Longtime author and one of the first chaplains ever appointed to the Maine Warden Service, Kate Braestrup writes, "If anyone needs proof that God has a sense of humor, here it is: I am a middle-aged mother of four who works primarily with young, very fit men. My preferred habitat is a warm, well-stocked library, yet I work in the outdoors, with outdoorsmen. But the crowning irony, the one that makes family members and old friends smile in knowing disbelief, is that I, a famously loquacious person, have a job that requires me mostly to just show up, shut my mouth, and be."
The true story of Here If You Need Me began a decade ago when Braestrup's husband, a Maine state trooper, was killed in a car accident while on duty. Had he lived to retirement, his second-career plan was to become a minister. Instead, his widow followed that path and became chaplain for search-and-rescue missions with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. As Braestrup explained to her Christian Doctrine professor: "Mine, in reality, was a pretty plain and practical calling: I needed to do something."
One thing Braestrup does is take a seaplane to a remote lake where a six-year-old girl has wandered off. It's getting dark and the K-9 units have yet to pick up the girl's scent. The new reverend introduces herself to the anxious parents as a Maine Warden Service chaplain.
"We're not churchgoers," the parents admit. "I'm not a church minister," Braestrup replies, beginning her task of helping them wait and, in so doing, helping the searchers do their jobs. Later, depending on the outcome, a Maine state warden might ask her, "Where was God in this?" If things go well, she will rejoice and offer thanks. If not, she will safeguard their reverence for what remains.
These true accounts of Braestrup's role in several dramatic search-and-rescue missions benefit from her writer's skill of keen observation and her behind-the-scenes knowledge from being a state trooper's wife. She knows that K-9 dogs also are trained to pick up the sent of a cadaver. She can decipher police radio codes and initials like PLS (point last seen) and knows how a Kevlar vest should fit and when she should wear one. She understands that many accidents have drugs or alcohol at their roots and she reminds her children: "Do not drink and operate a boat, canoe, ATV, or snowmobile!"
What is unexpected is Braestrup's rare ability to speak plainly about belief and to remember that humor is one facet of reverence. She collects religious jokes and doles them out judiciously, sometimes to the soggy search wardens who see the great outdoors as their cathedral. She ponders the mysteries of belief with her children and gets mired in their logic, just like any other parent. Reading to them from her homework: "Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem one day, when he was approached by ten lepers," Braestrup is pleased when her daughter shows a sudden interest, until she realizes, "it turns out she thought Jesus was approached by ten leopards."
The common thread in these riveting accounts – a young husband's death, a snowmobiler trapped under the ice, a lost girl, a couple who have been swept over a dam while swimming, and others – is the value of mindful presence, Braestrup's uncanny ability "to just show up, shut my mouth, and be." When friends and family ask the hard questions, she suggests, "if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love."
"Here If You Need Me" offers a gripping glimpse into one woman's attempt to reestablish belief and find solid ground – and love! – for herself and her family. It's a must-read for any parent who has tried to answer a child's hard questions or for anyone who has struggled to find meaning. Best of all, this remarkable true story is told with uncommon candor, grace and humor, as evidenced by a late-chapter description of her children's list of attributes for prospective boyfriends for their mom: "A boyfriend has to be funny," it begins. They post it on the refrigerator and wait – a search mission of its own.
This is one search-and-rescue you won't want to miss.
• Martha White is a freelance writer in Rockport, Maine.