Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Far Green Countries

Dad died on March 21, the day after the spring equinox. The days surrounding the equinox (March 20-25, say) have been difficult for me for years and years now; in fact, the first time we went to Hawai'i over Spring Break, it was because our friend Katharine said, "Bad luck can't travel over water." The March traumas aren't just bad mood on my part, either; they usually take the form of external events I can't have predicted. For instance, a beloved cat died in an especially hideous fashion on March 21 four years ago. When Dad went on hospice, I remember thinking, "Yeah, let's see if he dies on the Equinox." He didn't -- he died the day after -- but it was close enough, especially with the unfortunate cat synchronicity.

When Dad died on March 21, Gary said, "Okay, I believe you about this March thing now."

Today we did more work over at Dad's apartment. Among other things, I cleaned out his file drawers, where I found all kinds of fascinating and useful documents. He had an entire file devoted to Red Jacket, the wooden sailboat he lived on for twelve years. That boat was the love of his life. He was fond of me and my sister, certainly, but nobody could compete with the boat. She was never especially seaworthy, and I don't think he ever actually took her out sailing, once he and Fran managed to get her from Chicago to the Gulf Coast, but she consumed most of his financial and emotional resources. (I'm sure you've all heard the famous definition of a boat: "A hole in the water, surrounded by wood, into which one pours money.") The day in 2002 when Dad sold Red Jacket to his friend AJ, because he could no longer manage the work necessary to keep her floating, was a very sad one for him. AJ didn't have the time or wherewithal to take proper care of the boat either, though, and the last we heard, Red Jacket was basically a pile of scrap in a shipyard somewhere.

Among the documents in the Red Jacket file was the bill of sale. Dad bought Red Jacket on March 21, 1988.

He died twenty-one years to the day after he bought his beloved sailboat. During the days preceding his death, he talked a lot about travel by air and water, but the day he died, he kept saying, "He's working on the boat."

"Who's working on the boat, Dad?"

He couldn't tell me. When I asked if the mysterious "he" was AJ, Dad agreed. But I suspect the worker was someone else.

March 21, 1988 was the first day of the grandest adventure in Dad's life. Knowing that, and having heard what he said before he died, it's now easier for me to see March 21, 2009 as the beginning of another grand adventure. Dad is certainly sailing somewhere, and I have to imagine that wherever he is, he and Red Jacket are both restored to wholeness.

Dad died at dusk, and when Gary and Sherry and I were waiting for the funeral director to come for the body, I told Gary that I kept thinking about the beautiful two paragraphs in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo sails from the Gray Havens, leaving his friends behind. "You should post those two paragraphs on your blog," Gary said, with tears in his voice. So here they are.
Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Havens, and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.
When I teach the book, I always point out to my students how carefully Tolkien describes the difference between what Frodo sees and hears and smells and what Sam, Merry and Pippin are able to perceive. Although this passage isn't a description of Frodo's death, and although Tolkien abhorred allegory, I've always read these paragraphs as an affirmation of faith, a meditation on how those we love, when they leave us, indeed go to places we can't now imagine.

I hope you're heading towards a far green country, Dad, with calm seas and good winds.


  1. Beautiful thoughts. I'm sure you are right. Our eyes see what appears to be, but our hearts have better sight.

  2. Anonymous5:22 AM

    Dear Susan,

    Thank you for this lovely post, which I confess to finishing in tears.

    I have always loved the ending passages of The Lord of the Rings, and I will read them in a new way now.

    Peace be with you and yours,


  3. Susan, I mentioned to you a few days ago a pamphlet "Gone From My Sight" it is based on a poem that seems particularly apt now:

    Gone From My Sight
    by Henry Van Dyke

    I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
    spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
    for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
    I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
    of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

    Then, someone at my side says, "There, she is gone"

    Gone where?

    Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
    hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
    And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

    Her diminished size is in me -- not in her.
    And, just at the moment when someone says, "There, she is gone,"
    there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
    ready to take up the glad shout, "Here she comes!"

    And that is dying...

    Death comes in its own time, in its own way.
    Death is as unique as the individual experiencing it.


  4. a life lived fully...until his heart just was worn right out.....and he sailed away.....under fair skies and following winds.....
    thanks for sharing so openly and eloquently the passages you have all sailed in the past six most important understanding of the Ring story is that of choosing your companions wisely and listening to your own wise voice, wherever it arises from....

  5. It IS comforting to think of your Dad, reunited with his beloved Red Jacket, sailing under a beautiful sky. My uncle, too, loved sailing, and when he died it gave us comfort to think of him set free to sail the Great Lakes as he had always wanted.


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