My Christmas column arrived in the mail yesterday in the form of a Christmas card and note from a woman from Massachusetts who I met on my Appalachian Trail hike — Jacey Shumaker. She was hiking with her two daughters, ages approximately 7 and 10, and a great big golden lab. We met because a giant storm rolled in just before dusk and she quickly struck down her tent and, along with her girls and Rufus (the pup), relocated into the shelter where I had already set up.
So it was me, my hiking bud Stan, Jacey and her two daughters and the pup hunkered down in that shelter while the heavens poured down into the night.
My Christmas story is about simple things.
Dinner was, as it always is, wonderful. She cooked salmon briquettes, pasta, broccoli and served something sweet for desert. Dining with them is something my wife and I treasure when we are on Dog Island. They are in their 80s and have been living on the island for about 30 years now. I think of him as the “patriarch,” the only one I have known outside of my grandfather, H.V. Appen.
My island patriarch is a retired physician who has operated on his kitchen counter countless times. He has saved people from dying and he has pronounced others dead on the island. They are the couple who people turn to when they need to know something, when they need advice, when they need help of any kind. They lead a life that Christina and I watch closely because it is how we want to live. There is a “giving” in their house — a caring, and a curiosity that for decades has been the mother of knowledge, of learning and of continuous renewal of their wonder of who we are and why.
After dinner we move over to the living room, to the comfortable leather couches worn well by so many who have passed time in their island home. He tells me stories and begins with the story about his entering the University of Chicago at 16 or 17, about the great Nobel laureates who were doing research as well as teaching there at the time. He talks about the “great books” — Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles — that formed the core of his and his classmates’ pre-med education and their path toward mastery of medicine.
His grasp for the detail is stunning and his recall near total. He remembers all the names, the years, the dates, the course syllabi, and the conversation reaches long strides and the hours flow as I listen with acute focus even though I’ve heard some of it before.
I listen because I want to hear his story. His life has been a long one. Sharing it with me is part of his story and I will be part of his story because I have heard it.
The HVAC guy is a stranger. He is relatively young — I say in his early 30s. I bring him out to the island in my boat. Mine is not a regular service call. He has to drive. He has to get on a boat and go out into the Gulf almost five miles. He has heard things about this place. He doesn’t know me from Adam. We arrive and he fixes the system. It was the best small, broken thing outcome. Hallelujah, I think. Finally, in this time when everything seems to be going to heck I get a break.
The return boat ride back is slow. The wind is strong and cold. Waves punish the boat and the people inside — us.
He talks. I listen.
His wife is an addict. Actually it is his ex-wife. His two kids are doing so well. He has raised them by himself. She never sees them, has never shown any interest. Grandmother keeps them when he is in Alaska doing contract refrigeration work for three months each year.
One year, his oldest daughter told him for her birthday she only wanted one thing — to talk to her mom on the phone. “I just want to hear her voice.” He tells me, “she calls her mom and finally, finally she actually answers her phone and she recognizes who she is talking to — her daughter. “Let me call you right back, I‘m in the middle of something she says.”
His face is still. His eyes do not focus for an instant. The boat crashes hard after an unusually large swell.
Then he starts talking about his father. I remember quickly that I heard the doctor — for the first time ever — also talk about his father, briefly. And I think that all fathers are alike — like bridges that tower high over our heads, spanning terrifying currents below, currents of threatening water covered with whitecaps blown by bitter north winds. They are bridges over fear, offering safety and strength.
Fathers are always like that aren’t they? When everything is said and done, their shadow is what lingers on, never fading, never absent, filling all the space around us.
The boat finally pulls along the pier and Justin my HVAC guy gets out. I thank him and tell him that he is family now. Out on the island, he is family.
Later the next day he texts me simply, “Thank you Ray.”
On the front of Jacey’s Christmas card are pictures of her family in Iceland, out hiking, soaking in hot springs and sharing time. On the back of the card (and I am sure Jacey would not mind if I share) she wrote:
“Wishing you and your family the happiest of holidays. May you continue to find new and marvelous traditions to celebrate throughout the year. Look…listen… and be present, build something with your own hands, sing a song out loud, try something new, watch the sunset and take a picture with your mind, tell someone you love them every day, persist, put your feet in the river remember everyone has a story, be thankful all year, cook an old family recipe, and be sure to find time in the daily routine to remember what is most important.
“May the holiday spirit follow you and your families through the upcoming year. Love, The Shumakers.”
I will try my best Jacey. I promise. I will listen with all my heart and I will try to remember what is important. Merry, Happy, Jolly 2019, and please listen.