Alabama man finds message in bottle from grieving mom: ‘Your life is important’
After working the overnight shift at his job loading trucks for UPS, Caleb Gautney took his kayak and his dog, Pepper, to Dauphin Island on Monday morning, as he often does. The two of them have their own secret spot away from any crowds, and that’s where they were when Caleb spotted the end of a bottle sticking out of the sand.
“I keep my eye out for interesting-looking things,” he says. So Caleb pulled out the bottle and was surprised to find a piece of paper inside. “I thought it would be a prank, like one of those ‘extended warranty’ things.”
But it wasn’t a prank at all. “I couldn’t believe there was an actual note,” he says.
The author of the typed note identified herself only as a “heartbroken mom in Iowa” whose 21-year-old son Kole had died unexpectedly on Sept. 13, 2020. “I am writing this with the faith that God will guide it to the person who needs to hear this message at this time,” it began. “What I want you to know is that in the darkest moment, when you feel like everything is falling apart and no one cares, just know that someone does.”
She urged the reader of the note to “go out and be a ‘Kole’ in this cold world” by being like her late son, who “had a heart of gold and cared about everyone he came into contact with.”
The message resonated with Caleb. “It was very touching,” he says. “Just a few weeks ago, an old friend I grew up with killed himself. I watched his mom, who had been like my second mom, go through that pain.”
He wanted to unravel the mystery a bit. A quick Google search turned up Kole’s obituary, and from there he made contact with Kole’s aunt, Shannon Koehler of Winnebago, Illinois.
As it turned out, Shannon’s family had spent a week in Orange Beach in March – a visit her family had planned as a “do-over” because during their trip last year at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, they had arrived on the Alabama Gulf Coast to find the beaches closed. She begged her grieving sister, Elizabeth Reed, and her family to join the Koehlers on their vacation.
Elizabeth couldn’t imagine going on such a trip with her husband and younger son but without Kole. Her daughter, a thrower on the Buena Vista University track and field team who was unable to leave school mid-season, begged her to “not sit home and grieve,” Elizabeth says. She cried for days as she struggled with the decision of whether to go or not.
“Then one morning I woke up and a message in a bottle was stuck in my head,” she says. “It was like something in my mind wouldn’t let the idea go.” She had figured out a way to take him with her.
She ordered airtight bottles, wrote a letter from her heart and told Shannon she wanted to go to Orange Beach. During their week of vacation, the families wrote Kole’s name in the sand. When they went parasailing, Elizabeth fist-bumped her sister and said, “This is for Kole.”
In a strange coincidence, five of the 14 people from three different families on the boat shared his first name. When the sisters realized that, “We ugly-cried,” Shannon says.
And while they were there, Elizabeth carried out her plan to throw the bottles into the Gulf of Mexico. “She researched it,” Shannon says, “and only 3 percent of (message-filled) bottles are ever discovered. It was more therapeutic for her to put it out in the universe.”
She tossed two of them into the water on a day trip to Dauphin Island. While the one Caleb found didn’t travel far, its impact made waves on social media after he shared a photo of Elizabeth’s words.
“YOU matter,” she had written. “YOU are important… YOU were created to do something great. And if no one else has told you today, I think you’re amazing just the way you are and I love you.”
When Caleb and Shannon talked on the phone, they discovered many similarities between the 25-year-old who found Elizabeth’s message and the 21-year-old who inspired it. Their birthdays are one week apart. Like Caleb, Kole loved being near the water.
Shannon and Elizabeth are convinced that Caleb was just the person to find the message. “She was so happy Caleb cared enough to do detective work and find us,” Shannon says. “He reached out, and that’s what she wanted: for it to touch somebody. I told him he’s inherited family in Illinois and Iowa.”
For his part, Caleb says he stuck the message inside his journal, which he had with him the day he found the bottle. “One of my coping mechanisms is journaling on my adventures,” he says. “I will keep it there.”
“I didn’t think I would ever know if it was found or not,” Elizabeth says. “I certainly didn’t think it would become what it has, but I am so very grateful that it has touched hearts and hopefully will spread the love I have for Kole. Losing Kole has been unbearable, but I needed his love and his heart to carry on and have his passing mean something. If I can spare just one person the pain I live with every day, then I am thankful.”