Google said it would be 19 hours and 38 minutes to Camden, Maine. I had to take an extra stop in Philly for a sandwich to make it come out right. I took off after my uncle died. He was always so happy, full of good advice too. He’d say stuff like, “You really should ditch the Cokes babygirl, water’s better,” and “Life’s too short not to eat pie.”
I remember the moment I found out. It was on Facebook of all places. Nobody had called me yet. And I remember seeing the posts popping up on my feed. There were so many can’t believe your gone’s that I couldn’t believe it was true. In fact, I was certain all of those people had made a mistake. You couldn’t be gone. We were supposed to have lunch next week.
Then my phone rang at the end of the day and I could feel in the pit of my stomach what was coming. My mother said you died and the emotion I had refused to acknowledge all day rushed to the surface like one of those Coke’s you were always telling me to ditch had been shaken to the point of explosion. Time froze and there was a crow in the tree outside the kitchen window staring at me as if he were God, waiting for me to make a mistake.
That’s the thing about breaking hearts I guess. Nobody ever sees it coming. I asked my uncle if he could take a picture with me the last time we were all together. He hugged me and stuck his tongue out. He was hardly ever serious. Do you see what I mean about breaking hearts?
Anyway, a week after he died I got this letter in the mail. A real handwritten letter. It was so old school, man, I couldn’t not open it. There was a key inside the envelope with the paper. What’s it go to?
I don’t have a frickin’ clue. But that’s the beauty of it.
Camden is this little bitty town in the mid-coast region of Maine. A lot of wealthy people like to vacation here in the summer. They go out on the schooners – like the Grace Daily – to cruise the spruce-clad islands of Maine. It doesn’t take much for old Captain Ray to convince you to take a trip on the Grace Daily. I have to admit, he sweet-talked me into it pretty easily. Said I reminded him of someone he used to know.
There’s no power on the boat. You get around with wind and canvas. You wake up to the cold mist of salt blowing in your face, the song of water parting at the bow.
Captain Ray told me if I listened close enough the music would heal whatever ailed me. He never said what the message was; only that it was worth hearing.
A hollow wind sang in me that summer. At an old lighthouse, I left my car, a forest green Jeep Wrangler, 192,017 miles on it, next month’s insurance due. From there onward there was no road, only the current. My boat glides through the crests of waves. Sometimes I can’t help but glance back over my shoulder, listen for the notes I’ve missed.
I am chasing the place where the sky meets the sea. I am guided by the shallow tremor of my heart.
There comes a time when you don’t know how to let go.
And I had these lungs that I just let burn.
It was stupid. The way he died. It was a cut on his ankle. It turned to blood poisoning before anyone knew it was even there. I still haven’t forgiven him.
I couldn’t stand to be around the people or places that made me think of him so I left. I never thought much about it honestly. I figured I’d tell everybody where I wound up through Facebook one day.
This rocky coast. This smell of sea brine and sweat. This grey sky.
This Spotted Sandpiper foraging on the shore, speaking in its secret language.
This heavy rope dragging me down into the weight of the water.
Why didn’t God warn me to wear a lifejacket?
I sleep in a room with four books and a candle I only light on Thursdays.
I tell myself to suck it up, stop crying. Nobody else knows what they’re doing here. Why should you?
I wanted to ask my uncle on so many different occasions why he only wore black tank tops and jeans. I wanted to know what kind of chin, if any, he was hiding behind that big bushy beard. But of course, I never asked. It would’ve ruined the mystery of him. And that’s why I loved him so much.
I found out what lock the key fit three months ago. Nobody else knew about my uncle’s secret love affair with boats except me. It was a secret we kept together. Everybody knew how much he loved to fish but the joy sailing brought him was something he kept quiet. Kind of like a liquor addiction, but not as sinful. Her name was Ursa Minor and she was a message he left for me.
For a while there I saw myself as a castaway too insignificant to save. The days were short, the wind was cold, and the message in a bottle never came.
It’s ugly how far grief can set us adrift. It’s even uglier to endure the things it makes you do. You never forget the taste of saltwater off the coast of Maine.
The sheriff has taken up residence by my hospital bed the next time I come to. His eyes refuse to meet mine. I take it as a sign he knows what the ocean off the coast of Maine tastes like too.
When I land in Atlanta I am a child again.
I am 80 miles south on an old fishing boat on a Georgia lake at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.
The moon shines through the window and I can hear my uncle laugh. Not his normal laugh, but his Donald Duck laugh.
The moon shines through the window and I do not know if it was all just a dream or not.
If you haven’t been here you don’t know what love requires until it takes it from you.
I’m not writing for your sympathy. I’m just writing because it’s over.