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Episode 23: From Galveston to Eternity Part 1

POSTED: July 12th, 2013
LOCATION: Galveston, Texas
LOG DATE: May 19th, 2012


One cool summer day about a year ago I sailed across Galveston Bay. I decided to stop in Galveston not so much to visit the town but because it was one of the few places on the Texas coast I could find a much needed item, a new journal. I had been rationing pages since New Orleans and a day after entering Texas I ran out – a major dilemma for me. The plan was to pick up the journal, take a quick look around and then get right back on the road. Only a few more days south was the marina where I would be laying Atlas up and finally concluding my winter travels. I went on to find that journal in Galveston but, by the time this story ran its course that would be a meaningless detail.

In the center of the long narrow island of Galveston is Offatts Bayou. To the non-nautical it’s better described as a small bay. At a two miles long and a quarter mile across it offered a great place to leave Atlas at anchor for a few days. When I arrived I found two other sailboats at anchor near a fishing park at the far end. One of them was very curious. It was a small coastal cruiser that looked like it had been caught by a hurricane. It wasn’t actually at anchor but rather tied to a piling near shore with a web of thick dock lines. Its sails had been left exposed to the sun, rendering them useless while its awning was torn to shreds but still managing to hang on. Scattered across the deck was an accumulation of building materials and nautical junk. Its hull was filthy and there was a thick layer of algae around its water line suggesting it hadn’t moved in some time. It had all the signs of a derelict boat. That assumption left me quite surprised in the evening when a man rowed out to the boat. He appeared to be returning home from work. “This guy lives on that?” I thought in amazement. Feeling I might have a lead on a good character I made a mental note to meet this person before I left.

The next day after touring the island on my folding bike I returned to the fishing park where my dinghy was docked. While locking my bike to a telephone pole I was interrupted by shouts from across the water. It was the mystery man from the dejected boat. “It’ll be gone by morning if you leave it there,” he yelled. “Sounds like good advice,” I thought. With the ice broken it seemed like a good time to go over and say hello.

“How’s it going,” I said, rowing up a few minutes later with my back to him. “I’m Justin.” “Mark Henry,” he replied and then went right into a short ramble about the theft problems in the area. From here there would typically be the usual shop talk among boaters. Where are you from, where are you going, what type of boat is that and the like. Not today, however. Without a single such pleasantry Mark looked right into my eyes and said, “I’m going to die in a day or two.” A brief pause ensued as I re-calibrated myself. So much for small talk.

Mark was fifty nine years old but didn’t look it, especially considering his circumstances. Six feet tall, thin as a rail and still with a full head of long silky hair. His heavily tanned face showed the hairline wrinkles of many days spent in the Texas sun. Sitting in my dinghy alongside his boat I asked him if he was sick. “Cirrhosis of the liver,” he replied. “It’s my own fault, too much of this,” holding up his can of beer. “Is it terminal?” I asked delicately. “The doctors gave me a year to live two years ago but I think the end is coming any day now.” This was the first time I had looked into the eyes of a man faced with his final hours. All of a sudden the pressing concerns of my life seemed insignificant. “Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked with absolute sincerity. “Well,” he thought for a moment, “do you drink beer?” Laughing I replied, “I sure do,” then climbed aboard the dilapidated boat. And so began a most interesting relationship.

Mark was a talker so it didn’t take much prodding to get him going. Curious about how he ended up in his difficult circumstances I started asking him about his life story. He was from Dallas and Texan born and bred. A chef by trade, he spent thirty years in the business, opened many big restaurants along the way and seemed to be quite successful. He may not have been built for the environment though. Good as he was, the stress of it proved too much for him. To ease his anxiety he took up drinking. This soon became a nightly ritual and eventually a daily habit. Three decades later this life style had taken its toll on his body and left him with liver cancer. And now, like a king fallen from his throne, he works for minimum wage at a bait shop on the drab commercial strip that runs through Galveston. He’s lost all his fingernails due to iodine poison from cleaning so many shrimp but he’s forced to keep doing it to make ends meet. Once a big man in the kitchen, now he takes shouts and ridicule from the Vietnamese owner like it was his first week in the business. However, in an unexpected conclusion to his sad story he said “but at least I have this,” and pointed out across the water. That sounds pretty cheeky but he wasn’t just saying it to sound positive. He meant it. For someone living in such miserable conditions he maintains a thankfulness and appreciation for what simple pleasures he has.

I found it surprising that he was so forthcoming with a guy he just met but it eventually became clear why. He was alone. “Do you have any family left?” I asked him later that evening. “A brother but we don’t talk. My father died a few years ago but he never wanted us in his life anyway.” “How about your mother?” I asked. He paused and looked down. “She passed away eight years ago. I moved in with her when she got sick and was there when she died. Watching her go was the worst moment in my life.” He stopped talking and I could see tears well up in his eyes. They were very close and her death hit him hard. She was one of the last solid relationships he had in his life. Once her home was sold the last connection to his past and any substantial community was severed.

