As an editor of Yachting magazine, I write about an unbelievably wide array of topics. I’ve penned stories ranging from boat shows and megayachts to bilge pumps and batteries. Just last week, I interviewed a megayacht helicopter pilot and wrote about a $14,000 Rolex, all while eating a ham sandwich on potato bread. Such stories are often fun to write but after that issue goes to press, they are soon forgotten.
Every once in a while however, I get to write a story that stays with me indefinitely. Case and point: Last fall, Karen and I joined a group of cancer survivors and patients on a ride around Newport aboard the schooner, Madeline. The plan was to do a ride along, snap some pictures, get a few quotes and give some publicity to the group who organized the trip called Sailing Heals. We’d be in and out in a couple hours and the story would be finished later that day.
So, on a dreary and drizzly Sunday afternoon we boarded the schooner and set sail for the bay. Sitting on the starboard rail, I couldn’t help but notice a middle-aged woman wearing a blue raincoat and sporting a huge grin. With her head on a swivel, she was snapping cellphone pictures at an impressive rate, seemingly impervious to the fact that the rain and lack of wind made for awful sailing conditions. She was having a blast.
I introduced myself and asked a few icebreaker-type questions, and learned that happy woman’s name was Wanda Howard, a 59-year-old veteran of newspaper advertising who enjoyed volunteering and spending time with her family. The next thing I know, Karen (who I’m convinced would make a good reporter) and Wanda were deep in conversation, talking as though they’d been friends for years. They discussed sailing, living in Massachusetts and family.
Gazing out onto the water, Wanda leaned in towards Karen and softly said, “You know, four years ago I didn’t live life to the fullest. Now that I have stage-four cancer, I appreciate things like this so much more.” Wanda seemed so full of life; it was hard to even believe she was sick, let alone dying of cancer. It was hard news to digest. Karen’s eyes filled with tears and Wanda got up, walked over to her and gave her a big hug saying, “don’t be sad.”
A short while later Madeline returned to the dock, but to our surprise, we found ourselves not wanting the ride to end.
Since the time the story ran, Karen and I have crossed paths with the schooner, Madeline dozens of times. And every time we do, without exception, our thoughts go back to Wanda and her incredible spirit and joy for life. Sometimes we talk about her aloud, and other times we reflect on that day to ourselves in silence. We both wondered how Wanda was doing but were too afraid to find out, that is until the other day.
Lorna Brunelle, Wanda’s daughter emailed me asking for copies of the article that ran a year before. She told me she wanted to use the images and quotes in a book she’s writing about lessons she learned from her mom, now that she has passed away. We both spoke about the rainy afternoon we shared together and Lorna said:
“Until the final week of my mother’s life she referred to her day on Madeline as one of the best days of her life. I remember being nervous because she was on a very high dose of steroids (to help her breathe) and I was afraid her excitement would lead to an unwanted dip in the ocean. Thanks goodness we have only happy memories of our day on the water!”
I know that from now on whenever we see Madeline out sailing in the bay, Karen and I will feel sad that someone as nice as Wanda passed away too soon. But we’ll also be reminded of her advice to be happy and live life to the fullest, and a reminder like that is nothing short of a blessing.
To learn more about Sailing Heals, please visit sailingheals.org.