Monday, September 22, 2014

Gone Fishing. The loss of a childhood friend.

He wore a skirt to my 13th birthday party, and kissed me next to the pool table in my grandparents' basement.

We went to a small school together in a seaside town known for fresh scallops and lobster shacks. Buoys hung from backyard fences where lobster traps were stacked for mending, boat trailers rested in gravel driveways, and lifejackets mixed with bikes in the garages that had sand for floors. Fishing boats lined up along the coast every evening, and churned out to sea as the sun rose each day. None of my friends had  any aspirations to become fishermen ourselves at the time, but it was inevitable that the sea would lure at least a few of us. We all knew the ocean and the local beaches as well as we knew our own backyards. The Long Island Sound was our playground and our classroom.

He had huge blue eyes, peering out from under a mop of tousled blonde hair. He was quieter than some, smaller than most, and the third boy named Sam in our class of 18. At the end of ninth grade we parted ways - different high schools, different friends, very different paths.

Sam found me on Facebook about 4 years ago. He was in Hawaii, captaining a commercial fishing boat. A year later he came to visit. We planned to meet at an outdoor street fair, and I would be lying if I said I recognized him through the crowd. But he spotted me, raised his hand in greeting, and threw his arms around my shoulders for a long hug. He was strong, and taller than he had been the last time I saw him. His hair was no longer flopping over his eyes, but those eyes were still that deep bright blue I had all but forgotten until I saw them again. We stood around late into the evening, leaning on a pickup  truck drinking beer while my kids climbed around the back and hung from the racks. He talked to my Sam, we caught up on the friends we had in common, made plans for him to come out for Thanksgiving if he was ever around over the holidays.

He was never around for the holidays.

"Gone Fishing" he would post on Facebook, sometimes accompanied by a photo of the harbor receding in the distance as the boat entered the deeper water of the Pacific, bound for a few weeks of hard work and high seas.

We heckled each other on our pages, swapping photos and memes, and I could always tell when he had been drinking because his comments would turn dark, the words sharp and angry. And in the morning sometimes I would find an apology. "I don't even really feel that way" he said. Sometimes he would comment on something I had written here, and I was always surprised he had been reading.

A few weeks ago I found myself in the city where his boat was docked. A friend of mine was getting married, and I had flown in for the weekend. I thought Sam was fishing, but he sent me a message with his address at the dock and an invitation to come visit. I was standing in a bar sometime around midnight, drunk and slightly disoriented when I read it. I considered jumping in a cab and tracking him down, but only briefly. I was not in any condition to be wandering alone on docks in the middle of the night. I messaged him back with my apologies and regrets, and he responded quickly: "Don't worry, I'll catch you next time. I'm not going anywhere."

And then he left. Gone fishing.

I don't know exactly what happened on the trip, but I can tell you this: it was his last.
Sam was lost at sea.

As the news ripples through our friends, it is hard to understand how this could possibly happen to someone who was so in tune with the ocean and so respectful of it's power. But for people who spend their whole lives on the water, it is just the cycle of life. It is shocking, as an unexpected and untimely death always is, and at the same time, for a child of the sea, one who heard the crash of waves like a pulse, it is only fitting.

Our home town is filled with houses that have a small room at the very top of the roof. It's called a widow's walk, and women would go up there to watch for their husband's ship to return home.

It seemed strange to me, until today.

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