With the money from his mother’s estate he decided to reconnect with one of the few sources of happiness he had in life, the water. So he bought a boat. Two years later hurricane Rita snapped that one in half leaving all his possessions floating down the Sabine River. Following that he went on to buy his current one, a twenty eight foot sloop named Seminole Wind. She was also run over by a hurricane, which somewhat explains its tattered condition, but she managed to survive. So for the past eight years he has been living on this boat, parking it at various places along Offatts Bayou. Unfortunately, as I know all too well, living on a boat can be a very lonely existence. You can meet a large number of people but rarely do those encounters turn into deep relationships. After years of this isolated life he found himself knowing alot of people but having few if any true friends.

It was getting late at this point so I recommended we call it a night. He was curious about Atlas so I invited him over the next evening. “Sure,” he replied “of course if I’m still alive.”

The next day at the entirely unromantic location of an Office Depot I found my much anticipated journal. Outside the store in the drab parking I held the hard covered red notebook in my hand and considered its significance. It was supposed to be the big purpose for my stop there but now, having met Mark and gotten a glimpse of his story, it didn’t seem so important. I thought then about sharing my faith with Mark. Usually I’m very soft spoken about this subject. I wait for someone to inquire about it or for the conversation to take a spiritual turn on its own. However, with Mark dying in a few days, matters seemed a lot more pressing. Eternity might be on the line.

That evening Mark rowed over to Atlas. I gave him the tour of the boat and then we sat down in the cockpit and worked on some beers he brought with him. We chatted about this and that. Boats for a while and our travels, all while he entertained more questions I had about his life. Eventually we came to a lull in the conversation. “Mark, I’ve gotta ask you,” I said delicately. “Do you know where you’re going when you die? Is your heart right with God?” He gave a soft balk in response. “Oh, I have my mother’s family Bible back on the boat,” he replied. A telling response. I asked if he read it but he gave no reply. When I pressed further he said he was Catholic but by that he meant that he went to a Catholic elementary school. He went on to recount some painful stories of the harsh treatment he got from nuns there which helped me understand his image of Christianity.

Mark had a vague belief in a God who was some distant force that wanted nothing to do with him. I couldn’t help but think that Mark’s own father influenced this. Ideally we have a loving father who cares for us and accepts us regardless of our actions. This helps strengthen a correct image of God, our heavenly father. Mark’s father was anything but that. He was a deadbeat who wanted nothing to do with him. Mark had a few childhood memories of him but when he was twelve years old his Dad walked out and he didn’t see him again for thirty years. The message to Mark, “you’re on your own in life.”

“Listen, I’ve made some bad choices in life and now I’m getting what I deserve,” Mark said. “I’m not going to come crawling to God asking for help on something that was my own fault.” For Mark there was neither grace nor acceptance by God despite our faults. This is in fact the heart of the Gospel but Mark couldn’t see that. I challenged his viewpoint. “Mark,” I said, “How did you arrive at this at this opinion? It sound’s really nice but it’s just not true.” He evaded answering the question but I stayed on the topic. ”God understands our fallibility. He doesn’t expect us to be perfect but wants to love us and accept us flawed as we are. We need only go to Him for forgiveness.” The statement fell on deaf ears. He was too far entrenched in his thinking to even consider the view point.

I was sure God wanted to know Mark and to love him. If only Mark would give Him a chance. I was certain God would show up. “Maybe that’s all it would take to get the ball rolling for Mark,” I thought. That’s when the idea occurred to me: to challenge Mark to do just that, to give this God he slightly believed in a real chance. Knowing I would be turned down I started with something big. I asked Mark, very delicately, if by medicine or miracle, he believed God could heal him. He gasped, “Absolutely not!” Interestingly though, it wasn’t that he doubted God’s ability to do so, it was that he didn’t feel he deserved it, he wasn’t worthy of God’s help. Sadly, he was missing the very heart of Christ’s sacrifice.

