A Small Bay at Thwartway Island



  • A Small Bay at Thwartway Island

During the last two weeks of July, 2003, my family and I had the pleasure of cruising the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River on the border of the United States. We were anchored in a small bay at Thwartway Island when we had the following encounter.

During the afternoon a man motored past us in an outboard utility and beached in the little cove where we were anchored. He got out and wandered aimlessly on the sand and pebble beach for a time. We paid him little notice until later when we saw him carrying an open nylon stuff sack that he was dipping some kind of powder out of with a little scoop, and very deliberately spreading it around on the rocks and sand, all around the perimeter of our little cove.

We speculated about what he could be doing. The best idea we could come up with was that he was spreading salt for deer that may be on the island. My curiosity burning, I hopped in the dinghy with my four year old son and rowed over to inquire what he was doing. As we got closer, I saw that he was a tall, lean man, about 60 years old. He had the look of an athlete, fit and vital. He kept to his task, sprinkling the mysterious substance. If he was aware of our approach, he did not acknowledge it with either word or gesture.

I called out to him. “Pardon my curiosity, but I just have to ask: what are you doing?!”

He looked up and gave us a smile. I think he knew we were there, and even expected the question. He may have even been hoping we’d ask, at least that’s how I see it now.

“I’m spreading my wife’s ashes…”

I don’t know what I looked like at that moment, but I felt myself go pale with the embarrassment and remorse of being so bold in intruding on his privacy. Realizing the significance of this moment, I was without words other than to splutter an apology for our intrusion.

“Not at all!” he replied, still smiling. “Please join me.”

Still speechless, I listened as he continued. This was his farewell after forty years together. This spot, this cove, on this island, in this river, this lake, was a very special place for them. They had shared many happy hours there with friends and alone. As he spoke, I could sense the bittersweet emotions of that moment. I could hear the echoes of laughter of summer evenings spent there with friends and family and see in my mind’s eye the romantic sunsets shared with no one but them.

And here I was, an uninvited guest to this man’s final farewell to his life partner. I struggled to think of something meaningful to say, something to convey my sorrow at his loss. My sorrow was not just at his loss, though. The realization that this time with my family, my wonderful wife and beautiful children in this perfect place and time is so fleeting, so brief, it added to my grief for him. His recollection for us finished, he returned to his task.

Unlike the rare few with the talent for saying just the right thing at the right time, what I said when he paused probably sounded hollow and trite. I ended with “You could not have a more lovely place to say goodbye. I’m sorry for the intrusion. I’ll leave you with your memories. God Bless You.”

With that, Evan and I rowed away, with me attempting to explain what had just transpired in a way that a four year old could understand. With the recent death of the family dog for reference, he understood the facts but not the significance. That only comes with age. We rowed over to the next cove, giving the man some space to grieve without our intrusion. A little while later, he got back in his skiff and motored away.

Even now I’m moved by the intimacy of that moment with this man, a stranger whom I’m unlikely to ever meet again. It’s a ceaseless wonder how in small ways we are all interconnected. I like to think that we were meant to meet at that moment. I was there for him to have someone to share this significant moment with. He was there to remind me of the importance of being in the moment with the ones you love, that our time here is all too brief, that we should immerse ourselves in the times we share as friends, family, and lovers.

Later that night, my wife Lori and I were treated to a memorable sunset which we enjoyed in each other’s arms. We sat together and marveled at the beauty of this place and reflected on our life together. We are truly blessed; thanks be to God!

As I went to sleep that night I was happy. I was glad to be in that moment in that place… That our time together still has no foreseeable end... That we still have memories to make together.

God bless you, sir, whoever you are. I’m glad we aren’t strangers anymore.