67 Waterfalls
Guideposts|February 2021
Their life felt in free fall. So this mom and daughter set out on an epic quest
COLLEEN RADKE

My old friend Rita, my daughter, Wynn, and I were sitting at the top of Big Spring Falls in Wisconsin in early June, watching the water pour over the falls, topple onto rocks and churn into rapids, pushing into the Eau Claire River.

How could anyone deny Mother Nature’s glory? I’d been raised Catholic, but the great outdoors was my cathedral, where I felt closest to God, most connected to the wider world, though I’d lapsed in recent years. Ever since my husband’s drinking got out of control.

Five-year-old Wynn dipped her toes into the sparkling, clear water. In spite of everything she’d been through— her father’s alcoholism and abandonment, the coronavirus quarantine, her preschool closing, my temporary unemployment, the upheaval in the Twin Cities—Wynn remained a spectacular little girl. Funny, strong, determined. She loved waterfalls, and chasing them together gave us something to celebrate. I’m so blessed I get to be her mother, I thought.

Then my phone buzzed. A text from the attorney. “Your husband signed the divorce papers.”

Relief washed over me. Wynn’s father had waffled over our divorce for months, agreeing to a decree, then changing his mind at the last minute. What if he kept us in limbo, despite not having seen me in almost a year?

Being his caregiver, struggling to pull him out of his tailspin and get him sober, had consumed me for years. Now I could put that behind me. But worry overtook my relief. Could I really raise Wynn on my own? Could I give us both what we needed to thrive?

Our life hadn’t always been so stressful. Wynn’s father and I had met more than two decades ago, at age 18. We’d partied then, but we grew out of it, found good jobs (his as a warehouse manager, mine at a jewelry store), bought a house, had a child.

We lived in St. Paul then. Neither of us were city people, and we packed up our car—along with little Wynn— every other weekend to decompress with my parents in the country.

My husband idolized my dad. “He’s the kind of father I dreamed of having,” he said. My dad took him fishing and hunting, called just to check-in. Incredible to someone who’d grown up with unreliable parents.

One Sunday in October 2016, Dad went out to check the trail cameras.

“Your dad’s been gone a long time,” my husband said and went to look for him. By the time he found Dad, it was already too late. Undetected heart arrhythmia. Dad was only 64.

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