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Setting sail

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I haven't sailed in a very long time—since the '90s, I'm sure. It's been so long, I've lost most of the vocabulary; I'd be lost on a boat today. When I did sail, however, it was always with Simon. To Simon, the water was home. Even in the stillest air, he always found a little wind—at least enough to move the boat even as others floundered in the calm.

Simon Whitehead was my stepdad, and he died last week. Years before that, we had stopped technically being family, when he and my mom divorced. They were married 15 years, or exactly half my life. But we hadn't spoken since 2006, when I was 24.

Since then, I've gotten married, bought a house, gone back to college, started a family, and started writing professionally. Sure, he found me on Facebook last year, but we didn't talk; he was no more than just one of several hundred folks with access to pictures of my kids, links to my stories and whatever else I decided to post. I always assumed we would meet up someday—not as family, but as two dudes. We would get some drinks and find out if we actually had anything in common.

But then I got the call that he was in his last days, in a Greenville hospice, that he had been dying for quite some time. I made plans to go east, but he didn't last that long.

Simon was born in London in 1940, during the Battle of Britain; the night before his birth, a German bomb flattened his mother's place. As a longhaired teenager, I mined him for London-in-the-'60s stories until he relented, telling me about encountering John Lennon in a store where he worked or drinking at a pub with Roger Daltrey. He'd also lived in Cardiff and kept a Welsh Bible—Y Bibl—at the house. Though he lived in the United States from the '80s until his death, he never became a citizen, forever holding onto that proud British identity as if it was all he had. Sometimes, it was.

The first time he crossed the Atlantic, he had sailed. He sold sailboats in Oriental, N.C., the small town where I grew up. Every Sunday of my middle school years, we'd take to the water as part of a weekly informal race. He took it seriously, like a runner training for a big competition. Our boat was an imperfect, faded thing next to a lot of the other yachts; still, it passed them. The complex mathematics of wind and water, in the hands of someone so intuitively connected to these elements, blurred into a sort of art.

It's hard for me to picture Simon passing his last days in a little hospice room in landlocked Greenville. Despite how long we'd been out of touch, I wish I'd known sooner. I would have gone to see him. No one deserves to go like he did. Yet of all the things, good and bad, I know about Simon, I never knew him capable of self-pity. I feel confident he faced the void with dignity and grace.

In one of the darkest corners of the human experience, dying alone in a strange place, I'd like to think Simon could find even the tiniest breeze. If anyone could do it, he could.

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