His name was Jesse Saum and he was a typical teenager. He liked to tinker with things. His parents, Pat and Helen Saum, Luverne, allow their front doorbell to remain inoperable because that’s how Jessie left it in the summer of 1993.
In elementary school, Jesse once rigged a buzzer to alert him of unauthorized persons attempting to open his desk. Jesse’s teacher was mildly annoyed, but the Saums still chuckle at their son’s ingenuity. It was a hot August day when 15-year-old Jesse and two friends decided to swim near the low-head dam on the Rock River by Luverne’s City Park. One boy changed his mind and decided not to swim. The other two jumped in and were swept over the dam. Jesse’s friend somehow made it away from the pull of the dam’s powerful recirculating current.
Pat was at work in Sioux Falls when he got the call, “Jesse’s in the river and they can’t find him.” The caller added, “Drive carefully.” Standing at the edge of the river, Pat knew Jessie was gone. “They tried to give us hope, that maybe he’d be found alive downstream, but I knew …” Jessie was born prematurely weighing just 3 pounds and 15 ounces arriving ten weeks early on Thanksgiving Day, 1977. “He arrived unexpected and early, and he left unexpected and too early,” his mom said. It’s been 28 years since Jessie’s death and people who meet the Saums don’t know anything about their first-born child. Helen said, “Sometimes it feels like a different life. Now, people don’t even know that we’ve lost a child.” Newcomers to the Saums’ lives assume they have two daughters, which they do. Amanda and Rachel were six and two years old when their brother died.
Helen dusts off a favorite photograph of the three of them. Jesse, wearing a baseball cap, reclines on a couch as Amanda and Rachel giggle on his lap, adoring their big brother. “He was quiet with a dry sense of humor. He was a typical teenager who liked art and fishing and hockey. He always wore a hat,” Helen
said. Pat said, “People who lose a child at this (teen) age sometimes put their kid on a pedestal. I don’t do that. He was a typical teenager. He could be a little sh*t. There were times when I’d ask, ‘What were you thinking?’ and then I’d realize, he wasn’t.” It was just a simple, “typical teenager” decision to swim near a dam on a river running high after a summer of heavy rain. And it was three days before the river returned Jesse’s body to dry ground.
Helen and Pat struggle for words to describe what they went through. There aren’t any.
The years have not erased the pain, but in trying to bring something good from something bad Pat and Helen are part of a group of grieving parents working to construct the Childs’ Remembrance Garden at the north end of (will be renamed) Park in Luverne.
Why does it need to be a place? Of course parents have memories of their child at home and most have a headstone in a cemetery, but a cemetery is the last place some families want to be. The remembrance garden will be a place of healing and remembering. “We want people to have a good feeling when they are there. They can go there to meditate, walk, process,” Helen said. In a cemetery, loved ones go to one place. The design of the remembrance garden will represent a journey from grief to – hopefully – joy. A walking path in the garden will be bordered with pavers engraved with the names of children who died before their parents. “Part of seeing all those names is to help parents heal knowing that they are not alone,” Pat said. “And that their children’s names will be remembered.”
His name was Jesse Saum and he was a typical teenager.
Secretary and Vice President
Helen & Pat Saum