Jim the Boat Captain

Jim the Boat Captain

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Jim the Boat Captain

Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.

Albert Schweitzer

It was early Tuesday morning when I sat in my bedroom and stared at the cream-colored box that held the cremated remains of my father. It wasn’t a large box or a fancy one. It was a plain cardboard box with a sticker on the top that identified its contents. The box had been sitting on the floor of my bedroom, under a window, for almost two weeks.

My father died suddenly, unexpectedly. He was young, healthy—a vibrant man. My sister and I were also young, in our early twenties. As I sat staring at the box, she slept in the room across the hall, in the bed she had scarcely left since he had died.

Dad wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the ocean he loved so much. We would often meet for coffee or lunch and have philosophical conversations, and one day the topic of creamation came up. It was just conversation; I don’t think he knew he’d die so young. I knew we had to honor his wishes, but I didn’t know how. So the box sat in my bedroom until that Tuesday morning, when I knew it was time.

I got up from the bed and trundled across the hall to my sister’s bedroom door. I knocked loud, louder and finally pushed it open. Sarah was buried under a pile of blankets and quilts, her head covered. The room was dark and smelled of stale coffee. Kneeling by the bed, I tried to wake her as gently as possible. She growled at me and shifted position, nestling her head deeper into the pillows.

“Come on, get up. We’re going to Cape May to scatter Dad’s ashes.” She didn’t respond. I shoved her and she groaned.

“Get up! We’re going today. We need to do this.”

Her head poked out of the blankets and she asked, “How?”

“I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. Now get up so we can get going.”

We packed up my little red car with snacks and sodas and maps. I had on a big, wool striped sweater to protect me from the wind and cold of the coastline this time of year. I’d never been to the beach in the winter, and it was overcast as we left our little Pennsylvania town. Sarah and I were quiet for most of the three-hour drive. When we weren’t quiet, we argued. Since Dad’s death, we had both become quite irritable.

Dad didn’t have any life insurance and hadn’t been employed for the last year of his life. We had to call on relatives to help with the cremation costs and told his landlord to keep the security deposit to cover the last month’s rent he hadn’t paid. Sarah and I were both trying to pay our ways through college by working at the mall. We had almost $100 to fund this trip to carry out our father’s last wishes.

At a rest station, we picked up a tourist brochure that listed fishing boats available for charter. Then, sitting in a familiar Cape May diner, we had coffee and looked through the listings. It felt weird to be sitting in the diner without Dad. Neither of us had ever been here without him.

We selected the charter boat with the best name and called to inquire about the price for a brief excursion on the Hot Potato. I was startled when a man’s gruff voice answered. I tried to explain our situation as tactfully as I could. I knew it was an odd request, but he didn’t seem put off, and said to meet him at the marina at two o’clock. After accounting for the coffee, gas, and tolls to get back home, I figured we’d have seventy dollars to spend on the boat, and I knew that was a slim budget for a private run. I asked about his fee, but he told me we’d talk about it later.

Sarah and I were relieved to have a boat. The cost was still a worry in the back of our minds, but we decided not to think about it and to take Dad for one last walk on the beach while we waited for the hours to pass. We put our snacks, sodas, and “the box of Dad” into a backpack and trudged out onto the beach. The sun had come out and it was getting quite warm for the season. We walked for a long time, quiet, just gazing out on the ocean. The salty air tickled our noses. We were the only people on the beach. After walking for a while, we sat down on the sand and set the box gently between us. We shared a soda and nibbled granola bars, looking over the crashing water.

“You know, I always knew we would do this. I just never thought we’d have to do it so soon.”

I looked over at my sister and felt her words in my heart. I always knew it, too. Only I thought it would be more joyous, more of a celebration of my dad’s life. I thought I’d be here with Sarah and my kids and her kids, and we’d laugh and talk about all the good times we’d all had here in Cape May with Dad.

