My husband Whit and I slipped into a back pew just as the minister directed all to rise, open hymnals, and sing. After lumbering through three dreary stanzas, I nudged Whit and whispered, “Jack would have preferred a show tune.” He grinned, and we stifled a laugh. The Jack we knew was irreverent, impish. If he had a church, it was somewhere in the open water off Dog Fish Bar or Gay Head, where he wanted his ashes to be strewn. I grabbed a stubby pencil from a wooden holder next to a prayer book. On the outside of the program I wrote, “This doesn’t feel like Jack.”

In 1978, when I met Jack on Martha’s Vineyard, he lived in a shabby rental with his dog Silos, and patched a life together running a tackle shop in Menemsha, writing a weekly fishing column for the Vineyard Gazette, and working as a fishing guide. Most summer evenings the three of us grilled fish or meat at Whit’s camp on the North Shore. After dinner, Jack would tamp and light his pipe, open another beer, and pick up his guitar. We’d sing long Irish ballads (he knew all the words), or he’d tell us gossipy stories — by then, Jack captained the Julia, Lillian Hellman’s boat, and Lillian brought interesting people on board.

“What kind of funeral do I want?” I scribbled with the tiny pencil. “Good comfort food and stories,” I quickly added in the margin.

“Like many, at the end,” the minister said, “Jack took comfort in the 23rd Psalm.” As I knelt, I looked forward at the backs and downturned heads of the other mourners. Most of us were in our 60s or older. Memorial services like this one were rapidly replacing the weddings that used to bring us together. Jack was the third close friend to die this year. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” I mumbled the familiar words, but was not consoled. What was comforting about a rod and staff?

Six years ago Jack called to tell us he had esophageal cancer. He did better than expected, but last fall the cancer came back –– this time in his throat. In March, Jack opted for a radical, painful surgery that took apart his jaw. Ultimately, all his hard work was futile. “News from Doctor bad,” Jack emailed me a few days before he died, “I’m cooked.”

In a soft voice the minister asked each of us to take a moment to remember something specific about Jack. I shut my eyes. Right away I was in Whit’s Chilmark camp. It was a long-shadowed, buttery, late August evening. I was sitting up on the high, canvas-covered bunk. Next to me was Jack’s father, an understated man with a soft Maryland drawl. Across a makeshift table on two kitchen stools sat Jack and Whit. The low flame of the oil lamp on the wall illuminated our bottles of beer and the glistening red lobsters on our plates. Jack was making a wisecrack. In unison we all looked up, our eyes met, and we broke into easy laughter.

“Now, say goodbye,” the minister said from far away.

Jack’s joke hung in the air and disappeared. The unfinished wood walls and squirrel-bitten mullions vanished. So did the smell of steamed lobster and the white spider droppings dotting a corner of the painted red floor. I mumbled goodbye and wiped my face dry with the back of my hand. A trophy house has replaced our camp. Jack is dead. “Memory can feel so solid,” I jotted under the blurry photograph of Jack on the cover of the program.

I reached into my purse for the yellowed clipping from the Vineyard Gazette that Jack sent me right before he died. It was his 1981 Gazette fishing column about my 28th birthday. As someone got up to read a poem, I rubbed the brittle paper between my fingers.

That July day, Whit took me fishing with two friends from New York. Before noon we caught a mess of blues, and landed a large bucket of marijuana we’d found bobbing in the sea. To impress my city friends, I foolishly dove from the open boat into the deep water off Noman’s Land. As I hit the water, the fin of a blue shark sliced the surface. I was so scared my body went limp, but they managed to yank me back into the boat. I wanted to return to shore, but Whit had heard rumors about finback whales 20 miles offshore. It was a calm day, so we kept going.

“Look for an inverted cone of mist on the horizon,” he said. “It’s their spray.”

Several times we thought we saw whale spray, but when we moved to the spot, nothing was there. Just as we were ready to give up, a plaintive, haunting sound reverberated across the flat sea. Whit approached slowly and cut the engine. Glistening with afternoon light, three blue-black finback whales — the size of train cars — rose and plunged near our small open boat. I expected to be afraid, but clung to the low gunwale spellbound. The whales breathed in slowly through their blowholes, and then exhaled five or six times. Each prolonged outbreath with its accompanying hum found a home in my body. Never have I felt so small, so far from safety, so fully at peace.

For many years, this memory supported me when I was scared or sad. Whale breath bolstered me when we had a house fire, when I lost my shoulder to cancer, when my mother was raped. I crinkled Jack’s clipping between my hands and let out my own deep sigh. Over time, I’d lost track of the solace of those magnificent exhales, but now Jack had given it back to me. When we rose to sing Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, I didn’t bother to learn the tune. Instead, I let the recollection of finback breath wash over me and become my song of praise.

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites