The Past Year…Etched in Stone

In a twisted way, it feels good to be through the first year without Colleen. Not that I’m happy about it, but it feels good to have proven to myself that I can do it.

If anything, it feels increasingly real—that she’s not coming back.

Colleen’s headstone in Orchard Park, NY

This reality was punctuated by an email from Colleen’s parents with a picture of her just-installed headstone. Between the frozen ground of the Buffalo winter and the pandemic, it took some time to get it set. I looked at that picture for a long time and thought about all that had happened in the last year. There were the funeral services and the seemingly endless details of an out-of-time and out-of-hospital death—all happening at a time in my life when I least wanted to be bothered with little things. There was the work that my sister, brother and I did to try to get my dad out of skilled nursing and into assisted living. We were successful, but only for 10 days. At least now he seems happy back in skilled nursing. With his cognitive decline, it’s hard to say if he’d even remember his brief stay in assisted living. That in-itself is a silver lining. There were the end of year holidays last year with Thanksgiving falling on Colleen’s birthday. There was stepping off of my dock and sailing for 2,500 miles and 120 days. Finally, and to the present, there’s the construction of a new life which inevitably involves deconstructing an old life and discarding what I don’t need.

There is a parallel between my feelings today and my feelings back in January of this year, shortly before embarking; I’m not sure how any of it will turn out. Maybe that’s the message though: if I were to stay around home and do what I’ve always done, nobody really knows how that would turn out either.

When Colleen died last August, we were in the midst of a major house renovation. The entire central core of our house (living room, kitchen, den) was reconfigured. The only parts of the interior of the house not touched were the bedrooms and bathrooms. Prior to the renovation, Colleen had put a vinyl peel-off sicker on our old refrigerator. The sticker simply said, “Never Alone”. While I’m not sure where Colleen got it, I’m sure her seeking it out and giving it a place of prominence in our kitchen was inspired by her last AA sponsor. Previously, Colleen had several sponsors that didn’t click with her. One was actually struggling with active relapses herself while trying to help Colleen (that made for some interesting times). However, Colleen’s last sponsor—Elizabeth—was integral to Colleen’s success of 12-months of sobriety prior to her death. I don’t know what we ever would have done if Elizabeth hadn’t entered Colleen’s life. I hope she reads this and smiles, thinking about all the people she has helped. Elizabeth sponsors many women and also hosts a private weekly meeting for all her sponsees.

Colleen once told me the story of meeting Elizabeth. They had just attended the same AA meeting and Colleen was going through an especially rough patch. In the meeting and in the sharing of stories within the meeting, Elizabeth had noticed Colleen’s evident distress. After, Colleen was sitting on the curb outside the meeting hall trying to compose herself before continuing on with her day. Elizabeth sat down next to her and looked out at the palm trees and sun for a couple minutes before saying or doing anything. She then reached in her purse and pulled out a single, unsharpened No. 2 pencil that she kept there for just such occasions. She showed it to Colleen and said, “Could you break this?” Colleen, a little miffed at having her solitude broken, looked quizzically at this woman she had never met and replied flatly, “Of course I could.” Nonplussed, Colleen’s sponsor-to-be put the pencil back in her purse and sat for a moment. She then reached back in her purse and pulled out a whole handful of pencils—all No. 2, all unsharpened. She countered, “Well then, could you break all these pencils at once?”

Elizabeth then introduced herself to Colleen and went on to say that the point is that any of us can be broken individually. Our strength, our collective strength, lies in staying together and being a cohesive whole.

I’m reminded of this story because when our old kitchen was demolished, Colleen moved the “Never Alone” sticker from the refrigerator to our master bathroom mirror. Part of my deconstruction involves selling our house and to facilitate that I’m having some additional home renovation work done. This will include replacing the bathroom mirror. Prior to the bathroom mirror going, I plan to move the “Never Alone” sticker to a place or prominence on Hazel James.

While that thought comforts me, it also pains me that, despite all of her and our best efforts, Colleen died alone—in the front seat of our car, in our driveway, of an undetermined cause.

“Never Alone” sticker in our bathroom

After my blog post on August 21st, the anniversary of Colleen’s death, My friend Mike (I have a couple good friends named Mike) dropped me a note. In it he said while being at Colleen’s funeral service a year ago and listening to the remembrances, he thought of the Jackson Browne song “For a Dancer”. While I like Jackson Browne, I had never heard this song. When I listened to it, it floored me (I added the live version to both my HJ Sailing playlist and the My Sister Colleen playlist). While all the lyrics are poignant, the line, “In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone”, brings me to tears, even as I write this.

As part of my deconstruction, I gave my 1985 Jeep CJ-7 to my daughter and her fiancée in California. As the auto transporter drove off with it I had such mixed emotions. Feelings of loss combined with the joy of a simplifying life; also the flood of good times we all had in the Jeep. It’s nice to know that it will stay in the family.

That was a month ago and now I really don’t miss it. I’m sure on my deathbed (if it is a bed), I will smile at the memories of tooling around town, no top, enjoying the sun and the breeze.

The Jeep, headed to California

The work on Hazel is coming along well. Her solar arch has been fabricated and is installed. I got her bow rail re-bedded on the deck and installed a new anchor that will give us increased holding and security when it’s blowing and we’re at anchor. We stripped, cleaned and oiled all of her teak trim. I pulled out her old, non-working refrigeration system and had a new system professionally installed. I recently heard from the sailmaker that her new mainsail is ready to be trial fitted to the boat and I’m having a new asymmetrical spinnaker made as well that will better fit her dimensions and give us improved downwind performance.

Solar arch, ready for action
Re-bedded bow rail and new anchor (note refinished teak trim)

At the moment, I have 4 major projects remaining in her 2020 refit:

1) Electrical – I’m putting in new battery banks and charging systems. The good news is that I’m re-learning more about Ohm’s law than I ever thought I would.

2) Steering – I’ll be installing in a new steering system to replace her 30 year old system. The company that manufactured her original system is no longer in business and spare and replacement parts are near-impossible to find.

3) Haul Out – In the fall, I need to haul her out of the water and do some routine below-the-waterline maintenance and also install a seacock. A seacock is a heavy-duty valve below the waterline and through the hull to allow water to enter or exit. This seacock will intake seawater to feed the watermaker.

4) (This is the fun one) Building “Lil’ Dinghy” – I’m building a proper dinghy for Hazel that can be rowed and sailed. It will have an overall length under 8 feet and will be “nesting”. That is, the bow section will nest in the stern section. That will allow it to be stored on Hazel’s coachroof, just aft of the mast (behind the mast). If you compare Hazel to an RV, her dinghy is analogous to the small car often towed behind the RV. Most modern dinghies are soulless inflatables with noisy outboard engines. While some ascribe to the notion that, “Life is too short to drink cheap wine”, I believe that “Life is too short for homely boats”. Hazel’s dinghy, which I’ve pre-named “Lil’ Dinghy” will be a thing of beauty.

Lil’ Dinghy in early construction (daddy’s little helper to the left)
Current status with hull flipped over to inject epoxy into the seams (the hull is built as one piece and later sawn in half so it will “nest”)

In addition to my deconstruction and reconstruction work, I’m also in the midst of writing a book and am so grateful to all of you for this. A year ago I never would have thought it possible. I so appreciate your supportive comments when reading my shorter pieces here on the blog and suggesting that a longer-format story could emerge.

I’m learning that the aphorism, “It’s a marathon and not a sprint”, is so-true for writing a book. While these HJ Sailing blog entries are sprints—I tend to draft them in one sitting, set them aside to marinate for a day and return to edit and publish—the book requires a whole other level of weaving and organization. I have an outline with 21 chapters and just this morning finished my draft of chapter 8. I’m getting there and trying to spend a couple hours each and every day on it.

Thanks again for your encouragement to get the effort started. The process itself is painful but healthy: recounting details from the past and linking them to how I’m feeling today. It’s cathartic to tell a story and see the words grow on the screen, etched in some virtual stone in the cloud—or maybe in the clouds.

Fair winds and following seas.

12 thoughts on “The Past Year…Etched in Stone

  1. Your posts make a wonderful reading – straight from heart. It is nice to know that you are putting your thoughts in the form of a book. Look forward to the same.


    1. Thanks Kathy. I was talking to a friend yesterday and agreed I have to get video when I get up the courage, and come to the step in the process, when I saw the thing in two!

    1. Ahhh, good question. A “solar arch” is the tubular frame above the cockpit. I stretches from one side of the boat to the other and forms an arch. In my case I have 2 solar panels up there…thus a solar arch!

  2. The visual imagery and emotions that you are able to share with your writing is remarkable. I look forward to reading your book. Take care, brother.

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