The fisherman’s journey back to the sea

by |
04/08/2010 12:00 AM |

I’d never before been in the room the moment someone dies.

It’s not something I’ll ever forget. Nor will the memory ever fade of the man who, surrounded by his grown children and two sons-in-law, one of whom is me, breathed his last in a Stony Brook cardiac intensive care room on Saturday, March 27.

Reaching age 86, Martin Skarka surely wasn’t cheated out of his time, not that such longevity takes the pain out of his passing. For a family that lost its Mom prematurely 18 years ago and for their kids who no longer have grandparents to visit, Marty’s death is especially wrenching. As the kind of guy who jokes at funerals ¬­– “Wow, this is the worst dance I’ve ever been to” — it was easy to believe myself immune from all this silly grief stuff. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? What, are you kidding me? Get outtahere.

Ah, but when he passed, death smacked me one upside the head. He was a great constant and always supposed to be there.

We had something other than your off-the-rack in-law thing going. It started when my older sister married my wife’s older brother. No, we didn’t get hitched in West Virginia to the pickin’ and plinkin’ of banjos. As teens, the Mrs. Kelly and me were wallflowers who kept to ourselves and later were pushed into each other’s paths. So I’ve known the guy, and the Mrs. for that matter, since age 10. He became a father figure to me after my father died when I was 14.

Mart, as he was known within the family, was a child of the Great Depression who went off to war, and when the fighting ended this card-carrying member of the “greatest generation” returned to Eastport and his part in creating and raising a gaggle of baby boomers. All who knew Mart described him as the hardest-working man they’d ever met. He was a member of the hardy brotherhood of clam diggers. When his kids winced at using that description of the old man’s vocation, he suggested “bivalve extractor.” Never quite caught on, though.

No one ever became wealthy selling sacks of cherrystones, littlenecks and chowders by the bushel, wholesale. But despite bouts with true and terrible poverty, he and the late Katherine Wilson Skarka raised six kids, losing one in a horrific car crash in 1959. The rest all went on to careers and homes and families of their own. Not too shabby.

Regardless of the season, fair weather or foul, Mart was out on the bay, pulling the rake with a wrestler’s arms and shoulders, his back straining against a strap cut from an old fire hose chained to the rake’s steel-toothed mouth. It took a storm of prodigious proportions — say, one of the recent nor’easters — to keep him ashore. No point in going out, he’d say, when “the tide’s up in the meadows.”

When phlebitis in his leg drove him off the water — full-time, anyway — Mart took a job at what’s now Peconic Bay Medical Center and worked there for over 20 years, retiring as the storeroom manager. Never took a vacation, but he did take off summer Fridays and spent his three-day weekends digging clams. Throughout the years I’d joke that he’d never die, what with his carcass being so thoroughly salt-cured and pickled. He’d then compare my Celtic complexion to the underside of a fish. He never raised his voice, was as honest as they come, always looked on the bright side and loved to laugh. A rock-ribbed Mets fan, he also loved to hate the “damn Yankees,” which is funny given that his second wife, Ellen, is so enamored of the Bronx Bombers that her license plate reads “MM Fan.” MM, as in Mickey Mantle.

Following his wishes, the family will take to the bay one of these days and scatter his ashes where he most loved to be. I’ll try to smile, but it won’t be easy.