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Fleet helps navigate life

Heather Lende

HAINES -- A dozen of us had a ski race on Saturday at the snowmachine track at Mile 25 mile Haines Highway. It had snowed all night and was still snowing when we began. The storm didn't quit until a few hours before the Blessing of the Fleet after church on Palm Sunday.

The ski race, a relay, required four teams of four to ski loops around the oval. (Yes, you are correct, there were not enough of us to field that many teams so the organizer, Liam Cassidy, skied extra laps.) There were no rules regarding skating or classic styles either. But it was not a free-for-all.

We made donations to the community cancer treatment travel fund. Without a hospital, people here have to leave town to treat serious illnesses, often heading as far as Seattle. It is hard to be alone at a time like that.

Also, a dog musher who once played college football made sure both skiers had stopped before slapping palms for the hand-off, which led to a few face-plants in the tag zone.

I did not fall when my teammate slapped my hand and neither did the physical therapist I raced next to. Marnie is the only physical therapist in Haines. She helped me learn to walk again and more importantly, gave me the confidence to run, ski and cycle after a terrible accident.

I couldn't help thinking about that as we skied onto the course, unable to see clearly in the whiteout. I suppose we could have agreed to stay together. We could have, but that's not why she -- and everyone else in town, it seemed -- willed (and cooked and prayed) me back to health. They expected me to do my best. I tell the young runners that Liam and I coach to give their all in even the smallest race, reminding them that they've taken an unspoken oath to do their best. If the outcome doesn't mean anything, I preach, they won't learn anything.

Well, inspirational speeches aside, I hadn't planned to do that on Saturday. I was a little afraid. What if I poked my eye out with a ski pole or hit my head on a snow-covered log? What if I couldn't go fast enough? While I know that this is no excuse, I have good reason to be cautious. Four years ago (April 7, 2005, at about 11:30 a.m.), I was riding a bike down an empty street on a sunny day when I was run over by a truck and broke my pelvis in six places. At least there's some rain and thunder when lightening strikes. There wasn't even the whisper of a storm warning that day.

So in April I get a little wiggy. I went to the doctor because the dentist whom I saw in case I had fatal gum disease (never even mentioned it, but I had no cavities) had noticed a slightly swollen lymph node in my neck. I was already practicing how I'd respond to the words "terminal cancer" when my doctor noted that the last time I saw him was exactly a year ago. Then I had thought I had a blood clot in my knee (I didn't). Now, Dr. Feldman smiled and said, "See any pattern here?"

I had come to the ski race with my husband because if people don't attend events like this, we won't have them. I figured that showing up was plenty. Then I pulled alongside my friend the physical therapist. She made sure we raced as if it were the Olympics. I finished with a pounding heart, gasping for air.

Here's what I learned: Shared experiences alone are not enough to make a community; you have to put your heart into them.

Which is why I went to the Blessing of the Fleet the next afternoon, even though I knew it would be painful. I listened as all the names of all the people who died last year and the first part of this year and ever -- at sea, or in local rivers, lakes or ponds (there were more than you'd think) -- were read. The church bell tolled for each one as family, friends and neighbors dropped palms in a basket in their memory.

I had written the obituaries for three-fourths of the people named. They were my friends and neighbors too. I have walked away from this public grieving in the past. But now I stayed, from the first prayer, "Dear God, have mercy on me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small," to the final hymn, "Amazing Grace."

You don't have to be a preacher to pray for mercy and give thanks for the grace of God, or be a poet to know the bell is tolling for you -- and to spot the really obvious nautical metaphors in all of this. Even I know that it is better to be part of a blessed fleet than row across the sea of life alone.

Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines.