Community gathers to celebrate the life of River Thompson

Marlys Barker
Community gathers to celebrate the life of River Thompson

The beautiful ukulele-strummed version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole filled the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Nevada, putting a fitting finishing touch on a service that celebrated the much-too-short life of Nevada High School junior River Thompson, 17, who passed away Dec. 20.

Every pew was filled as community members, school classmates and personnel, friends and family gathered to pay tribute to the life of a boy who was — another song that was played as people filed in — “Gone Too Soon.” River died at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines a little more than a week after a tragic vehicle accident left him with severe head trauma and brain swelling that he was never able to overcome.

“There really are not good enough words to express the pain of these kinds of moments,” said Pastor Chris Waddle, as he started his main message. The one thing he wanted to avoid doing in his message, Waddle emphasized, was to offer cliches.

“I want to be clear … River died on accident; what happened was not God’s plan,” Waddle said. “I believe God’s heart breaks, too.”

Waddle assured those present that he knows one thing to be true: “God has promised never to leave us.” He said while it was a service of death, it was also a service of resurrection. “But you can’t talk about resurrection without talking about the pain of death,” he said. “Resurrection is more than going to Heaven after we die… It’s about something that God is doing in the world … it’s about undoing all that is wrong.”

Waddle said, “There’s something in us when a young person dies that says, ‘That’s not right.’ And resurrection means that God knows that’s not right, too… We’ve been robbed of all that River would have been to this world.” We won’t simply get over this, Waddle commented. It will now be part of our lives. “Resurrection means that God recognizes this too and that he means to make it right.” And in the fullness of God’s time, Waddle said, God will completely undo (this wrong)… “but we are in the in-between time” which will be difficult. It will involve a process of healing. Resurrection, he said, is a hope we can cling to without fully understanding it.

“River’s death was an accident … but River was not an accident… Not everything that happens in God’s creation is God’s intention…but nothing in God’s creation is beyond God’s ability to heal,” the pastor assured.

Earlier in the service, “You Are My Sunshine” was sung by family friend Deb Malsom, and the playing of the song, “He’s My Son,” by Mark Schultz, with incredibly touching lyrics, outlined the struggle River’s family had gone through during the past days. “Can you hear me?… If you can hear me, let me take his place somehow… See, he’s not just anyone, he’s my son.”

Following that song and a prayer, Waddle spoke about River, starting with his unique name. “Carrie and Clint (River’s parents) wanted their son to have a special name,” he said, noting how in the Bible, names often had very significant meanings. When you think of a river, Waddle said, “it’s free, stays in the banks most of the time and sometimes does something unpredictable,” which brought many of those in the pews to laughter. Waddle said he thinks River’s parents got his name right. “River was his own person … but he wasn’t distant or arrogant … he was comfortable in his own skin… he looked for ways to make people happy.”

There was talk of River’s love of donuts and chocolate milk. “And he never really understood that he couldn’t have donuts and chocolate milk anywhere he wanted,” Waddle said. High school employee Mary Ann Downs, during a time of sharing, said she remembered River hiding his chocolate milk under his coat and drinking it through a straw, trying not to get caught in class.

Waddle also talked about River’s deep love and “spiritual connection” with animals… even crickets. There was a childhood story about the crickets, about how River tried to set some free.

“River always seemed to be moving,” Waddle said. “He needed to jump in and try stuff.”

There was also talk about River’s wish to donate his organs if something like this ever happened. Waddle said that one of River’s cousins shared that “whoever got his heart better be ready for a real jump start! Maybe we better pray for them,” Waddle said, as again a few laughs interruped the otherwise steady streams of tears.

Waddle opened the service to a time for sharing, and a few there did share memories of River. His first- and second-grade teacher, Kedra Hamilton, shared that even as River got older, he would still say hi to her when he saw her. Another remembered River always having a big smile and not wanting to leave anyone to be alone. Dick Atwell, who has done many bike collections in the community to give to underprivileged people, told how River always was interested in what he was doing with all the bikes. And he said River was always traveling with what Atwell called, “his mafia,” a good group of kids.

River’s mother Carrie spoke for a few moments during the service. Her message was to give thanks to all the people who helped her son during the recent tragedy. “All the crews who were dispatched to get our very fragile River to the flight crew,” she thanked. She followed by thanking all the medical people at Mercy, who she said will always have a very special place in their hearts, as they kept River alive long enough for the family to say their good-byes and for his organs to be harvested, so they could grant River’s wish to be an organ donor.

Carrie said there was one doctor who never left River’s side and became such a blessing to the family. She thanked him and those behind the scenes, the loved ones of these medical professionals, who sacrifice their time with them so they can work to try to save lives. “We thank every single person who had a part to play in the last 18 days.”

Finally, Carrie’s stepfather, River’s grandfather Jim Greibsch spoke, and called his grandson an “irrepressible spirit.” Looking at the urn, which was at the altar during the service along with a beautiful photograph of River from earlier this year, and many flowers and plants, Greibsch said, “River, we love you with all of our hearts. Thank you so very much for being a part of our lives… We are so much richer for it.”

From a third song featured during the celebration of River’s life, Kermit the Frog’s version of “Rainbow Connection” (written by Paul Williams), those attending were left with hope of connecting again:

What’s so amazing

That keeps us stargazing

And what do we think we might see

Someday we’ll find it

The rainbow connection

The lovers, the dreamers, and me.