shoe lace.
"All right!" Mr. Motovidlak shouted when word came with surprising swiftness that Sam had been found. "I was afraid we'd be looking all day and come up empty-handed."
But by the time he piloted his workboat into the marina at Harrison's, a week of grief was washing down his cheeks. Tears slipped into the deep creases on his face, darkly tanned even in April, and he wiped them away with weathered hands.
"At least now," he said, "the little boy is with his sister." There are few things more compelling than to watch people of great faith struggle with great grief.
Their beliefs require that they find joy in the promised resurrection of loved ones. And yet their pain threatens at any moment to extinguish that faith and destroy their trust in the will of God, in his promise of a reunion after death.
Laura Thompson is of great faith. So are her parents and sisters and their husbands. They believe that Jen and Sam were lent to them by God and were recalled by him for his own bewildering purpose.
"God lends us our children; they don't belong to us," said Laura. "Because I know this is God's will, there is no anger, no 'why?' This is the way it is supposed to be.
"All that is left is this tremendous pain," she said, her voice breaking and her testimony running down her cheeks in a fresh wave of tears.
"I miss them so much."
She and Susan and Sally, the sisters who shared the mothering role with her, and her mother and father, Sam and Donie Ely, who were very nearly worshipful in their love of Sam and Jen, talked in the spacious kitchen of the Elys' Glen Arm home. It was here that the family gathered for holidays, birthdays and weekends by the pool in celebrations that wrapped Sam and Jen, the only grandchildren, in a cocoon of love.
The family wanted to talk about their grief, their faith and their gratitude to Sergeant Ball and the people of Tilghman Island. Though they declined to be photographed, they offered a picture of a family who could love each other enough to recover from such unfathomable tragedy.
But on this day in June, such recovery seemed very far off. The atmosphere in the kitchen was thick with inexpressible loss. Voices rasped with the effort to hold back tears even as they recalled their happiest, funniest memories of two clever, engaging children. Each would leave the room at different moments to shudder and sob in a private part of the house and then return to speak again.
As they talked, Laura drifted in and out of the conversation, her eyes distant and glistening with unshed tears. The hands of her family, as they had been at the funeral, were always on her.
Laura and John had met on a blind date more than 12 years earlier, just as she finished nursing school. But she gave up nursing after Jen and Sam arrived, shifting her instinct for care giving completely to the children.
Jen, her family said, was a child everyone would want. A beautiful, dutiful girl devoted to God and her schoolwork who reassured everyone all the time that she loved them.
She had a special kinship with her father. She would set her alarm for the middle of the night to make him coffee before he left to deliver his newspapers, one of several jobs he held. The carpet on the steps of their home was stained where Jen would place the coffee mug for her father.
His mother's child
Sam was his mother's child, and he filled her life with singing, everything from hymns to . Jimmy Buffett to '50s tunes. He was a tease -- funny beyond his years. And a pack rat -- gum wrappers stuffed in seat cushions betrayed him. But he was so earnest and good-natured that even the unkindness of the older boys in his neighborhood did not dissuade him from pursuing their friendship.
"SAM WAS HERE," it said in chalk on the sidewalk in front of the Thompsons' Bel Air home. That unbounded exultation, that uninhibited self-expression, was Sam.
The children spent great chunks of time with their aunts and their uncles and their grandparents in a kind of assembly line of love.
"They were everyone's children," said Sally, 34 and still waiting for her own children.
Though Sam was still young, Jen was old enough to join the sisterhood of her aunts. Susan taught her about Monet, and she took her to a doll exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Susan and Sally took Jen to New York City for Christmas to see Radio City, Rockefeller Center and FAO Schwartz and to a Billy Joel concert in the kind of extravagant mothering only aunts can get away with.
"We let her order room service, just like in 'Home Alone 2,' " said Sally.
While the family grieved for the children, they also grieved for Paul. The Elys and their daughters tried to bring him into their strong circle of love and comfort him. They never thought to blame him, but he blamed himself.
"When something horrific happens, it is human nature to want to blame, to be angry," said Sally, smiling, her face lighted by faith. "It makes you feel better. But there can be no blame placed, because nothing was done. At this point, people have to look to God. Our anger is replaced with hope."
"We all lost our children," Laura said. "But it hurts me so deeply that Paul has to deal with this. I wish I could take the pain away."
The family believes Paul was both the instrument of the children's delivery to God and bearer of God's conciliatory message that they died without pain, without fear.
"God allowed Paul to come back. He came back to tell me that my children weren't crying for me. That they were peaceful and calm and they felt loved. Sometimes, I just need to touch his
hands, because they touched my children last," Laura said.
But why didn't God let the children come back?
