how a cruise to Alaska became a farewell to my dad

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On April 5, after an epic day of windsurfing, a massive heart attack sent my dad into a coma. On April 16, his 29th wedding anniversary and Easter Sunday, he passed away. On May 13, my husband and I set off on the cruise Dad had purchased us as a gift for our own anniversary, the big 25th. I’d really been looking forward to sharing the adventure with him, to thanking him for making it happen.

DAY 1 Saturday: Seattle

“Is this your first cruise?” my fellow passengers ask. They smile. So far we’ve met shipmates from inner Washington, southern Oregon, San Jacinto, New Jersey. “Is this your first cruise?” is a question risking little when seeking to make small talk with someone unknown – usually. Except in my case, the answer is not just, “Yes,” which is what I say, or, “Yes, my dad gave it to us as an anniversary gift,” which is what I sometimes say. (The latter invites the logical next question of how long have we been married, followed up by the usual congratulations and how inspiring and gosh, you both look too young.)

The entire answer, which I don’t say, is, “Yes. My dad gave it to us as an anniversary gift, and he was really excited about it, and I’d been excited and appreciative about the cruise, but even more grateful that after all these years, he’d made a point of praising me, my work, my family, and I’d been looking forward to sharing my appreciation with him, the cruise being a vessel in a way, so to speak, he would’ve liked that play on words, through which to communicate that, but then he had a massive heart attack unexpectedly and died. And so now I can’t tell him about the cruise, which breaks my heart because he’d been thrilled to do this for us – all these emails he sent me with the information include little notes attesting to such – and I don’t have a dad anymore all of the sudden and it’s very strange and sad.”

I have already spent a fair amount of time in tears or on the verge of them.

But – deep breath – I’ve also already spent a fair amount of time in the spa, the bar and in awe of the view. Bobby and I haven’t stopped admiring the scene since giggling our way up to the Lido deck (“Oh my god, we’re really doing this!”) for lunch upon boarding. The Lido deck, deck 9, contains an open air pool, two bars, another pool under a retractable glass cover, a cafeteria-style restaurant, two other restaurants (if I counted correctly), a fitness center and the spa, in which a person can immerse herself in the hydrotherapy pool, take a sauna or steam, and relax on heated ceramic chase lounges as the view unrolls through the window.

From this deck, we watched the afternoon sun light up downtown Seattle like someone had reserved the afternoon for an hours-long photo shoot. The Cascades waved from the background. On the other side – the port side – clouds and fog twisted around the Olympics.

We’d also already made a friend, back while waiting for the shuttle bus. The people she was cruising with had already commuted over, so we’d started chatting because that’s how we are. Brittany is a grad student, a chemist, from New Jersey, attending school a few hours away. She wants to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons by training inspectors about what to look for. When we reached the main building and found her friends, they had one more bottle of wine than they were allowed and asked if we would shepherd it through security for them. Of course, Bobby said. And then security pulled both him and Brittany out of line, not because of the wine, but because they each had a pocketknife and both knives, the security guard said after carefully measuring them, exceeded the allowable length.

So while they waited for their “Confiscated Materials” forms, Brittany’s sister Marissa and I waited for them. Marissa is an artist, a woodworker who builds things that move, like a porch swing that rocks elegantly on a base instead of hanging from chains above.

We all moved through the boarding process together, then parted ways. “Hope we see you again!” we said. And then we did, 15 minutes later at the outside bar on the Lido deck, Seattle glistening, mountains standing pretty all around.

DAY 2 Sunday: at sea 

Here is a thing I am not good at: Sitting around without a sense of plan. Don’t get me wrong, I can and will happily do “nothing” – I just want the nothing to be intentional. Here is me: “How about if we pre-order breakfast to be delivered to the room at 6 and then we can read or whatever until around 11, then have lunch, then go to the fitness center at 1 and after that we could meet to do the sauna and steam and hydrotherapy pool, then come back to the room and nap, then dinner and then whatever?”

Meanwhile, my beleaguered husband would just like to savor his coffee while absorbing the view without his wife harassing him.

(There is a good lesson in there, people considering traveling with partners.)

I hadn’t slept well – I often don’t – and then powering down twice as much coffee as usual sent me reeling. I also managed to lose my key card, which is not just what unlocks your cabin door, but how you pay for and use everything on board. Instead of shrugging and just going to get another one, I spent 20 minutes angrily searching and re-searching the room. I’d used it to get in so therefore it had to be here.

Two more things I am not good at: accepting something has been lost and easily transitioning from work to vacation mode.

