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Chapter 025 The worst day EVER

In the fall of 1976, I’d been living in New Mexico for just over seven years and had settled into the routine of visiting camp, my parents, and my brother for only one or two weeks per year. I wasn’t happy about it, but as I was still going to school at the University of New Mexico, I resigned myself to the situation. I missed camp and my family a lot, especially my brother.

On October 23rd I got the call that changed my life forever. It was my dad. “Robert,” he said in a shaky terrified voice I’d never heard him use before that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, “Jerry went duck hunting this morning and his canoe capsized and he’s missing. They’ve been searching for him for hours with no luck, and we’re assuming the worst. Get on a plane and fly to Boston as soon as you can, and bring a suit for the funeral.” My heart froze and time stood still. When I could breathe again, I asked, “Are you sure he’s gone?” “Pretty sure,” Dad responded in a barely audible whisper, “Come home right away.” In a trancelike state, I called the airlines, booked an overnight flight, and packed.

During the flight, I slept fitfully, dreaming and dreaming of Jerry – how he’d been found alive, hypothermic and in tough shape, but alive. When the plane landed in Boston in the early morning, I was sure my dream was true, that it was brotherly telepathy. Consequently I was quite hopeful when I went to a phone booth at Logan Airport and called my Cousin Barbara’s house, where the family had gathered. My mother got on the line and, in an excited and happy voice, said, “They just found Jerry’s…” I knew it. He’d been found. He was OK. All was right with the universe again, “body,” she continued. “Isn’t that wonderful?” What? No that was all wrong, and there was nothing wonderful about it. But I quickly grasped that it was incredibly important to my mother that Jerry’s body be recovered and brought to “safety.” She had given him life and tried to keep him safe for as long as she could, and the thought of his lifeless body lying at the bottom of the lake was more than she could bear. For me, it was a matter of where his life force was and if it wasn’t going to be on this planet with me anymore, then I was utterly devastated and didn’t care much where his body was. But I pulled it together for my mom, and said, “Yes, Mom. That’s great.” I hung up the phone and fell apart for the first and really only time about losing him. The finality of it had hit me and it was just… over. My beloved brother Jerry was dead at the age of 38 and I would never see him again, ever.

I spent the next several days trying to keep my parents as sane as possible. It’s said there’s nothing worse than the death of a child, and watching my parents during that time, I’d have to agree with that statement. As devastated as I was, their loss was on another level, that I can only begin to imagine and desperately hope never to experience. I burned so much energy trying to support them that within three or four days, I was completely spent – just running on fumes.

When my friend Archie called from Atlanta and said he’d just heard about Jerry and was flying up to be with me, it seemed like just one more thing to deal with. I told him not to come, but he would not be dissuaded. From the moment I picked him up at the airport, things got better for me. I wish I could tell you what he did or how he did it, but the fact is he saved me, and I was able to get through the next week because of his support. Years later when I learned that his teenaged son had died of leukemia, I didn’t even call him. I meant to, but the lapse of time between his son’s death and my hearing of it, and the time difference between two time zones, or… who knows what, made it difficult for me to make the call. And so I didn’t call the day I heard the news, or the next day, or the next. As each day passed, it became harder and harder to make the call. I just can’t tell you why I found it so hard to pick up the phone and call the person who’d saved me in my hour of need – I really can’t. The days stretched into weeks, months, years, and with the passing time my guilt grew and grew. When I saw him at a high school reunion several years later, I immediately told him how I’d been thinking of him, but just couldn’t make the call. He was so understanding and forgiving, maybe because he knew me so well and could see my sincerity, or maybe just because of the phenomenal human being he is – or both. Regardless, I was so grateful to him, again, and I let go of my guilt, and grieved freely with him for his lost child.

***

The funeral director asked me if I wanted to view Jerry’s body before it was cremated, and I declined, since I couldn’t think of any earthly reason how that could make the situation better. At the funeral, I was struck not only by how many people were there, but by how many of them were Jerry’s former or current girlfriends.

After the funeral, I drove up to camp with Archie to spread Jerry’s ashes and close camp for the winter. I asked Archie to wait inside while I spread Jerry’s ashes in our woodlot out back. As I was spreading his ashes, thinking fiercely about him and about the relative immortality of his ashes becoming part of the soil and nourishing the forest of the future, I became aware of parts of the Beatles’ song, “Dear Prudence,” playing, unbeckoned, in my head: “The sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful, and so are you.” And then, “The wind is low, the birds will sing, that you are part of everything.” It just came into my head, unbidden – more Maine Magic…

After I finished spreading Jerry’s ashes, I went upstairs to the master bedroom where he’d been staying. It was heartbreaking. I had spent several days that past week going through the stuff in his apartment in Boston, and that was very difficult – orphan stuff that no longer had an owner. I took an item or two as mementos, but I really didn’t want any of it, and we gave the bulk of it to charity – mainly clothes, as he didn’t have a lot of things. But at camp, the suddenness and unexpected nature of his death really hit me. There were his sneakers, waiting for him by the side of the bed, waiting for someone who would never return. And other personal items, shirts, jackets, pajamas – never to be worn by him again.

