Five-hundred miles seems a long drive to see a bench. And yet, here we are — my wife, our three kids, and the dog, all roaming some closed-for-the-season camping road at Pokagon State Park on the shores of northwestern Indiana’s Lake James.
“Is it this way?” my wife asks, pointing toward a snow-packed trail as I hustle ahead for a bit of reconnaissance.
“I don’t think so,” I say, unfolding a piece of paper from my pocket. “If I’m reading this map correctly ...”
We’re in trouble, I realize, if we are at the mercy of my map-reading.
We have come in search of the memorial bench for my father-in-law, Steve Ball, who passed away last June. In one of his final wishes, he’d mentioned to my wife that rather than have his name etched on some dreary gravestone, he’d prefer a lakeside bench constructed at the state park we frequented.
For three carefree days each summer, Steve would lug his bait and tackle toward Lake James while the rest of us lounged beachside, whittling away the hours building sandcastles, swimming to the buoy and back, and hiking the park’s many trails. Most of the time, Steve could be found on his rented rowboat, returning hours later with a cooler overflowing with glassy-eyed bluegill and perch.
But other days he’d forego the boat in favor of a lakeside bench, which provided him easy access to the water, not to mention a place to untangle his fishing line. Which was precisely what he hoped to leave for the next fisherman.
Thirteen days prior to his death, I stood in Steve’s backyard and called the state park to inquire about the memorial bench.
“Of course,” the woman said. “I can help you with that. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Well, we haven’t lost him yet,” I said, glancing Steve tending his tomato garden. “We are still losing him.”
I explained to the woman that we needed a lakeside bench. That as a fisherman, it was important to Steve that the bench be in full view of the water. A place where a fisherman could untangle his line.
The woman turned quiet.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “We’re actually out of lakefront spots for memorial benches. They’re quite popular and ... ”
I didn’t hear what she said next. All I heard was my heart beating in my head.
“Yes but, you see, he’s dying,” I said, my eyes trained on Steve in the garden. “This is sort of his last wish. I’ve been asked to carry out this last ...” I trailed off, tried a new tact.
“Look, I need to believe there’s some patch of land, just a couple of feet, where a bench might fit. Where a fisherman might untangle a line. We go there every summer. Please. He’s probably caught half the fish in that lake. Please.”
Because the woman couldn’t bear to tell me no, she agreed to take it up with the property manager. But she promised nothing.
Fast forward to the six-month anniversary of Steve’s death, to this snowy state park, to our breathless attempt to find the bench. So far, our efforts have been thwarted. Our casual stroll through the woods has quickly become a forced march, one which the children and dog want no part of.
An hour earlier, we’d come so terribly close. There, along the familiar beach, the kids and I had wiped the snow clean from a bench’s memorial plaque to see the name Steve Baldridge.
But where was the bench for Steve Ball?
After soliciting the help of a couple of park rangers, we were directed to our current location: a closed road on the opposite side of the park.
“Are we almost there?” my son moans.
“Please say yes,” begs my daughter.
The 2-year-old wails, a sound soon matched by the dog’s howl.
My wife, who holds the dog’s leash in one hand and the baby’s hand in the other, sighs.
We are too cold and too tired. The warmth of the minivan beckons.
“Can we just go?” my wife asks, untangling herself from the dog’s leash.
“I’m just going to run ahead really quick,” I say.
My wife gives me the look.
“Super-fast,” I promise. “I just need to see it.”
I sprint through the ankle-deep snow, slipping on all sorts of downed branches as I venture deeper into the closed camping lot. Though I’ve been to this park a dozen times, I’ve never been here. I cover as much ground as possible while the rest of the family trudges back toward the van.
Why am I so desperate to see this bench?
Because over the past 36 hours, my wife and I have signed our wills, waved goodbye to our childhood homes, and left the city where we both grew up. My parents are moving, and my wife’s parents are gone, and we’re out of reasons to return to Indiana.
Suddenly this bench is the only home we’ve got here.
Ahead of me, on a slight promontory jutting toward the blue-gray water, I spot a snow-covered bench.
This is it, I think. I can feel it.
But that is not it.
Instead, Steve’s bench is the last bench on the rim of the water — just as the woman on the phone had promised me hours after our initial phone call.
When I’d asked her why the property manager changed his mind — why he’d snagged us this last sacred spot — she informed me that the property manager was a fisherman, too. And that he appreciated my father-in-law’s commitment to placing a bench where a fisherman could untangle the line.
Which is precisely the plaque’s inscription:
“In Loving Memory of Steven C. Ball, 1950-2021, A Perfect Place To Untangle The Line.”
For a full minute, I steady myself against Steve’s bench and peer out at the water.
And then, I two-time it back toward my family.
My wife stands outside the van, peering at the snow-blanketed trees while the rest of our gang buckles into their seats.
“Hey,” I gasp, slowing my jog. “I found it.”
She looks surprised.
“Yeah?” she asks. “How is it?”
“Perfect,” I say. “The kind of place where you’d want to stay awhile.”
We will stay awhile when we return here next summer: me lugging Steve’s fishing gear, while Meredith manages the kids and the dog. Together, we’ll fill every square inch of that bench until nightfall. And then, once the fish stop biting, we’ll reel in our lines, gather our gear, and try not to buckle beneath this new weight.