Eventually I did give up, went down the four decks to Guest Services, where they made me a duplicate key. I then returned to my room, where I flopped down on the bed and finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (I read it once, long ago; ads for the recent miniseries prompted me to find it again) and then alternated between Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 and glancing up at the silvery sea. To lie around and read, a dream.

And then, the ship’s first Gala Night! Which means one must “dress to impress” in all the dining rooms except one. Jacket, slacks and ties for the dudes, dresses for the ladies.

Bobby and I dressed up fancy enough and teetered down the hall and stairs – the swell had quite picked up – for our first dinner in the Dining Room: a bread basket, grilled shrimp, carrot-artichoke soup, yellowfin sole and chocolate mousse. All delicious, as was the sushi and seafood curry earlier in the day (I’m operating on the assumption that the cruise line truly does source its seafood sustainably as promised in the guide).

We opened a bottle of champagne in our room, toasted to my dad, to each other, to the children. I missed them more than expected – or more accurately, I missed the ability to send a quick text as a way to ensure they were alive and well. I thought being out of touch would give us room to breathe, but I spent much of Mother’s Day wishing I could check in, tell them how much they are loved.

I snuggled into bed, two days in. The rollicking of the sea shook the bed, reminding me of those old motels with the vibrating mattresses – you’d drop a quarter in to get 10 minutes, something like that. Despite the pitching and shaking, I fell asleep quickly. Together the ship and I sailed on into the night.

DAY 3 Monday: Juneau

Woke to another day defined by a sky glowing orange along the horizon. (I only just now thought about the fact that “horizon” and “horizontal” are almost exactly the same word.) The sunrise was, in fact, and without mountains to mar the line, horizontal along the horizon. Like when you’re on a plane and the sky changes color over the cloudline. Bobby and I hit the gym, returned to the steam room. I relaxed as the hydrotherapy pool bubbled around me. I saw whales spout while warming myself in a ceramic recliner as we neared Juneau.

I imagine a lifestyle equal parts rugged and pampered. I would enjoy such a way of living, I think, if it could be done without exploitation of other people and the environment. But is that even possible? Many people who provide services make more per hour than I do, but their main clients likely make many times per year what I do – if the quest is toward a more egalitarian society, where do pedicures fit in? And for most, the wilderness has little value if it can’t be used or at least seen. The #vanlifers and outdoor “ambassadors” trade on the scenery to promote their brands… but I digress. Today was a day to adventure.

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We pulled up in port early afternoon. On the itinerary: Hopping on a seaplane, which would fly us over glaciers and up the Taku River to the Taku Lodge, where we’d feast on wild salmon and herbed biscuits. This would be especially remarkable because Bobby doesn’t fly and here he was, ready to strap himself into a little prop plane on the water. I checked in with him a few times prior to see how he was feeling. “I’m just not going to think about it,” he said. And I guess he didn’t because no one would ever have known that the man has such a resistance to flying that the last time we did so together was in 1994. Maybe the brightness of a small plane alleviated his claustrophobia, maybe the brilliance of the view distracted him from fear. Maybe he’s just really good at manipulating his mind. Whatever enabled him, I’m grateful.

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My dad had recommended this excursion as something well worth doing and he, of course, was right – besides the wonder of seeing glaciers from the air, the lodge experience itself charmed. Two black bears showed up to steal salmon drippings from the grill. The manager’s tale of the history of the lodge inspired me to buy a book chronicling such so that I could share with Chelsea in particular. And every bite of the food inspired us to nod, “It’s delicious!”

Back in Juneau, we strolled a bit, found a bar that suggested a certain hipness (and a bartender that confirmed a certain dickishness) and ordered a couple artisanal whiskey sours. Before I could indulge mine, I discovered that a reporter from the SF Chronicle was trying to reach me (and by “discovered,” I mean that I checked my work email), so I stepped out to call him and spent 15 minutes talking about illegal sandmining on the Monterey coast.

Juneau’s population numbers less than I expected. Our cruise ship was one of four that pulled in for the day – the tourists must nearly double the size of the city. I didn’t notice much town outside of the extremely touristy center, which left me wondering if another Juneau exists, one where the locals gather away from the gawkers. We wandered by a little pop-up shop selling kelp salsa (bought some) among other things (bought some). The woman running the shop has family in Arcata, up Fickle Hill.

