LIFE LESSONS CONTINUED • Richie’s Final Voyage

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Two weeks ago, our 20-foot pontoon made its last sailing while in our name, heading east, not toward the sunrise but instead to Mattoon on Route 16. I'm kind of glad I wasn't yet home from work to see it make its way down our lane and out of our possession.

Many times after we purchased this used boat back in the summer of 2007, people would tell us, "The happiest days of boat ownership is the day you buy it and the day you sell it." Maybe. We were excited to finally find a pontoon in decent shape that we could afford, but the reason we were searching for such a vessel was because our son had died a few months before and we desperately needed a diversion, something to help wrench our sole focus from the physical and emotional pain of overwhelming grief.

We did have another reason for pouring over the classifieds and Craigslist: Bryce's death brought the stark realization that we needed to take some time to enjoy life while we still had the opportunity. Our normal pattern of working at our jobs, working in and on the house, working in the yard, in the garage, on the vehicles, etc., had to change. We lost our chance to spend any enjoyable moments with him; we didn't want the same to happen with our two other sons and their growing families.

I found that even though I am terribly afraid to get my head under water and can no longer swim more than a dog paddle, I did enjoy floating around the lake on our boat. Something about the sound of the water, the wind through the trees on the shoreline and the warmth of the sun helped me relax. I could watch the edges of the lake lots for deer, turkeys, turtles and herons and block the vision in my head of my youngest in a casket. It wasn't a permanent fix, of course, but at that point, any relief was welcome.

Because Bryce was a driving force in this acquisition, we decided to name the boat after him. Randy was employed in Virden at the time and knew of a vinyl sign business where we could get the work done. The final creation was a large "Richie" with a flowing tail where, in smaller print, it said "In loving memory" above and "Bryce" below. For those that didn't know our kids, all three boys were called Richie by their friends and coaches. It was terribly confusing for us when answering the phone at home; we never knew which one the caller wanted. We were quite happy with the finished product and displayed one on each side of the boat as there wasn't a good place to stick them in the back by the motor.

The next year, we leased a pretty nice lake lot on Glenn Shoals and put the boat to good use. The kids and grandkids enjoyed it, as well, not quite as often as us, but  enough to give us great enjoyment seeing their smiles when waves would splash over the front,  giving them all a good dousing. Over the next few years, "Richie" ferried groups of their friends across the lake for camping trips on the lot and provided many peaceful evening cruises for Randy and me.

With job changes for both of us, along with landscaping projects and the inside of a garage to complete at our new residence, the pontoon sat more on weekends instead of hitting the water. We eventually gave up the lake lot, which at one point turned into two lots side-by-side, because the boys and their families were usually too busy to utilize them, not to mention all the mowing and extra work they caused Randy and me.  

Much like my metabolism and motivation, boat usage slowed way down. I thought a few times about trying to sell it, but I knew Randy enjoyed it even more than I did. Sentimental reasons also played a big part in my thought process. Even though we didn't own the pontoon while Bryce was alive, it still seemed to be there because of him and it would be like losing yet another piece.

In 2017, we hosted the Barbatti family reunion on Labor Day weekend. This is a three day affair with lots of food, drink, bocce, dominoes and discussion. We nearly turned ourselves inside out preparing for it, i.e. finishing projects we had intended to do for years such as a paver patio and sidewalk, painting one room and a wall in another, flower planting, actually finishing the garage interior, mulching flower beds and around the walkways. You get it. We took two trips out to the lake that year, one before Labor Day and one after.

Forward to 2018 and we prepped the boat for use, purchased the Hillsboro lake sticker and took it out to see if it ran. It did, but that was the only time it got wet other than rain the entire year. Due to unusual circumstances, we hosted the reunion again last year, figuring we already had the huge projects out of the way. The impending move of our middle son and his family to Denver, however, brought work effort needed on their property to prepare it for sale, not to mention massive depression to me which often renders me worthless. The $50 permit was definitely not worth the one quick trip "Richie" took.

This spring we both were ready to sell the pontoon. It was taking up precious room in Randy's shop, which still needs the interior finished nine years after being erected. We had been tossing the idea of a camper around for a few years, especially after we saw the model my cousin and his wife brought to our home last September. I'm weird about staying in a hotel room so a camper seemed to be a possible solution to our traveling within the states. Part of our family living 14 hours away also played into the decision. If we could sell the boat, we could use those funds on a camper purchase.

We spent way too much time searching Facebook Marketplace for used campers and actually made arrangements to look at a couple, which were disappointing. At this point, we felt maybe it just wasn't meant for us to buy anything yet. We weren't having much luck selling our boat, either. In one of those sometimes strange "God-incidences," a friendly guy from Mattoon wanted to trade his 2014 pull-behind camper. Randy took a chance, checking to see if he might be interested in a pontoon, and to our surprise, he was.

We traveled to see the camper on June 2, which also allowed us to stop by a graduation celebration for a great-niece in Shelbyville on our way home. Neither of  us could believe that it was just the size and towing weight we had been scouting for, was in great shape other than a ceiling repair that Randy could fix, and that the seller was willing to trade even up. After Randy did as thorough an inspection as he could and we spoke to the owner a while, we agreed to the trade. Until he actually showed up with the camper at our home the next night, we didn't want to get our hopes up.  

Now we have a nice, little camper sitting in our drive, waiting on some repair work and cleaning while giving us visions of future weekend jaunts along with longer trips out west. I do miss, at least a little, seeing the pontoon in that parking spot, but it was time. Just as grief changes and adapts over time, so must we. I hope it brings joy to another family as it did to us. Bon voyage, Richie!

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