Wendy Jenkinson always let her husband, Patrick, join the Vineyard’s big fishing derby. But then she got sick. Could it ever be the same for him?
The Boston Globe Magazine | March 14, 2009
Patrick Jenkinson is a gas station manager on Martha’s Vineyard, straightforward and practical, with an irreverent sense of humor — in short, not an especially spiritual man. But last July on a blue-sky day off Squibnocket Point, he had little doubt about the mystical connotations of the great striped bass that found its way to his boat. “There’s no question,” he says simply. “It was her.”
His wife, Wendy, had made a promise at their wedding on a Vineyard sheep farm 11 years earlier. Three hundred people sat under a gray November sky before the red barn doors, their oxfords and pumps muddy with slop from the previous day’s rain, as she solemnly swore not to interfere with her husband’s annual chase for a winner in the island’s legendary fishing tournament. Knowing laughter rose up from the crowd. As only islanders can fully appreciate, fishing is something of a sacred pursuit in these parts, and the five autumn weeks of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby count as the sport’s high holy days.
Grown men have cried over the derby. They have ignored their wives week after week, sleepwalked through work day after day, stayed up all night long, skipped out on their jobs altogether, drawn unemployment, burned through every last hour of vacation time, downed NoDoz and Red Bull and God knows what else. They have spied on their rivals and lied to their friends. They have told off strangers and cheated like lowlife bums. If you believe the conspiracy theorists, they have prosecuted bogus charges of rules breaking to get their adversaries tossed from the competition. Fishermen have sunk boats, wrecked cars — they’ve died fishing the derby. For a certain class of Vineyarder, winning it is as close to immortality as they’re likely to get. There are prizes at stake — cash, fishing gear, a boat, a pickup — but it’s more than that. The derby is a lottery ticket, an ego boost, a chance to die happy, a shot at island renown and modest riches, a chance to win. Here are all of life’s amorphous pursuits boiled down into something you can hook, kill, lug into town, show off, and mount on the wall. “Lives change during those five weeks,” one fisherman told me.
Patrick looks like a hell-raiser with his big, thick goatee, his shaved skull, his fullback’s build, his hands like slabs of steak. He’s one of the many islanders who left, got the degree, tried mainland living, and then discovered they’d rather be back on the Vineyard. “This place,” he says, “is everything to me.” So he returned, taking over the family gas station, Up Island Automotive in West Tisbury, and that’s where, a few years later, he met Wendy. She had trained at Le Cordon Bleu, the famed culinary institute, and her dishes found their way to parties and private dinners for some of the Vineyard’s heaviest hitters. When things slowed down in the winter, she made sandwiches and delivered them to workmen and businesses. The gas station was on her route, and she would come in and they’d talk and talk. One day, out of the blue, Patrick walked over and gave her a kiss.
It didn’t take long before they were professing their eternal love in front of the red barn doors and Wendy was making her proviso about fishing, his other great love. “Now if she gives me any trouble about it,” he would joke, “I says, ‘Honey, do I gotta go talk to the minister here and have him bring up the paperwork?’ ”
If ever there was a year for Wendy to balk at his long hours on the water, it was 2007. In June, she began having nearly nonstop headaches. A CT scan turned up brain tumors, and soon she was enduring operations and radiation, chemotherapy and experimental treatment. When word spread of Wendy’s cancer, her high-profile clients clamored to help. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts arranged for the Jenkinsons to stay for free in a friend’s apartment in Boston while Wendy got treatment. Peter Farrelly, the filmmaker behind There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, called to offer a hand. Friends and clients put together a lavish potluck fund-raiser at the Agricultural Hall to help cover costs over and above the Jenkinsons’ health insurance. Actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen showed up at the event with the Clintons, old friends who happened to be staying at their Chilmark home. Bill wore a button bearing Wendy’s lucky number, 33. Hillary sat next to the guest of honor as Isaac Taylor — James’s nephew — sang a song written especially for the occasion by Steenburgen.
And yet even as she fought cancer, Wendy stuck by her word, just as she always had. Patrick took a leave from the gas station to care for her, but she would not let her husband and their son, Wyatt, then a fourth-grader, skip the fishing derby. “Do what you always do,” she said. And so every afternoon after school, Patrick and Wyatt took to the water. It helped keep everyone sane. An afternoon of fishing is like sitting through a great movie at the theater: Everything else fades into the distance, and you return with an altered mind-set. “The derby is one of those things that makes you feel normal,” Wendy’s best friend, Nicole Cabot, explained. “You can put everything aside and just be out on the water. That heals a lot of wounds.”
After the derby ran its course, the Jenkinsons hunkered down for another desolate Vineyard winter in their house hidden among the scrub oak and pitch pine. Wendy hung on for a year, fighting increasingly dismal odds with each passing month. When the end came one Thursday last July, Patrick was by her side.
Four days later, he’d had enough hugs and kisses and I’m so sorrys for a lifetime. He drove down to his boat in Menemsha Harbor. Escaping onto the water again, he carried on a conversation with Wendy all the way out past the Gay Head cliffs and the Kennedy family estate and the rocks where hard-core fishermen in waders and wet suits materialize at night to cast into the surf. He could hear her responding to his questions as clearly as the voice that came over her cellphone when he called to listen to her recorded greeting and fool himself, if only for a few seconds, that she was still alive.
He piloted his boat just off Squibby and set it up to drift over one of his reliable spots. He tossed an eel over the gunwale and before he could kick back on his deck chair he felt the unmistakable d-d-dunk of a striper on his line. The fish came to the boat so easily, almost as if she wanted to be caught. Patrick pulled it up and examined it as it flopped on the deck: the great head, the broad shoulders, the dusky lines radiating down the flanks to the big broom of a tail. At 41 pounds, it was a bruiser — almost the heaviest striper he’d ever caught.
No, it wasn’t a derby winner. But perhaps it was better that he caught this one in July and not during the tournament, when he would have felt compelled to parade it to the weigh station and see if it would win him a new truck. Perhaps this fish was too sacred even for the derby.
Patrick choked up, alone out there on the boat, and sent a silent message into the empty sky. “Thanks, Wen.”