It is June again. The commercial fishing season off Kodiak Island, Alaska, begins as cold winds snatch away the start of summer. My husband, Duncan, our daughter and sons set the nets out in heavy, harrowing seas. After four days of these seas, they are exhausted. At lunch, the fishermen join me — the entire population of this wilderness island sits around the table. With their hair crusted in saltwater, they cheerfully devour grilled king salmon.
“I had a dream last night,” Elisha begins. “I was in the skiff, climbing this huge wave that never ended! I just kept on going forward, higher and higher.”
“Was I there?” asks Peter, his crewman.
“Yes!” Elisha laughs. “You were scared, telling me to turn around. But if I turned, we’d flip over! I didn’t know what to do!”
We all laugh. We swap stories as the wind whistles the roof outside. Remember when Paul leaned out to catch a line and he went overboard headfirst? Remember when Hans and Eric loaded the skiff too heavy and swamped it right at the net?
I have my own stories to add: Alone on the ocean and getting lost in a snowstorm. Seeing my
daughter, Naphtali, at 15, tossed from her perch into the foaming sea. We can laugh at these
stories now. They are just memories. But we live in a place where storms come one on the heels of another.
Far from help
My daughter was just 3 weeks old when I brought her here. I remember riding in the bush plane with my hands encircling Naphtali’s tiny body. I peered out at the cold, cobalt sea and at our little island. I had spent several seasons out here in the Gulf of Alaska, with adventure aplenty. But now I had a child to protect.
What if something happens? I asked myself that question again and again as five more babies, all boys, arrived. But with six kids and a salmon fishing operation to run, there wasn’t time to worry.
The kids became fishermen early, going out in the mornings with their father, and sometimes with me, as well. At 14, they were running their own skiffs. Some days the ocean was a silky scarf and their nets were full. Other days the seas were high, the nets empty. But every day they marched down the beach to the boats. Sometimes I joined them.
I watched them grow strong. I marveled at their confidence and endurance, how quickly they grew from children to adults.
Yes, I still worried. What if something happens?
One summer, my worst fears materialized. I was in the house unpacking when I heard sounds of distress. With six kids, I was accustomed to the sounds of complaints and yowls. But this was different.
Outside I found Noah, 13, writhing in pain on the ground. His face was cut and covered in blood. His nose looked broken, a leg probably fractured. Nearby, the ATV was still running. He had ignored our helmet rule and had lost control on the hill, crashing into a large tree.
I always feared something would happen on the ocean, not outside my front door. I seized Noah’s hand, trying to speak soothingly. The others arrived, horror on their faces. Duncan ran to call the Coast Guard. The boys fetched blankets. Naphtali sat next to Noah, comforting her brother as he moaned.
I felt a storm of anxiety. Heavy fog blanketed the ocean; no planes or boats had operated for three days. The Coast Guard responded, saying they couldn’t launch a helicopter in these conditions.
My mind raced: How badly was Noah hurt? What if we couldn’t get him to help? I was also angry. What was I doing raising kids way out here? But most of all, a wild prayer for God’s help pounded in my heart.
Improbably, help came. A friend heard our distress call and launched his Cessna 206 on floats, taking off in wool-thick air. He flew the coastline, eyes on instruments and coastal cliffs. When the plane finally emerged from the fog and touched down on the waves beside our island, I strapped Noah in and we took off for the hospital. The view was completely white.
Ten minutes in, our pilot pulled up hard, banking a desperate right angle, flattening me to the floor. We’re going to hit a mountain, I thought as we pulled against gravity.
Though we lived in Alaska, I had absorbed the idea that our goal as parents was to arrange a happy, safe childhood for our kids. Had I failed my children? Had God failed us?
But something happened in those moments that changed everything for me. Just before I was sure we would die, my heart went calm. A profound sense of peace enveloped me: Jesus was really there. And because He was there, whether we lived or died, I knew we were safe.
He is there
Yes, we missed that mountain. Noah’s injuries healed, and we returned to our island. And
while there have been other accidents, my children have all emerged with bodies and souls
I still worry some, like every other parent. I want to shelter my kids from disappointment, from failure, from harm. But God hasn’t promised perfect safety, good health and happiness all our days. That really shouldn’t be our goal.
I think about our Lord’s disciples. (And several fishermen among them!) I think of the joy they experienced following Jesus, but also the confusion and fear. They expected deliverance from Rome, a Messiah to bring peace and prosperity. And while there were healings and weddings, there were big storms, too — one with Jesus right there in the boat. The disciples didn’t expect these storms. They hadn’t yet realized that Jesus didn’t come to deliver them from affliction, but to deliver them through affliction.
That makes all the difference for parents. Jesus promises something better than success and safety:
I will never leave you. Believing this, I could watch my children drive their boat into the heart of
a gale. I could encourage them onward in exhausting days mending nets. I could counsel them to find
colleges and jobs wherever God was guiding them.
And what has come of these fishermen of mine? They’ve gone on to work, study and serve all around the world. They courageously face challenges. It’s what we hoped for as parents — not to keep them by our side, but to launch them, wherever Jesus leads, without fear.
And as each one leaves, I cannot help myself: I still call out, “Be safe!”
And because Jesus goes with them, I know that they are.
Writer and speaker Leslie Leyland Fields is the award-winning author of nine books, including Crossing the Waters.