***

On Friday night, eight days earlier, Jerry had promised the two brothers who had just moved into the camp directly north of ours that he’d take them hunting in the morning. By this time, Jerry had two different dogs – twin full blooded black Lab brothers, Hogun and Fen. They were seven years old and going blind from a genetic retinal issue common in Labs. Jerry and the neighbors, 18-year-old Marty and 26-year-old Henry, loaded the outboard canoe that fateful morning with three shotguns, ammunition, decoys, a gas tank, themselves, and the two 90 pound dogs, who lay in the bottom, acting as ballast. The canoe was overloaded, but Jerry was confident in his dogs’ ability to stabilize it with their bodies. No one had life preservers. They called the weather service before heading out, but all they got was a recording of the previous day’s forecast, so they didn’t know high winds were on the way. They headed north, toward the marsh, where the waterfowl were – a distance of only about a mile.

When they came out of the sheltered marsh several hours later, the wind had come up rather strongly from the northwest. They needed to travel only about a half mile across open water in a southwesterly direction, broadside to the wind, before being able to travel the last half mile to camp along the shore. They made it less than half way across the open water when the canoe capsized. It’s unclear exactly what happened – whether the partially blind dogs got restless because of the wind and waves and moved from their bottom of the canoe ballast position or if it was something else.

Regardless of how or why it happened, three young men and two dogs suddenly found themselves in 45 degree water, a quarter mile from shore. The dogs swam back to camp. Marty, who could swim but had a broken arm in a cast, was thrown a distance from the canoe, and because of the strong wind the canoe was blown away from him. With the cast and in the cold water and high waves, he couldn’t get back to the canoe and he drowned within 10 minutes. Jerry and Henry were able to hold on to the canoe. Henry couldn’t swim, and he hung on fiercely, determined to survive. Jerry thought if he could just get the motor off they could right the canoe. He struggled with the motor for awhile, burning valuable energy, before giving it up as a lost cause. For the next hour, Jerry and Henry held on to the canoe and kicked gently to propel it a little faster toward the relative safety of the marsh grass the wind was already pushing them towards. After about an hour, in less than seven feet of water, and not far from the marsh grass, Jerry succumbed to hypothermia and died. Henry continued to hang on – in serious jeopardy from hypothermia. Just as his situation was becoming critical, his father, spurred to action by the dogs returning to camp alone, arrived in his boat and rescued Henry.

Henry was the only one who had a family – a wife and two young children. They later had another child, and all three of their children have since married and had children of their own. Henry is currently writing a book about his experience and how his surviving changed the world in many small and several larger ways, not unlike George Bailey, in the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

***

My mother was a religious person and took some comfort in that; still, she was never entirely the same after the loss of my brother. My father was a totally different story. His religious life ended at the age of 13 when he kicked his rabbi in the shins and ran from his house after the rabbi attempted to pick Dad up by his ears for playing sports instead of studying his Bar Mitzvah lessons. Besides not having religion to fall back on, my dad’s specialty was to prepare for every eventuality and fix every broken situation. But this was one eventuality he couldn’t have prepared for and one situation he couldn’t fix. Consequently after getting the call that Jerry was missing, he drove to camp, where he stood on the shore and screamed curses at the lake. He could have been a wolf howling over the body of a lost pack mate – he was certainly as forlorn and inconsolable.

My father never wanted to talk about what had happened to Jerry, and I desperately needed to talk about it, so I talked with my mother. But I still had a lot of unfinished business about it. For almost a decade, in that nether state between awake and asleep, I’d jump up with a start, repeating over and over, “He’s dead, he’s really dead. It really happened.” And each time, his loss became a little more real to me until I stopped having those experiences altogether.

After about 15 years, my dad seemed to make peace with the situation. We still never really talked about it, as he was a hard man to talk to – didn’t listen well and mainly wanted to tell you his opinion on whatever matter was being discussed. But somehow he no longer blamed the lake, and I never had. I knew my brother wasn’t a careful person and chances were good something would get him sooner or later.

Nevertheless, his death was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I still miss him terribly and wish with all my heart that my wife, Patty, and our kids could’ve had Jerry in their lives and he could’ve known them.

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