It’s impossible to be very far into your sixties without carrying in your mind a whole roster of people who are gone—parents, siblings, early teachers and mentors, classmates. At reunions, the list begins to fill the back page of the memorial service program. Some we hardly knew; some, perhaps, even disliked; but some of them, when they fell, left a great, open patch of sky in the forest of our friends. And for all our philosophy and theology pointing to larger life, new birth, and welcome release, we can’t resist asking: why him? why her? and why so soon? The death of people our own age makes no immediate or obvious sense—not because it isn’t time, but because of the willy-nilly nature of its choosing.
Betty was just my age, and now in memory will never grow any older. We met while the Vietnam War, the Great Society, and the Watts riots were blooming side-by-side in the American consciousness. Many of us believed then that a national moral regeneration was not only possible, but near at hand. And just about then, Betty and Peter and my wife and I first encountered Outward Bound. It was a tremendous opportunity: a chance to exchange our stolid teaching careers for a much more exciting life. Peter and Betty, with three sons still in diapers, began to spend their summers on Hurricane Island. All of us are here today because of what they did there. Our own kids were much the same age as theirs, and also learned the dubious joys of living for months in a tent on a rocky, fogbound island with the bathroom a couple of hundred yards away. But Betty’s smile... well, nobody ever could complain in the presence of that smile.
A few years later, institutions all over the country discovered that coeducation was the key not only to survival, but to vitality. Outward Bound made the same discovery, and began to admit young women. But who would instruct them?
Well, Betty, for one. She brushed up on the Rules of the Road and passed for her Coast Guard license, at that time a new requirement for Hurricane Island instructors. But she’d never instructed a course. I’d done dozens, but had no license. So they put us into the same boat.
She was terrific. It was a foggy course, windy and cold, with students who’d never been exposed to any of that. Left to their own devices, they’d have huddled together in the boat and simply endured—ten lumps of suffering humanity in yellow foul weather gear. But Betty sat for hours with the chart in its plastic case on her knees, asking first these students and then those where they reckoned we were. Those pointing index fingers on the chart, tracing routes though the islands, I will remember as long as I live. Just as I will remember looking aft toward the mizzen, my glasses streaming with rain or steamed with fog, to see that brilliant smile in her sun-tanned face, her freckles, and a drop of cold rain dripping from the end of her nose. Did I love her? Are you kidding? Lord, we all loved her!
Then about a year ago we heard she’d run into some really heavy weather, and had a cancer—a bad one. We held our collective breath, and prayed, but to no avail...except that in our thinking constantly of her, we all drew closer to each other, like those long-ago students in the storm in the open boat, with Betty still tracing the route on the chart.
As she weakened, they moved her bed into the study, where there was a fireplace, and a bird feeder just outside the window. Her family, ever nautical, kept watch and watch, and stayed in touch with the rest of us by laptop. They played and sang her favorite songs. Sunday, about five bells in the afternoon watch, Betty finally won her anchor and sailed away.
So she’s gone, and pieces of all of us with her. It’s as if a species had gone extinct. But her essence remains: that smile. There never was any place where Betty was, that she didn’t make it sunnier by being there. Bye bye, dear. Bon voyage.
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