The death of a captain

Losing a friend, mentor and respected elder makes a woman reflect on childhood memories.

We called him Cappy. Cap, for short.

This nickname, derived from his proper title as Captain, was the only name I knew Jack Kelly by for more than 10 years. In my young mind’s eye, the Captain was head of a ship that went on long voyages to sea. He was Poseidon himself, the keeper of salt-crusted promises. I imagined him parking his boat on Blue Heron Lane—my best friend’s house down the street.

I’ve known the Captain since I was a young girl; 17 years now. Seventeen years on deck. He wasn’t just my best friend’s grandfather—after dozens of summers on his sailboat, he was mine, too. When I first met him, he made my palms sweat. I can remember straightening my posture and trying to make eye contact and giving him a firm handshake. He was a Captain, after all.

My best friend told me Cap was the strongest man on earth.

“He once fought a shark,” I still hear her tell me, cross-legged in that closet underneath the basement stairs, a small lamp between us.

Summers were filled with PB&J at the Jersey shore and hands with rope burn. He wore that sailing hat, a stern look on his face, hands on the steering wheel, shouting instructions to us: don’t let the dock get away from us, watch the horizon, hold on to the railing, put on a damn lifejacket, make that knot tight!

We swabbed the decks, bailed out water, fought pirating ships, scared away sea monsters. Our Captain was fearless, and with him on deck, we were too.

When I got older, he miraculously did, too. I misplaced the Captain for an immortal from my storybooks. Soon, he couldn’t tie the boat up to the dock by himself. Then we stopped sailing. Now, we only go out once a summer for him.

My memories of him are scraps of paper I shoved in my pockets years ago so I could remember them later. On the days I miss rope burn and his strict demands, I pull the scraps from my pockets, hands full of sand and seashells. I still lick my lips and taste salt every once in awhile.

But the Captain wasn’t fooling any of us with his calloused palms and furrowed brow, eyes glassy and turned toward the sea. He wasn’t just demands and nervous family get-togethers. He was a grandfather, a father, a husband and a friend.

If you got him alone, Jack Kelly, that was the only way you saw the real Captain, the leader of his crew. He never led his ship astray. He was never going to let the crew drift into murky waters. He was the Captain of that ship. He still is.

When you looked in Jack’s eyes, you could see compassion, and, if you looked closely enough, the faint breeze of the ocean ruffle his hair.

Emily Rolen can be reached at or on Twitter @Emily_Rolen

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