Cast & Blast

Finding solace in nature's cathedral

Riley Lewis Sr. and Riley Lewis Jr. hold up a sheepshead.
Riley Lewis Sr. and Riley Lewis Jr. hold up a sheepshead. Submitted photo

Nature has always been my church. I apologize to those of you who might regard such a statement as blasphemy, but in my case it's true.

I grew up participating in the Episcopal church each and every Sunday, and was an acolyte at The Church of the Cross here in Bluffton. Throughout high school, I attended Episcopal boarding schools, one in Virginia and one in Charleston. During this time, I learned a whole lot about the history of the bible and religion in general. I have never regretted one second of this lengthy education. If it taught me one thing, it would have to be this: Do something nice for some person each and every day, no matter how small that deed may be. I call these acts GPs, an acronym I made up that stands for God Points.

So why am I spilling the beans on such a controversial subject? In a nutshell, it's because this has been one of the toughest weeks I have had in quite some time -- one that tested my spiritual center day in and day out.

It all started when my great friend Porter Thompson passed away. He was an amazing man. Compassionate to the core, Porter was a part of my family (whether he liked it or not) for nearly 40 years. He would spend Christmases with my family, plus any other holiday or event that might benefit from his amazing sense of humor.

I am a firm believer that things happen in threes, so when I learned that another one of my best friend's battle with cancer had taken a turn for the worse, it was one more blow to my usual, fun-loving self. When you hear news like this, it is difficult to find words that will comfort and when you do try and express yourself, it usually ends up as uncomfortable silence with awkward beginnings and an equally nonproductive ending. All I can think about in these situations is just how much I would like to have the ability to sap that person's illness out of their body -- much like Michael Clarke Duncan's character did in the movie "The Green Mile." But, as is always the case, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

I am no stranger to catastrophic events, and it seems I have been chosen to endure these trying situations for most of my life.

When I was 14, my parents had gone to the Savannah airport at night to pick up my sister, Alice, from college. On the way home, they ran into the rear end of a logging truck that had been left unattended in the middle of the highway. My folks were hospitalized for more than two years, and my sister was in a coma for four years before she passed away. Then at the end of my senior year of high school, I passed up a trip to Charlotte with my favorite teacher and many classmates. Their Eastern Airlines plane crashed outside Charlotte killing everyone on-board. I went to funeral after funeral for three straight weeks. In 2005, my best friend, Warren Matthews, and I were offshore fishing when he gave me a strange look and died right then and there of a massive heart attack. I lost both my parents to cancer, plus my brother, Tim, to pancreatic cancer.

These are just a few of the things that have shaken my faith, while at the same time, making it imperative that I find faith somewhere in my own little universe.

I said things happen in threes, so I guess you are wondering what third thing was. Much to my surprise, it was exactly what I needed the most -- faith. It came in the form of Fishing With Friends, an annual event in which myself and other fishing captains donate their boats and time to take children with special needs fishing.

This year more than 60 kids participated and since I have participated in this event for all of its 17 years, my "kid" is not a kid at all. His name is Riley Lewis and along with his dad, also Riley, we figured out that young Riley was only 5 years old when I first took him out. Every year since then, we have been paired up. Now 23, Riley is a grown-up, and one thing in particular struck me this time around. I'll admit that I wasn't on my A- game that day because of all that had happened during the week, but as I started watching the interaction between Riley and his father, I felt blessed. Here was a father who is a caregiver 24-7, and yet he could still smile.

After we finished fishing and came back to the cookout and awards ceremony, I saw the same love and commitment from all the parents with children who would always need their care. I'll have to admit, it really shook me.

It wasn't until I was on my way home in my boat that everything came full circle. I pulled off to the side of a creek, shut off my engine and just drifted along. The marsh grass was never greener, the clouds never whiter, and I just broke down and cried. Even with sadness that had surrounded me, nature was there to pull me through like no church I ever attended was able to do.