DAY 4 Tuesday: Glacier Bay

Fitful sleep, in part due to my insistence on sleeping with the curtains open and the early, early rising of the sun. Strange dreams. After a slow start to the morning, the gym and hydrotherapy and steam restored me – nice to have these healthy options to offset all the indulgences. Like sipping an icy vodka outside on a deck among glaciers so white they’re blue and a sky so blue it’s as if a new color had been invented for just this part of the world – passing through Glacier Bay National Park was one of those experiences where you’re nearly out of body in amazement and yet also anchored to the moment knowing you’ll never forget it. I believe that when I exit this world and the memories burn away, the last to go will be those of my husband, my children, that windless day I was on a Zodiac miles offshore and humpbacks breached mere meters away, and this, this standing on the deck of a giant ship in a world too beautiful to describe.

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I’m hardly alone in being at a loss for words; our park ranger narrated as we went – let’s take a moment to applaud our national parks (“America’s best idea”) and our national park service – and quoted John Muir’s observation that the exquisiteness of the place is indescribable. If Muir didn’t have words, I doubt mine will suffice –adjectives such as “amazing” and “beautiful” are used too casually to apply. I will just note that we were given a gift of a day, sunny and 62 degrees, which upped the brilliance surrounding us.

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We explored our way into the uppermost bar, the Crow’s Nest, deck 11, which connects to a café (an Exploration Café!) with a library and board games; windows wrap from port all the across to starboard and down both sides. In other words: we have everything now. I peruse the shelves and spend the evening cozied up on one of the Crow’s Nest’s many couches, immersed in Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth as Bobby and a nearby shipmate chat and the sun continues to glimmer over glaciers.  

DAY 5: Sitka

Up early! We loaded onto the bus, shuttled downtown, then took a pontoon boat out to a boathouse – spying a minke whale along the way – where our sea kayaks awaited. I think I could spend my life on the water. We paddle down one side of an inlet, return on the other. Bobby and I share a kayak. He’s in the back, which means he’s responsible for steering. I’m in the front, which means I am responsible for nagging. We see an eagle perched on a spruce branch, another soars overhead. When our tour guide hears we’re from Humboldt, he shares the fact that he’d spent a season trimming in Hayfork and even a Christmas in Manila, a rather sad-sounding one, it sounded like, just a couch and a Christmas tree in a house mostly empty waiting for the next scene to be moved in. But this is his eighth year in Alaska and he loves it.

He tells us about the edible seaweed hanging from the rocks and low branches, and how the gel inside the leaf pockets has healing powers. Bobby and I get close enough to snatch some off the rocks. We nibble it, agree it’s delicious. I smear some around my lips, where yesterday’s sunshine burned a bit. We spot what we think at first is a river otter, but turns out to be a mink. A mink! I’ve never seen a mink. The critter scurries along the rock, poses for some photos, then bounds away. Our guide follows up by (ruefully) sharing more than I want to know about the killing technique hunters use to murder the cute little beasts without damaging their fur.

The excursion, with all the trees, the water, the wildlife, reminds me of home and I wonder if I should seek a broader variety of beauty on future trips. But all I want is variety of ocean – and already time enough for that doesn’t exist. I think of home and all the explorations that I’ve yet to do in my own backyard. What a life we lead. I twist back to Bobby. “I love you.”

Back in Sitka, I again announce my love to him, but this time it’s also an apology – the “pedal pub crawl” I’ve booked is not, as I’d imagined, on bicycles, but one of those oversized carts that everyone sits on and pedals together. We are too snobby for such cheesy tourist acts! Except, it turns out, we’re not.

Our guide, Truman, a native son of the town, takes us first to Ernie’s, where he’s tended bar and managed the bar’s softball team and I lost track of all the other things he’s done. Truman orders a round of duck farts, promising that they’re “better than they sound,” which they are. (Kahlua, Bailey’s and Crown Royal in a layered shot, for anyone wondering.) Bobby’s happy to see the SF Giants game is on, then sad because his team is losing, again.

We pedal to another bar, then another. We gab with our new acquaintances, find out one of the women’s birthday is today. We toast. I slip Truman a big tip for making sure the Giants’ game would be on at all the bars, then Bobby and I amble back to the ship and finally brave the outdoor pool. He treads water for over an hour – no exaggeration – and I bounce back-and-forth between the pool and the hot tub. A 20-something Indian dude joins me and another 40-ish woman in the tub, which is rather small, small enough that three people feels intimate and so conversation ensued.