So I tried a lower hurdle. “Alright Mark, how about this,” I said. “What about just believing for some small moment of happiness in your last days. Just asking God for a small piece of joy in the little time you have left. Something that would make you feel loved by Him. You may not believe you’re worth it but give my perspective a risk free trial.” He warmed up to this. “Alright, go on,” he said. “What would that look like?” I asked him, “What is something God could do to make you feel loved?” He looked off into the sky for a moment thinking about it. “Port A,” he replied, and by that he meant Port Aransas, a beach town 200 miles down the coast of Texas. “Life was great when I was living there. Clear warm water, beautiful beaches and a nice group of friends. It was right before my mother died and the last time I remember feeling joy. It would be great to go back there before I died.” he said. There was a glimmer of hope in his eyes as he said this. I moved closer. “That’s something. What about going back there? Seeing if God can’t help you make the trip?” I asked. He just had a long overdue check come in so he had the money. His boat, ragged as it was, could still move. “It’s just too dangerous for me to do alone,” he replied. “Well, what if I go with you?” I asked. It would be inconvenient and a delay to my schedule but I couldn’t in good conscience decline.” If something happens to you along the way or once we get there I’ll make sure you’re taken care of and your affairs get settled.” Now he was really getting excited! This was for real. After talking about it for a little longer he decided to go for it. “I’m in, let’s do it.” he said. So it was on. We made tentative plans to leave in two days. As we parted ways for the evening I invited him over for dinner the next night to discuss things in more detail. After he left I sat down in the cockpit and watched him row across the bayou. This story was getting very interesting.

The next day I was bubbling with excitement. Meeting Mark was turning into quite an adventure. This story could go down an infinite number of roads and who knew how it would end. I was thrilled to be caught up in it. That afternoon I went to the store for groceries and then rowed over to Mark’s boat to see what time he wanted to come by. Before I could say anything, though, he yelled from inside the cabin for me to come aboard. “I’m just finishing up some pasta,” he said. My bubble of excitement popped right there. And it wasn’t just the aborted dinner plans. I could feel the absence of the previous night’s enthusiasm. Instead, there was a thick cloud of uncertainty in the air.

We ate dinner and went on chatting like everything was normal but you could feel the elephant in the room. After the plates were cleared I asked him if we were still on for the trip even though I knew the answer. “No, I don’t think I can do it,” he said, evading eye contact. “I’ve got a checkup at the hospital at the end of next month and I don’t know if I’d be able to make it back in time.” That statement completely changed things. If he wasn’t going to die in the next few days as he said and if he was getting some level of medical care the prudent course of action was to stick around Galveston, depressing as it may be for him. I think when I rowed up to say hello that night he was at an especially low point in his spirit. Feeling alone and on his deathbed he exaggerated his situation. Dying he was, but not in the next few days. So the epic trip was off.

We hung out again the next evening and the morning after that I pulled up anchor as planned. On my way out I sailed by Mark’s boat. He had seen me getting ready to leave and was out on deck to bid me farewell. I tossed over to him a Tupperware container with a few notecards in it. I knew he wouldn’t read the Bible for the encouragement it offered but I thought he might read a few relevant verses that I had transcribed on the cards. We said our goodbyes and in what is a rare occurrence on this journey I sailed out of town without a sense of closure. On my way down the Bayou I wondered what might have happened if Mark went on the trip in spite of conventional advice. I genuinely believe in the promise God describes in the Bible, that he “rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” By leaving, Mark would have been putting something on the line, stepping out in faith and giving God a chance to show up in his life. Who knows what might have happened.

Epilogue

I called Mark a few weeks later to see if he was still alive. Despite the two day estimate he had given me in Galveston he was still alive and doing about the same. A few months later he answered as usual and though he was having trouble eating he was still active. But a year later as I started thinking about this piece he didn’t answer and there was no voice-mail message indicating it was still his number. The day had finally come. He had passed away.

I should have been in Panama by this time but life doing what it does, I was still in Texas. So when circumstances changed to make it reasonable for my journey to pass back through Galveston I jumped at the chance. I don’t like backtracking along my trail but I thought that by going back I might be able to get the sense of closure I left without a year earlier. So I sailed two days and a hundred and fifty miles through the Gulf of Mexico to return to Offatts Bayou where this story began.

As I sailed up the Bayou I used my binoculars to see the point where Mark’s boat would come into view. I still held the faint hope that he might somehow be alive. As I got closer the piling he was tied to came into focus. It stood there as lonely as its previous occupant had been. He was gone. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew it was coming. But in my hopefulness I had felt like this story had one more turn left in its plot.

I sailed near the fishing park but was reluctant to drop anchor there. On the previous visit I had an oar stolen from my dinghy and didn’t want to lose another. So, on the fly I changed plans and continued up the bayou to find a safer place. The bayou took a turn and then narrowed until it was only three hundred yards across. A residential development and an RV park were on one side, while bait shops and a boat rental place lined the other. It was a little seedy but it was peaceful and protected. As I scanned the shoreline for a place I could land my dinghy I caught a familiar sight. A dirty little white sloop was tied to a fuel dock further up the bayou. “Ya know what, that looks like Mark’s boat,” I said to myself. My first thought was that it got towed there when he passed. But before I got too far in my conjectures I heard, “Hey Justin!” Someone was shouting from the boat rental dock. I couldn’t make out the face but the tall thin form waving at me was unmistakable. It was Mark, still alive.

This story had one more twist indeed.

To Be Continued… (See Episode 27 for Part 2)

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