Nat, Owen’s older brother, has memorialized Owen’s death by throwing flowers into the Petaluma River on his own birthday (Nat’s), every year since Owen died. His body was found in the River on June 2, 2007, a few weeks after the two of them had celebrated Nat’s birthday together, and less than two weeks before Owen’s 21st birthday on June 13. The police department was unable to resolve the case and closed it on October 31, 2007, Halloween, Owen’s favorite holiday.
This annual celebration of my son’s life is a sacred practice that helps Nat navigate an unmanageable grief. If you haven’t lost a sibling or a child or any other close family member or friend in an unresolved circumstance, you might not be able to imagine how important these rituals can become. Our larger family has thrown flowers into the River on June 2 for years now. This is part of our healing and a way of remembering Owen’s life and honoring his death.
A few weeks ago, when Nat dedicated his flowers to the River, he was approached by a California Fish and Game Officer who announced that he was writing him a ticket for littering. Nat explained his actions as a sacred practice in memory of his brother. The officer called his dispatcher who elevated the issue to management, and the ticket was considered appropriate.
As Nat explained it to me today, the officer was visibly disturbed by the direction from Fish and Game management. He said the officer’s hands were shaking as he wrote the ticket and he apologized for what he could not change. Littering is a misdemeanor in our state, and Nat will have to appear in court soon.
While we are acutely aware of the effects of pollution in our waterways, and would not knowingly do anything to pollute our environment, we are also devastated that the Petaluma River is a dumping ground for shopping carts, car parts, dead pets, beer bottles, household garbage, soiled diapers, recyclable cans, and more. We know because we spent plenty of time at high and low tides (the river is actually a tidal slough) searching for evidence associated with Owen’s demise. We used to look for his bicycle, his backpack, his journals, or any of the other missing items that might lead us to answers. We never found them. The Petaluma River is so polluted, it might make you sick to see the river bed. We’ve seen it plenty of times, and can’t imagine…well…
There are no posted signs on the river’s banks stating the Fish and Game regulations about littering. We don’t consider throwing flowers (plant life) in the river, in memory of our brother and son littering. Perhaps, we are naive. Perhaps, we are unaware of the detrimental effects of flowers on marine life. But, we certainly can imagine that the garbage in the River has a tragic impact on the environment.
Are flowers more damaging than car tires, grocery carts, household garbage, beer bottles, or other debris? I don’t know. But, I know that Nat was only interested in creating a memory with an earth-based element. California Fish and Game took that away from him by adding this new memory. He now has a court date to determine his fine.
Who got the ticket for throwing Owen’s body into the River? Our family still wants to know. Was his body considered litter? Who pays that fine?
Song for the night: InThisRiver, Zakk Wylde: