The Paddle

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Tom would often say on a beautiful day that he felt like taking a paddle. This usually meant we’d load up the two person kayak he’d borrowed from his brother and head to some local river. Our favorite destination featured tons of beautiful wildlife, a short portage and then a grassy knoll where we could park the kayak, spread a blanket, have the lunch we’d packed and often take a nap in the sun before paddling back to his van. Because I was a new paddler, he told me I could take breaks whenever I needed to and that he would just keep moving us along. On several occasions I actually dozed off while he paddled. I have wonderful memories of these outings.

Although I feared it would offend his boat-builder sensibilities, I asked him if we could get some cheap plastic kayaks to have at the cottage—ones that could stay out all winter, be used by renters, etc. He agreed, found some on line and went up into the thumb of Michigan to get them. We used them just at our own shore which, being Lake Michigan, was not always optimal paddling. (One time he thought I had gone too far for conditions and paddled out with a rope and towed me back in. People on the shore wanted to know what I had to pay for such service, but that was just Tom, sweet former Coast Guard guy.)

At the end of September 2014 we took a 4 day weekend up north. It was Roshashanah, schools were closed, I didn’t have to teach and Alyssa was with her dad. In a classic example of freakish Michigan weather it was 70 degrees and sunny the entire weekend and the lake was smooth as glass. We biked the new Heritage trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes, hiked the Leelanau Conservancy’s newest trail called Clay Cliffs, went to the Leelanau Uncaged street fair in Northport and still decided to try a short paddle on Saturday afternoon. We were just past the first point to the south—not very far—when Tom said he had always wanted to paddle to the next point, which we had never done and was of uncertain (but definitely far) distance. It was already mid-afternoon, it had been a busy weekend, I am not a strong paddler and Tom was fresh off a round of chemo. But with perfect conditions and his life expectancy down to two-three years at best I said “Let’s go!” He looked shocked and it was clear he hadn’t really meant NOW, but agreed to give it a shot.

The good thing about paddling with a goal is the motivation. You may be tired and sore, but you have a fixed point you are shooting for and you will get there if you just keep going. It was farther than we had thought—I passed one familiar shoreline house that I knew to be pretty close to Leland (6 miles south of us on M-22)—but we arrived at “the point” to find it really wasn’t any different than any other stretch of shore line. Still we got out, had some water and sat in the sand a while resting. By now the sun was definitely moving toward the horizon and we had a long paddle home. Later I discovered that we had each made silent emergency plans in case we couldn’t make it; basically paddle straight to shore, climb a stranger’s stairs and beg for a ride home, willingly ditching the kayaks for later retrieval. But we paddled on, shocked at how VERY much longer the return trip seemed as the sun sank and our muscles screamed (at least mine did.) Tom, my terminally ill, chemo-filled husband kept looking over to see how I was doing and asked—repeatedly—“Are you gonna be ok? Are you gonna make it?” This did not help as he was clearly worried. What did help was my go-to remedy for tough long tasks, and any other difficult situation of uncertain outcome—SINGING. I sang every song I knew starting with the highly appropriate Volga Boat song and working through every single aria I had ever memorized. Tom was pretty far ahead of me but still could hear the concert as I was giving it my all hoping that loud singing would wake up my tired arms and propel me home—a place that had never sounded so inviting!

I now fully understand desert mirages. Every time we came around a bend I was POSITIVE I could see our little 100 feet of beach, but I was always wrong—until finally, there it was. The sun had set, but we still found our way up the bluff, cooked dinner, laughed at our exploit and congratulated ourselves over and over. At dinner I couldn’t raise my arm high enough to cut my meat.

When I had said “Let’s go!” I knew in my heart we would never have another chance to do this, to reach a goal Tom had set. I will never look at that point without remembering that day with a heart full of gratitude that we seized the day. I point to it and say—“I paddled to that point once, with my husband. It was great.”

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