Celebrate Your Life – Experience the World
By J. “Kat” Loren ::
Millions of people cruise every year. For some, it is a first cruise. For others, they sense upon embarkation, that it will be their last.
From my balcony, I watch the undulating rise and fall of the ocean swells, white caps breaking in the distance, tossing its spray frivolously, and delight in the sunsets glowing later as I journey on the open sea from San Francisco to Alaska. But I am far above it all, a mere observer. The salt spray reserves its kisses for that trawler’s deckhand I see standing at the distant rail as this massive Princess Cruise ship I am standing aboard passes near. A cruise ship passenger stands too far above the surface to interact with nature. I am safe here, removed from touching the sea, or the sea from touching me. And while its peacefulness engulfs me I realize that cruises afford a certain intimacy – just not with nature.
You cannot touch the soul of the sea from the deck of a cruise ship but you can touch the hearts of those you love, who sail with you, no matter how far they have attempted to retreat into their own lives.
I like wild nature adventures and had never considered cruising on a huge floating city, full of strangers eating and drinking with wild abandon until my sister called and said dad wanted to take one last cruise to Alaska.
Boats have been so long a part of the joy of his life that we rally to his request and join him on this cruise. My sister Melissa, her teenage daughter Zoe, my mother and I step aboard the ship knowing that once this ship turns into the Tracy Arm Fjord, it will likely mark the end of his seafaring days. In fact, we have no doubt that he will be seeing his last fjord.
My father has held a life long affection for the sea and sailing history. He has sailed through Norway’s fjords, Europe’s canals, Greece, the Salish Sea waters of his native Washington State, and offshore California on everything from 62-foot wooden hulled sailboats to his little 12-foot gig. As he aged, the boats became bigger – cruise ships, in fact. Easier on my mother to join him. Born and raised in Washington State by a father who was first generation Norwegian, he was drafted out of college and stationed in Alaska. Despite living most of his adult years in California, he loves the Pacific NW. A man’s birthplace will always carry some nostalgia of home. Although he is a man of few words, he was pleased that we all joined him.
The cruise couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. It wasn’t long after we boarded that I really noticed how much the decades of workplace and life stressors had aged him and how quickly he was retreating from the world.
He would be lost on this ship if not for mom directing him. That, and his room number is written in black marker on his forearm, concealed by his shirtsleeve. If he wanders off alone, he can roll up his shirtsleeve and ask for directions from one of the ever-present employees in the hallways. We are mindful of their symbiotic relationship – he needs a caretaker and she needs to take care of someone. We try to support them but not interfere with their lives, a difficult balance for my sister and me. We’ve become more compassionate towards them with every passing year.
When your ship has sailed far out to sea the clouds are deceptive. A large cloud casts a shadow far in the distance, shapes it into an island and tricks the mind into believing land lies just within sight off the port side. The white caps breaking, spume flying off peaks, belie the true depths of the following troughs. The cruise ship feels a little rocky, a lesser vessel would be pitching and rolling through the waters.
We order dinner and watch the ocean waves through the window of the Capri Dining room not long after sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. The waiter notices and comes to our table, thinking that we are a little concerned about the growing waves and whitecaps playing outside, the ship’s rocking perhaps making us queasy. My sister sets him at ease, “We are sea people. We think it’s beautiful to watch.”
He nods, smiles and leaves. Zoe, my 13-year-old niece casts a wary eye towards her mother, unsure if she inherited our Scandinavian seafaring blood. “It makes me a little nervous,” she says. Her stepsister had been cracking jokes about the Titanic the night before Zoe was to join us on the cruise. We reassure her that we’ll be ok. But she isn’t convinced that everyone will be ok.
I catch Zoe glancing at her grandfather and follow her gaze.
Dad chews his food slowly, moving the food around on his plate like the child he is becoming. At times his eyes seem vacant when he looks around the room. He knows where he is. He also knows who we are. But what else runs through his mind, if anything at all, is a mystery to us. His hearing aids are not placed properly in his ears but we try to draw him into the conversation despite knowing the background noise in the dining room drowns us out. His fake tooth, the bridge at the side of his mouth has been lost. When he smiles, there is emptiness at the right corner of his mouth just beyond his front teeth. He is gapping out of life, slowly but perceptively. The doctors call it vascular dementia, and say he will disappear in stages.
