It was almost Labor Day and we were hoping to get through the summer without too much drama at least until we got to the annual I’m Sorry I Called You What I Called You on Broadway in July but I Was Stressed Out dinner, which would come right after. But that was not to be. Every year we launch 92-year-old Jack Farnsworth’s little wooden skiff and tie it up to the dock so that he can sit down there and look at it and perhaps tell the summer tourists a few lies about his adventures in it some years ago. Then at the end of the summer we haul her out and stick her back in his yard until next year. This year it didn’t go quite as planned. One morning the town woke up to the horror of Gladdy, his wife, quite upset that he was gone, as he had never done that before. Jack’s glasses were as thick as Coke bottles and there has never been much evidence that he can actually see through them. “Blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other,” is one of his well-worn jokes. He more or less felt his way with a cane, but he could always find the job I was working on and sit for hours telling the same old stories and jokes I’ve been hearing for years. We all went with it and tried to keep him in the loop; nobody wanted to see him get sent off to a “facility” if we could help it. This island is as good an institution as any, I guess. On that morning Jack was missing and it didn’t take long to figure out that his skiff was missing, too. We didn’t even know the engine could be started; the gas hadn’t been freshened in years. Or so we thought. The obvious thing to do was go to every accessible edge of the island to see if he was close by, which we did, to no avail. After several hours we regrouped to argue about it. Should we send for the Coast Guard or bring the fishermen in from offshore to look for him? Was this a search and rescue or a recovery? Then someone realized that there was one place we hadn’t looked — the northeast corner over on Capiquat Neck which is thick with boysenberry bushes and brings you out to where the harbor meets Buzzard’s Bay looking across at Penikese. We all went out there, cutting ourselves to ribbons in the thorns. It was the last chance.
And there he was, leaning way forward in racing position, the bill of his swordfishing hat leading the way closely followed by his Coke bottle glasses, hand on the throttle at full bore going five knots with a five-knot tide holding him at exactly the same spot. He had been there for about four hours, since the tide turned against him. He didn’t have a clue; he couldn’t see well enough to know that the island was not moving. As far as he was concerned he was flying. And he was going to be flying for another two hours in that spot until the tide turned again and got behind him to push him on his way. We didn’t have the heart to send someone out there to get him, so a couple of us just stayed until the tide cut him loose and then we followed him around. What difference did it make anyway? The breeze was brushing past his face, there was enough ocean smell and spray to make the blood rush, the gulls were calling from overhead with one perched on his bow. In his mind he could have been anywhere on the ocean deep in the memories of his youth and it was high tide so he was going to skim right over the Sow and Pigs reef.
Jack came tooling back into the harbor, grinning from ear to ear at his success and totally oblivious of the panic he had caused or the six hours he had spent in the same spot waiting for the tide to change.
It turned out to be Jack’s swan song. A few weeks later Gladdy went off for a checkup, complaining of being tired all the time. I can remember her huffing and puffing up the slight grade to our house, stopping every 10 feet to catch her breath, bringing doll clothes she had hand-stitched for our daughter Sarah’s Barbie doll.
The doctors decided that she needed a pacemaker at age 90, but her body thought otherwise and Gladdy never came home. The care of Jack fell to the townspeople, who all took turns feeding him and doing laundry but no one had the time to give him the company and conversation that he was used to. Winter set in and he couldn’t get out and eventually slipped into a fantasy world which combined his youth and Gladys. He lost touch with everything and everyone else around him. His older brother Bill, 94, who was wackier than an outhouse rat and walked around wearing a red and white beanie with a propeller on top, came to his senses long enough to make the call to send Jack to a place that could see to his basic needs which was all that was required by this time.
It was a sad day, but we knew it wouldn’t be for long and it wasn’t. When we got his ashes back we took them out to that same tidal rip that had made him so happy for the last time and spread them out to be absorbed once again and become part of the living sea from whence we all came. And so it went. The circle was complete. A circle that has a place for all of us for sure, we just don’t know where our place in line is.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.