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Our First Bear

My husband and I had always hoped to see one of these magnificent creatures from a distance. When it happened, I was on my own and seeing it for both of us.

By Susan Lapinski

The day my daughters helped me bury their father's ashes, we did our best to buoy each other up. "Dad would want us to drink some wine!" my 26-year-old daughter Jess surprised me by saying. "Yes!" agreed her sister Susannah, 22.

So on a gray summer day in Maine, we set out to cross our favorite lake in an aluminum canoe with a bottle of white, three plastic cups and a blue cardboard box containing my late husband's remains.

S bear standing at the edge of a lake, near the woods. Next Avenue, Move forward after becoming a widow
From a little wooden bench, we'd thrilled to the sight of ospreys, otters, bald eagles and snapping turtles. But never a bear.  |  Credit: Paxson Woelber

During our 34 years together, Michael made me laugh all the time. One Halloween he took our daughters trick-or-treating wearing a face mask, wet suit and flippers. He towered over me at six-foot-five. How could such a delightful man, larger than life, be dead? How could the blue cardboard box be so small?

So on a gray summer day in Maine, we set out to cross our favorite lake in an aluminum canoe ... a blue cardboard box containing my late husband's remains.

After he died of an aggressive blood cancer, it took me forever to grasp that Michael was really gone. He wouldn't get to walk our daughters down the aisle on their wedding day. He wouldn't meet any grandchildren we might be lucky enough to have. And here at the lake, we'd never again get to laugh at the loons or swim together side by side.

Choosing the Right Spot

Nine months later I brought the blue box with me to Maine, where I've been vacationing ever since I was old enough to eat blueberry pie. And then our daughters Jess and Susannah flew in and joined me in our family's modest log cabin. Soon they were canoeing all around the lake to help find the right burial place. After only a day or two, they told me they'd found it.

I was flabbergasted. The lake is something like nine miles long. "Where did you find it?" I asked Jess in disbelief. "Over at the lily pond," she answered.   

It was just across the lake from us, Susannah said. When I looked across the water, I noticed for the first time that the shoreline there was shaped like a finger, pointing in the very direction of my daughters' chosen spot.    

When we got up the next morning the sky was the color of dishwater. Still, we decided to go ahead with our lily pond plan. Jess and Susannah put on fleece jackets against the chill. I chose an old denim fishing shirt of my late father's that I find comforting to wear, rips, tears and all.  

I was in the stern of the canoe, Susannah in the bow and Jess in midships. They did all the rowing, while I held the blue box close.

When we got over to the lily pond, I saw why I'd never noticed any lilies there before. Screening them from view were all these tall, reedy grasses. And there were a number of large boulders too, effectively blocking most boats from pulling in close.

Fortunately, our canoe was light and agile enough to be able to skim along the topmost layer of the lake. We were like dragonflies, darting among the plants and rocks. 

The tall reeds had cinnamon-colored stems. The water lilies were pretty as teacups, sailing along on their own green saucers. As my fingers trailed through the water, my thoughts trailed back to the autumn day when Michael and I first met at a street fair on Beacon Hill. We spent hours on the banks of the Charles River that day, telling each other our backstories. Two winters later we were married on a snowy New Year's Eve, and our two stories became one.

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"I have grown accustomed to thinking of us as one life, split in two for convenience and added attraction," Michael once wrote of us in his diary. "So much have we grown together, it is shocking to be alone."

Yes. Oh yes.

Now it was time to open the blue box and take turns scattering Michael's ashes across the waves. There was a plume of ash. A plunk of bone. Jess, Susannah and I took small sips of the wine. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

About 10 summers later I was back in Maine without my daughters, staying once again in our unheated log cabin. Fall was coming on fast and I was cold. When I threw logs into the fireplace before bed, sparks flew, but very little warmth.

The Thrill of Finally Seeing a Bear

One morning I hit the dock earlier than usual and took my place on the little wooden bench Michael and I had so often shared. From that bench we'd thrilled to the sight of ospreys, otters, bald eagles and snapping turtles. But never a bear. Right up to his last summer here, when Michael's cancer was in remission, we were always hoping to see one. But we never did.

I was looking at a lean and handsome yearling taking a leisurely stroll from one end of the island to the other. I held my breath, not wanting to miss even one move.

This time when I focused my binoculars on the little oval island hundreds of yards across the lake I saw something I'd never seen before. A dark animal with a squarish head, moving close to the ground along the island's rim. Had somebody's dog run away? 

Peering through my binoculars I followed the flat-footed, pigeon-toed creature as it padded around the white-stoned rim of the island. It was a bear, I realized by now. Not a grandpa bear with a rippling pelt. Not a chubby cub with its own built-in rumble seat. I was looking at a lean and handsome yearling taking a leisurely stroll from one end of the island to the other. I held my breath, not wanting to miss even one move.  

As I watched and kept watching, the yearling headed for the rocky ledge that connects the island to a dense nearby wood. I wasn't ready to say goodbye but the bear clearly had other ideas as it paced purposefully across the ledge and slipped away into the deep folds of the forest.

"That bear will always be yours," said my caretaker Rob, when I told him the story afterwards. He's one of those resourceful year-round Mainers who knows a lot about everything: motorboats and field mice and ice fishing and more. He can be poetic too, and I knew his words would stay with me long after he said them.

That bear will always be mine. And Michael's.

Contributor Susan Lapinski
Susan Lapinski 


Susan Lapinski is a writer and the former editor of Sesame Street Parents and Working Mother magazines. This essay is part of a collection of interconnected stories she is writing about her favorite lake in Maine.
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