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An only child and the people he needs

In Mitch Albom's new book The Stranger in the Lifeboat, the narrator Benjamin reflects on companionship and self-identity

It seems clear now that I will die on these waters. If so, I want the world to know a few paragraphs about me, about my life, he writes.

This evening, just after sunset, I noticed Nina and Yannis sitting next to each other. Who you sit next to on this raft means little, given how compact everything is. You are always on top of somebody. It’s strange how quickly we’ve grown accustomed to the cramped space, twisting our backs to allow each other passage, shifting legs so that someone can stretch out. I imagine Lambert, Geri, and Yannis are used to huge rooms in huge houses. How odd this must be for them, no real estate to themselves.

Still, Nina and Yannis were sitting close not for practical purposes but for companionship. Yannis had his arm behind her, resting on the raft’s edge. At one point she leaned her head against his shoulder, her long rivulets of hair brushing against his chest. His hand squeezed against her arm, and he kissed her forehead.

I instinctively turned away, out of privacy or envy, I am not sure which. We burn for water, we growl for food. But what we yearn for most is comfort. A soft embrace. Some- one to whisper “It’s all right. It’s all right.”

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Perhaps Nina and Yannis are finding that in each other. I find it in these scribbled notebook pages, Annabelle, in thoughts descending from my brain to my fingers to the pen to the paper. To you.

I find it in you.

It seems clear now that I will die on these waters. If so, I want the world to know a few paragraphs about me, about my life. I have no reason to expect this notebook will go anywhere that I won’t. But when all your big ideas are gone, you cling to the small ones. Perhaps something will happen to bring this story to light.

The Stranger in the Lifeboat, by Mitch Albom; published by Sphere/Hachette India, 420 pages, Rs. 599
The Stranger in the Lifeboat, by Mitch Albom; published by Sphere/Hachette India, 420 pages, Rs. 599

Here, then, is my life summation: I am an only child, born in Donegal, Ireland, in the small northern town of Carndonagh, hard by the waters where the Atlantic Ocean and the Sea of the Hebrides converge. My mother, like many Irish kids, used to play golf on a nearby course. She became so good that at age eighteen, for winning a local tournament, she was given a ticket and a bus trip to watch the Open Championship in Scotland. There, I later learned, she met my father, or rather encountered him, because that was also the last she saw of him for years. I was born nine months later. My mother never spoke his name, no matter how often I asked. She also never played golf again. Sometimes, as a child, I heard her arguing late at night with a deep-voiced fellow out in the kitchen, and I thought this might be the man I should call Dad. But he was merely an old flame who might have married my mother had she not gone off that week to Scotland and “ruined yourself.” He yelled those words over and over, enough for me, with my head in a pillow, to become permanently ashamed of my existence.

I had an aunt, Emilia, Dobby’s mother, and an uncle, Cathal, her husband. One morning, when I was seven years old, they drove my mother and me to the county airport, which had just replaced its grass landing strip with a paved runway. We gave our suitcase to a porter. We flew away.

We arrived in Boston in the middle of a snowstorm. I did not understand the accents and was overwhelmed by the cars and the multitude of billboards that hung every- where, for Dunkin’ Donuts, for McDonald’s hamburgers, for various types of beer. We lived in a flat next door to an Italian bakery, and when my mother found a job in a tire plant, I was sent to school. A city school. I did poorly. The teachers were old and distant. They seemed as relieved as I was when the bell rang to end the day.

I never understood why my mother chose that city, or America, until one afternoon when I came home from school and found her standing before a mirror in a tight silver dress that I had never seen before. She had done up her hair and applied her makeup, and it was almost like looking at another woman, that’s how startling her sudden beauty was. I asked where she was going, and she just said, “It’s time, Benjamin,” and I said, “Time for what?” and she said, “Time for me to see your father.”

I didn’t understand what she meant. America was still a mysterious country to me, and in my childish imagina- tion, I pictured her going someplace outside the city, high on a hill, where fathers waited in lonely rooms for their long-lost brides to return. She would report to a person at the front desk who would yell out her name to a crowd of anxious men. One of them—handsome, strong, with dark stubble of a beard—would rise and yell “Yes, that’s me!” and run to embrace my mother for the answered prayer of her arrival.

It did not go that way.

Whoever the man was, he did not receive my mother well. I was awakened that evening by her smashing things in her room, and I ran in to see her running scissors through the dress she had worn. Her makeup was tearstained, her lipstick smeared, and when she saw me she screamed, “Go away! Go away!” But even then I could tell she was only echoing my father’s reaction to her.

She offered few details about him. I learned that he was rich and that he lived in a house in Beacon Hill. My mother tried to insist that he cared about me, but I knew it was a lie. I saw the heartbreak in her eyes as she told it. I understood, at that moment, that she had been planning all my life for that night, to try and make us whole, to try and make us a family, to unruin herself, and that she had been rebuked, an act that, in my mind, cemented my father as forever a bastard, and me, by definition, a bastard as well. 

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Stranger in The Lifeboat’ by Mitch Albom, published by Sphere/Hachette India

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    16.12.2021 | 10:30 AM IST

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