Wear a Personal Flotation Device

Small town obituary writer Heather Lende shares unique perspectives gleaned from peering retrospectively into so many lives.

Fishing Boat

In stormy times like these, we have to make our own good weather.

Photo by fotolia/hans_chr

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As the obituary writer in tiny Haines, Alaska, Heather Lende knows something about last words and lives well lived. Now, she’s distilled what she’s learned about living a more exhilarating and meaningful life into three words: find the good. It’s that simple – and that hard. Lende’s short chapters resonate, reminding us that it’s worth looking at our relationships, our obligations, our priorities, our community, and our world from a fresh, positive perspective. A gift to share with friends and family, Find the Good (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2015) offers a way out of the negativity and cynicism that can overwhelm our daily routines.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

When fisherman Richard Boyce first arrived in Alaska he was tenting on the side of a road and was told to leave: There was no camping allowed. He was stunned. He thought that of all places in the world Alaska should welcome campers. Today, the sandwich board across from his driveway reads: FREE CAMPING.  RATES DOUBLE IN JUNE. SENIOR DISCOUNTS AVAILABLE.

Chip and I often saw Richard on our morning bike ride as he was driving to town for coffee. The last time we saw Richard, he pulled his pickup alongside us and even announced our speed, “Twenty miles per hour, twenty-two, back to nineteen,” before waving with a smile from behind his red beard, touching the bill of his cap, and calling out, “Have a good day,” as he zoomed off.

Richard slipped on his salmon gillnetter and fell overboard at about five in the morning on the Fourth of July. The youngest of his three grown-but-still-young daughters — all just a few years out of college — tossed him a life ring and radioed for help. Fellow fishermen pulled their nets and came to the Boyces’ aid. Many arrived in minutes, but Richard wore heavy rain gear and boots, and a strong tidal current pulled him away from the boat and under the water too fast. His body was never recovered. Richard, who had gone to MIT, built that boat, the thirty-nine-foot Eleanor S., named for his oldest daughter, at his cabin on the ridge above his little “campground.”

The day Richard died I was helping out at the hot dog table at the Haines July Fourth picnic. I learned that my neighbor J.R. had handed his helm over to a deckhand and then climbed on board the Eleanor S. with Richard’s daughter for the six-hour trip home. The next woman who reached for a paper plate and bun told me that she felt better knowing J.R. was there. Everyone did. She named a half-dozen fishermen who also turned their boats back and left the lucrative fishing grounds to escort the Eleanor S. home. Once the flotilla was spotted near Battery Point, many in the holiday crowd walked across the park to the harbor and, from behind the bulkhead railing, silently watched as the tall red-haired

girl steered that graceful boat into the slip, hopped off, and tied the dock lines, just the way her father had taught her, and then fell into the arms of her mother.

The next day the front deck of the Eleanor S. grew a garden. Jars of flowers wild and cultivated, beribboned bouquets, and handmade wreaths were delivered by people compelled by sorrow to make the boat more beautiful. It felt good to leave my jar of daisies with all the others. A few of Richard’s friends were determined to use the momentum of community sorrow and goodwill to do something more lasting — to raise money to buy new, state-of-the-art flotation devices in the form of inflatable suspenders for the rain pants of every fisherman in Haines’s fleet, about 176 skippers and deckhands.

Richard hadn’t been wearing a life jacket. Most fishermen don’t. Even the ones who can’t swim (more than you’d think) are not fans of the bulky vests that hamper movement. Plus, nets can grab and hold the buckles and fasteners, potentially dragging the wearer to his or her death. Some even believe they are bad luck.

The inflatable suspenders are flat and will replace the elastic straps on the rubber overalls that the deckhands and skippers already wear. Randa Szymanski, whose husband is a fisherman, spearheaded the project. She did the research and then double-checked with her husband and other fishermen to be sure she had found the best type of potential life preserver. They said she had.

My neighbor Will has already picked up his. “Want to see them?” he asked as I walked by the other day. On his way to the garage he glanced at two of the reasons he’ll wear them: his young daughters playing on a swing set. Tricycles and toys were all mixed up in the yard with fishing nets. Better still, while I waited, Will’s grandfather-in-law, living proof that fishermen make old bones, said he thought they would work, too, and he was planning on using them. Will returned, smiling, with the blue-and-red suspenders draped over his shoulders. The embroidery on the strap read in memory of Richard Boyce.

I hope all the fisherman will wear their new suspenders every time they are on the water and no one will ever be lost at sea ever again.

Which is completely wishful thinking.

I asked one young captain who is so very dear to me if he would be wearing the suspenders. When he deadpanned “no,” I thought he was joking.

Then he said the suspenders were for “old men,” that he’s a strong swimmer, and he knows what he’s doing out there. He declared he wasn’t going to hassle with any so-called inflatable suspenders.

I wanted to grab him by his shirt and scream that I’d kill him if he drowned without a life jacket or the suspenders, and I definitely would not write his obituary. Didn’t he know that’s why we raised twenty thousand dollars, in a place without much money, because we love him, and men and women like him, and want to keep them safe? So for God’s sake, and ours — please accept our gift and wear them!

But I didn’t say or do any of that.

Yelling at that fearless young captain for not accepting the potentially lifesaving and, at the very least, cautionary message–bearing suspenders won’t change his mind. And he was right when he said a life jacket might not have saved Richard. Nothing is guaranteed to keep anyone from dying.

Still, something important has happened as the result of the sudden and tragic death. I know that each time another fisherman, like Will, who actually buckles on those suspenders, even looks at them hanging on the hook in the wheelhouse, he will be reminded both of one good colleague and father and of how much the good people in this town care that he and all the others return to our safe harbor.

So instead of parting in anger, I kissed that captain on the cheek and told him to please, please be careful out there, and that I loved him very much, and that I loved his deckhand even more, since he’s my only son.

This much I know for sure: Hope floats.


Reprinted with permission from Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer by Heather Lende and published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2015.