The beautiful day beckoned us to the water and the boat. November on Rainy Lake is usually blustery or foggy but this crisp, sunny morning was perfect for a run to Fawn and John’s cabin. It felt like the four of us had the lake to ourselves, not another soul did we see.
Unencumbered with luggage and supplies, we cruised swiftly over the waves, our coffee thermos and wine bottles sitting alongside John’s portable oxygen tank. It was to be a brief trip; just long enough to relax on the deck for a few hours and pick up guitars that shouldn’t be left there for the winter.
Picking up the guitars was a good excuse to take one more trip; to bask in the familiar comfort of best friends and let the ritual of heading up the lake mark the beginning of our goodbye to John. Because what we all knew but no one said was that, short of a miracle, this would be the last time all four of us would be together.
Peter and I had arrived in town just three days earlier. Nudged by mutual friends to move up our long-planned visit, we understood the urgency when we saw for ourselves the toll John’s illness had taken on him. He’d always been a strong, capable outdoorsman and jack of all trades; your first pick if you had to choose someone you’d want with you if stranded in the wilderness. Thin, frail and gaunt would best describe him now.
After docking and catching up with work done on the cabin and sauna since our last visit, we settled into comfy chairs to soak up the views and let the sun’s rays warm us best they could in our sheltered southern bay of Nowhere Island. The wine bottles were cracked open.
John never welcomed queries regarding his health. In fact, he would respond with open irritation; dissuading any attempt to find out how he was doing. But on this day he was forthcoming; describing recent hospital stays and how limited he was when having to haul the oxygen tank everywhere along with him. His eyes lit up when talking about their grandkids and the memories made with them.
Fawn reminded us of another unseasonably warm visit to the cabin; Labour Day weekend many years ago when we stayed on the deck overnight, watching a most stunning show of northern lights. And when the sky cleared, we’d counted the satellites skimming across the starry dark and timed the intervals between each appearance.
There were trips to Cuba to reminisce over and the old argument was finally settled about whether it was John or Peter who’d drawn police attention for purchasing illegal cigars. It was John. And it was John, ever the Irishman, who’d found O’Reilly’s, an Irish pub in the heart of Havana; the scene of imbibing too much Cristal and enough laughter to last a lifetime.
John heard our appreciation, for the umpteenth time, for bringing the family three hundred miles through a blizzard in 1986 so we wouldn’t be on our own for Christmas in a brand new community.
Afternoon shadows creeping across the deck brought us back to the present and we warmed ourselves with coffee in preparation for the chilly ride back to the marina. An eagle circled above, as if sending us on our way. We were lulled into believing all would be well and we made promises to spend a month at the lake next summer.
On the journey back, the boat motor’s rumble made it impossible to carry on a conversation. As the sky turned grey, our contentment vanished, replaced by a shroud of sadness and resignation that no amount of cold wind in our faces could blow away. Each of us remained stoic within our own silent solitude. We tried to take our cues from John and he was chiding us to quit stepping on his oxygen hose and lamenting how hard it was to dance with that damned machine attached to him. So, we smiled through our heartache.
Sometimes there are no words for how the heart feels. Was it Shakespeare who wrote “To whom we love the most, we can say the least.”? All the affection and gratitude that friends share is expressed a million different ways over many years and we have to trust that each of us holds that in our own way. At some point there is nothing left to say but goodbye.
John docked the boat effortlessly in the marina berth and we quickly disembarked. Fawn and I walked among the deserted skiffs, houseboats and kayaks while John and Peter winched the boat and maneuvered it to dry dock for the winter. We all took a last look at the bay and headed home.
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