Tonight, this dinner is a celebration of togetherness. Dad stays present and alert, denying the symptoms that tug at him like an eroding tide. Zoe becomes more talkative as if she didn’t know that teenagers aren’t supposed to enjoy the company of adults. Melissa, mom and I erupt into laughter, drink wine, and laugh some more as if we only have this night to live to the fullest and so we do. But we are careful to include Zoe, to keep her engaged.
I am glad that she joined us, and that she has not yet retreated into unpredictable teenage malaise and attitudes as moody and fickle as the sea. Hoping that this cruise will keep her connected with us, we all want to make sure we get alone time with her and draw her into every conversation so that she feels part of the old family, her pre-divorced family, when we were all together for holidays. I want her to see how we treat our aging parents and how we treat her. Our actions model more than words. Hopefully, she will sense that we will be there to catch her when she feels like she is falling through life in the inevitable difficult years she will face growing into herself.
My sister and I take a mental note to make sure she not only gets involved in lots of shipboard activities and gets lots of TLC from us, but most importantly for this voyage, our conversation will engage her artistic bent until she, too, feels the delight and sees the beauty of being on the open ocean, far from any port. The girl doesn’t realize it but she is very much like my sister and me in her comfort level of being on the open sea. When we were kids, once we cast away from shore, we cast off our teenage angst and relaxed into the movement of whatever boat we had boarded. Norwegian blood flows through our veins and finds its peace at sea. It is her first voyage. She is already relaxing into it.
It is dad’s last voyage. And he too, allows the sea air and motion of the ship to lull him into a deep peace that chases away the anxiety attacks that come from knowing that the coming months will be full of stormier seas.
Nothing stirs up the ancient bloodline of Norwegian seafarers like the sight of glaciers and my father was no exception.
We slid into the narrow opening of the Tracy Arm Fjord as dawn cracks a wary glow above the mountain ridge. From my bed, I stare out the sliding glass door and see the first long waterfall plunging off the cliff side a mere 100 yards from the balcony. Moving further into the fjord the light increases as dawn rises above the mountain peaks. I call my sister’s room. Her sleepy voice answers although it is only 5:45 am. “We’re just entering the most spectacular fjord. Waterfalls are everywhere. Come over.” Then I hastily dress and run downstairs for a couple of large cups of triple shot cappuccinos and take them back to me cabin. She comes in about 6:15 with Zoe, droopy-eyed and silent, tagging reluctantly along behind her. Zoe immediately drops into my bed and snuggles back into her 14-year-old teenage self while Melissa and I, all bundled up against the morning chill, stand on the balcony in silence sipping our brew.
Steadied by that first cup of java, I call my parents’ room. They hasten over. I pull out an extra blanket and bundle mom in a chair and hand her a cup of coffee fortified with Baileys. She is awestruck. Dad positions himself along the rail his eyes darting along the walls of the fjord, following the waterfalls, noting the small ice bergs we glide past, small chunks of pale blue, that calved off the glacier in the past few days and float now towards the open sea. He is more feeling the moment than thinking about it. When you cruise past a living poem it is hard to form words to describe it.
He catches my eye as I move towards his side. Without saying a word, he reaches his arm across my low back and draws me closer. And in that moment, a hundred days of sailing in his small skiff, a hundred other days aboard other friends’ sailboats and many days we’ve missed as we dreamed of voyages never taken pass between us. Shared memories and dreams, our inherited Viking love for the sea and adventure.
We stand together knowing that this may well be our last shared moment on a vessel. We take comfort in knowing that this last ship we sail on, viewing one last fjord, is as big as our love for one another. But our love for the sea and for one another will never end. It will live on in the space between us, beyond the time allotted to us on earth, even as we pass it along to the next generation.
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J “Kat” Loren is a Pacific NW-based journalist and author of more than a dozen books. She currently focuses on writing health, fitness, ocean conservation and travel articles. Her blog “Crazi Culture” is a popular read among those who like eclectic topics and travelogues about odd places and adventures. http://www.craziculture.com
As is common in the travel industry, Princess Cruise provided the writer with the cruise to research this article. The opinions of the writer, and the fun she had, are her own.
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