Sam Ely, their grandfather, looked up from his hands, clasped prayerfully but white-knuckled. His words fought their way out into the room, carried by a voice ragged with the fatigue of monumental grief.
"I believe that there are certain immutable laws of nature that when one runs afoul of them, therein lies great potential for harm," he said. "God chose not to intervene, and, in so choosing, he chose to take the children to him. God made that choice. I thank God every day that he was merciful with the children.
"And he has given us the best hope. That we will be with the children again." He stopped, exhausted.
Mrs. Ely, her voice gentle and breathy and calm now, after a morning spent trembling near the edge of control, said that she had suddenly realized that she had lost her fear of flying.
"I don't mind now, because I know if something happened, I would be with the children."
Laura, roused from some unknowable reverie by her mother's words, echoed them. "I was always afraid to die. Who would take care of my children? Now, I am not afraid anymore, because I can be with them."
The journey back
In June, Paul and Susan returned to the house at Tilghman for a long-planned reunion of his side of the family. "I watched my nephews play along the water and in the mud, and I thought of Sam," Paul said.
Paul and Susan have completed a long-planned move from Reisterstown to Annapolis, where Paul has his law practice. They want to try to adopt a child, but more time needs to pass before they start the process. Paul is stoic, his turmoil unspoken.
"I have good days and bad days," Paul said. "There is just this general feeling of sadness. Sometimes, I just wake up with it. It is hard to fight through sometimes."
There has been talk in the family of selling the house on Tilghman. Paul understands. "The house is not the problem for me that it is for the rest of the family. For the children and me, it represented safety. But the rest of the family had to do some terrible waiting there. I understand how they feel."
Everyone but Laura has been back to the house for some private moments of reconciliation and mourning. She returned to Tilghman with the rest of her family in June to present the $10,000 reward for finding Sam to the volunteer fire company. It will go toward the purchase of a rescue boat, the kind that might have been used on the day of the accident.
But Laura did not visit the house.
"You have to understand that I love the people of Tilghman," she said. "But I can never go back to the house."
A future without a focus
Almost six months have passed since Jen and Sam died. Summer is gone and a new season begins, a mean season for this family. Back-to-school, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Holidays and milestones that are now just reminders of the void left by Sam and Jen's death.
"I wake up these mornings thinking I need to pack lunches," Laura said. "Then I remember that they are gone."
Laura spent the spring and summer in a haze, but it has lifted now and the pain is keener every day. She is ambushed constantly by reminders of her children. Fingerprints on the woodwork, pencil marks on the wall. The way she automatically reaches for Sam, her snuggler, each morning as she wakes.
Last week she made a trip to the children's classrooms at Harford Christian School to collect their school journals. Sam's last entry, dated the day before they left for Tilghman, reads: "I love my mommy."
"Every day, it gets worse," she said. "Every day is April 15 for me. Every day I wake up, and they are gone."
Laura looks composed and lovely these days. Her dark hair is combed in thick, smooth curls around a face that does not show the signs of haggard grief, though her shy smile often quivers with the start of tears that flow so easily these days.
She and John are divorcing. The distance between them in the pew at the funeral had been there before the death of the children and is now complete. They have not spoken since May. "Now it is just Jen and Sam and me in the house," Laura said.
The house in Bel Air has been painted, the carpets cleaned, the furniture changed, in an attempt at a fresh start. The belongings have been removed from Sam and Jen's bedrooms and placed in storage. Laura is uncertain if she will ever find the strength to see her children's things again. She converted one of their rooms to a sewing room, where she makes curtains and draperies for her sisters' new homes and clothes for herself as she approaches her single-girl dress size again.
"I think I want to marry again someday," she said. "I want to have children again. I need someone to care for. I feel lost."
Laura said she may return to nursing soon, but her vision of her future is unformed, still to be written. While she waits for it to unfold, she sees a counselor once a week.
"No one can say anything that can make me feel better," she said. "But I trust God. I believe he will help me."
Susan, a 38-year-old lawyer, has suspended her legal career to spend her time ministering to her husband, her sisters and her parents, touching each with her soft voice several times a day. She sees to it that Laura is rarely alone, planning little excursions and inviting her to stay with her and Paul.
"We spend a lot of time together," Paul said. "We have a good relationship. We have always clicked."
But Laura feels as though she casts a pall on her family with her very presence. "They cry every time they see me cry, and I know they are already crying on their own," she said.
Sam and Jen were the center of life for this family. Its focus, its joy. When they died, they took the future of everyone with them. Those left behind must fashion some new future now, some way to pass the time until the reunion their faith promises them.
"I want to feel them hug me again," Laura said. "I want to hear their voices."
She has told Susan more than once that she would like to buy an airline ticket and fly away to some place where there are no memories. But she doesn't know where that would be.