Just a Closer Hike With Thee

By Jane Ciabattari,
author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire"
Wednesday, August 29, 2007


A True Story

By Kate Braestrup

Little, Brown. 211 pp. $23.99

Kate Braestrup's "Here if You Need Me" can be read as a superbly crafted memoir of love, loss, grief, hope and the complex subtleties of faith. Or it can be read as the journey of a strong-minded, warmhearted woman through tragedy to grace.

Her story begins a decade ago with a devastating loss. Her husband, Drew, a Maine state trooper who had considered training for the ministry, is killed when his patrol car is hit by a truck. Instead of the traditional approach to a funeral, Kate Braestrup chooses to wash and dress his body herself and accompany it to cremation, wearing a dress he loved. Then comes the grieving: In the six months after his death, she notes, she and her four young children cried a lot, weeping while vacuuming, while ordering pizza, while coloring, while emptying rainwater from garbage cans.

Eventually she and the children scatter Drew's ashes by the lighthouse in Port Clyde, and she takes his place at the Unitarian seminary in Bangor. "I'm here because Drew isn't," she tells her professor the first day. Her brother the skeptic responds to the news that she has decided to study for the ministry with an e-mail: "Dear Kate, you don't really believe in God, do you?" Yes, she does, she explains: "the God I serve and worship with all my body, all my mind, all my soul, and all my spirit is love (1 John 4:8)."

Her story is deeply personal, yet resonant. And she has a refreshing comic side that keeps popping up: "I highly recommend divinity school for anyone recently bereaved. With rare exceptions, your classmates will be unbelievably nice, sensitive people. They are eager to practice their pastoral skills . . ."

The meat of the book is Braestrup's description of her work as chaplain to the game wardens who conduct search-and-rescue missions for the state of Maine. And this element of the memoir alone is enough to make it fascinating, as she describes traveling with the wardens in search of murder victims, suicides, straying children and lost hikers. She accompanies the wardens to give comfort to the loved ones of those who are missing, to attend to the remains of those found dead and to minister to the wardens themselves. (For those of us who love her part of Maine, from Thomaston to Rockland to Port Clyde, her descriptions of the natural world -- the woods, wildflowers, animals and seashore -- make the book nearly irresistible.)

On one of her first searches, for a local man who has disappeared, she learns that finding a skull doesn't necessarily mean they have found the body. "Bears take the heads off and play with them," one warden explains. "It's like a ball for them . . . ." Of another lost hiker, a warden tells her, "He wanted to climb a mountain and meditate. . . . Some kind of spiritual thing. And he lost his way, got too cold, died." After his body is found, her role is restrained: "I showed up, and I knelt in the leaves beside the young man's body. I prayed. The wardens bowed their heads and folded their hands over their belt buckles."

At times her work reminds the reader of a "CSI" episode. She listens as a forensic anthropologist describes how a woman died alone, on the bare surface of a granite ledge, and how over time a maple seed took root and used her body as "manna from heaven." Braestrup calls this "the most extraordinarily satisfactory disposition of human remains I had ever seen," and decides she wants to be buried that way, "surrounded by a womb of roots, my matter broken down and taken up into a living trunk and living leaves, my grief-stricken relatives invited to hear my voice whisper in the wind through new, young branches. . . ." Back home, her teenage son Zach brings her down to earth: "You don't whisper, Mom. . . . To hear your voice in the leaves, we'd have to wait for a hurricane."

This interchange is typical of Braestrup's relationship with her children -- warm, realistic and full of humorous moments. One son calls her "Mom-Dude." Woolie, her youngest daughter, loses her enthusiasm for a Bible story when Mom tells her Jesus was approached by 10 lepers, not 10 leopards.

One of the most powerful passages in the memoir comes after Braestrup has accompanied the wardens on a grueling, hours-long search for a man who vanished while on an ice fishing trip. "First light revealed not only an open patch of dark water in the inlet near the boat launch, but also a neat set of snowmobile tracks leading right to it." After the missing man's frozen body is recovered, she accompanies a lieutenant who has been a game warden for 32 years to tell the new widow of her loss. Braestrup explains, "Mrs. Levesque will put me to use as witness, as crutch, as Kleenex, as proxy for Jean-Pierre -- a temporary substitute for all the neighbors, church folks, friends, and family members who will soon come bursting through her door to share her grief. I am a transitional love object . . . . What a strange privilege it is to be so used."

As he drives her home, the lieutenant muses, "It's like standing right on the hinge of someone's life. You know? Right there on the hinge, while the whole world swings around, and that widow, or that mother or dad's life is suddenly completely different, permanently different."

That is her role. To stand on the hinge with those who must move forward into altered lives, as she has done. In "Here if You Need Me," she allows us to stand with her while she ministers to those who are lucky enough to have the remarkable, steady, peaceful and wise Kate Braestrup to comfort them.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company