When two o’clock came, the boat captain was waiting for us at the marina. He was a rough-looking Irish man, about my dad’s age, with sandy, silver-colored hair. The sun had creased his face and his blue eyes crinkled around the edges. He was a sturdy man and looked strong from years of wrestling large deep-sea fishing equipment. He gave us a warm smile and introduced himself as Jim.

As Jim led us to the boat, I asked again about the fee. He waved off my question and helped us aboard. The Hot Potato chugged out to sea, and I nervously suggested we didn’t have to go far, didn’t have to be out too long, mindful of hourly charges. Jim simply offered us something to drink and told us he’d make sure we’d have the perfect spot.

We made small talk, and Jim told us jokes for almost an hour before he slowed the boat to a stop. He asked us if the spot was okay, and when we nodded, he ducked into the cabin to give us some privacy.

“You girls take as long as you need. And remember to toss with the wind, not into it, or you’ll get a faceful,” he joked and made us smile.

Sarah and I each whispered private things to our father before we opened the box to scatter his ashes into the sea. As we watched the ashes swirl in the water, the salty breeze blended perfectly with our tears. The memory of my father swelled in my chest, and I felt a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth.

“He would have loved this, you know.” I glanced sideways at Sarah. She smiled and touched my hand. “He is loving this, right now.” I looked into her teary eyes, shining with love for our dad, then up into the crisp November sky.

We stayed like that for a while, standing together at the railing, our hearts drinking in the moment, the ocean, the sky, and our father’s spirit.

Eventually, Jim poked his head out of the cabin, smiling tentatively, and we nodded. It was done. He turned the boat around and we chugged back to shore.

We were out for almost three hours, and as we approached the marina I grew nervous, sweating and shaking, as he pulled the boat into the dock. We had never agreed on a fee for this service, and I was terrified of not having enough money. My mind raced. Maybe he would agree to a payment plan, and Sarah and I could take turns sending him checks until it was covered.

Jim helped us off the boat and I immediately thrust the envelope that held all of our money toward him. I blurted, “I know we didn’t talk about a price, but we only have seventy dollars, and I hope that’s enough. If it’s not, then I can take your address and we can send you a little every couple weeks or so. I’m really sorry, because our dad didn’t have any life insurance and we’re both pretty broke, but I promise we’ll send you the money because you were so nice, and this was really important for us to do for our dad.”

Jim smiled and pushed the envelope away. He told me to “quiet down” and put his arm around my shoulders. “I can’t take any money from you girls. It wouldn’t be right. I’m just glad I could help. What you did was real nice for your dad, and I know you must love him very much. I bet he’s real proud of both of you.”

I tried to protest and wanted to give him at least enough money to cover the gas for the boat, but he shushed me. He wouldn’t take anything, not one dime. We thanked him profusely, and Jim gave us each a hug and told us to have a safe trip home.

I started crying as I climbed into the car. Sarah did, too.

I sniffed and said, “Well, I guess we could use the money to pay Dad’s last phone bill and electric bill when they come in.”

Sarah looked over at me and suddenly smiled. “No, let’s go have dinner at the Lobster House.”

The Lobster House is one of Cape May’s best restaurants, and Dad always talked about taking us there someday when he had enough money. That Tuesday we had a wonderful meal at the Lobster House. We sat for a long time and just talked about Dad. We shared happy memories and funny stories. It felt so very good.

On the first anniversary of our father’s death, we wrote a beautiful “Thank You” card for Jim and took it to the marina, but the manager said he didn’t dock there anymore. We sent the card to Jim’s last known address and hoped it would reach him. We wanted Jim to know that he gave our dad the opportunity to have a very special dinner with us, one that he could never afford when he was living.

Jim’s generosity started a tradition that we hold dear to this day: the tradition of honoring our father, celebrating his life, and sharing cherished memories each November when we go to the Lobster House and have a special dinner with our dad.

Colleen Tillger

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