He’s traveling through America with his parents: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, this cruise, Las Vegas, Nashville, New York… We asked the obvious questions about how he was enjoying the trip. Loving it, he said. The other woman started talking about other people from India she’d known and querying him in a way that discomforted me because to my sensitive ears she’d begun to embody a certain type of white cluelessness, especially when she asked him if he enjoyed Bollywood movies (he doesn’t watch them, but his mom does) and if he liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (he wasn’t familiar with it). But maybe I’m being too harsh? My conversational contributions didn’t exactly elevate the discourse and the other woman had more experience with that part of the world than I did. In any case, eventually she moved on and a much younger woman climbed in, so after a few pleasantries, I left the kids to themselves.

DAY 6: Ketchikan

Another day up early, this time for a motorized cruise through the Misty Fjord National Wilderness. It’s lovely and the staff is sweet, but I wished I’d booked something more active – too much sitting makes me itchy. We see the unmistakable tail flukes of a humpback splash a distance away, porpoises, another bald eagle, waterfall after waterfall.

This stop in port is short and the excursion uses all of it. Ah, Ketchikan, we hardly knew ye. Bobby and I again utilized, between us, the pool, the gym, the sauna, the steam room, the hydrotherapy pool. After showering, we return to the aforementioned Crow’s Nest – I could live here. I again curl up on a couch, this time with Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist as Bobby gabs with Mark and Michael, two Microsoft guys vacationing from Seattle. We wander down to dinner at some point, then return, where I convince Bobby, who does not quite embrace board games with the same enthusiasm as his wife, to play backgammon with me and then, later, chess. My dad taught me backgammon, which I remember, and cribbage, which I do not. The sun sets between a few lines of clouds stretching along the horizon as I move my queen. “Check,” I tell my husband. It’s actually checkmate, but I have the decency to let him notice that for himself.

Day 7: Victoria

We are mostly at sea this last day. Bobby and I use all the spa amenities for the final time. The pending return to “real” life sends my mind whirring and to calm it, I force myself to practice describing where I am – a grounding technique that works when I remember to employ it:

“The hydrotherapy pool stretches about 15-by-12 feet and is between waist- and chest-deep to most who use it. The top of the water is still about two feet below the surrounding deck, due to the reclining area along one side; metal bars run the length of the pool to form a seating area of sorts, where a person can lean back, legs elevated and slightly bent at the knee, head and torso supported, great eruptions of bubbles all around. In the center stands a semi-enclosed whirlpool, where the power of the jets is such that one must cling to the sides or the inner wheel – like a teacup on the Mad Hatter, except it doesn’t spin, only you might if you let go. From this central unit, two super-sized shower heads sprout. Stand under them and let the force of the water pound your back and shoulders in a hydro-massage.”

I soak in every view through every window I’m near. Endless ocean rolling silver on one side, distant lands along the other. We eat all the things, drink more vodka (me) and beer (Bobby). I’d finished Carrie Fisher’s memoir and have started Lincoln in the Bardo, a book I only picked up because George Saunders wrote it – the subject matter (death of a child) is too sad for me, but everything George Saunders writes transcends – his prose is like the blue of Glacier Bay, beauty beyond itself. Kindness, sympathy and a quiet sort of humor run through his stories so that the tragedies are made near bearable.

The weather continued to favor us through mid-afternoon and even then, we could’ve stayed on the deck with a mere sweater. But Bobby suggested we seat ourselves in the Crow’s Nest one more time to better view the Strait of San Juan de Fuca (and take advantage of happy hour).

We reached Victoria in the evening, walked the waterfront, bought some more gifts, found a cute coffeehouse with kombucha on tap, paused in a bustling bar, held hands for most of the five-plus miles we wandered.

Back on the ship, we stayed up later than usual. Revelers crowded the deck. We ordered a last round and returned to our cabin. We’d shared the space with ease, traveled well together (despite my habitual impatience) overall, moved through the occasional bickering like people who’ve been together half their lives do. It helps that we see the world’s beauty in similar ways; it helps that we see in each other the same goodness. The past seven days were longer than most, like time expanded to hold us, allowed us to linger in the precious now without reservation.

Epilogue

I thought of my dad often during the trip. It was easy to imagine him in conversation with other travelers, enjoying the red wine and the company. He was curious about the world and liked people. They liked him in return, despite – or because of – his corny jokes. I’ve gotten to know him better since he passed away. Friends from all his and Carol’s travels have posted photos and stories on Facebook, illustrating a life well-lived and well-loved.

During the ride home, still wishing I could relay my thanks and happiness to him, I couldn’t help but tear up again. It’s so final now. Before the cruise, despite his death, there was still this thing that we had together. I wanted to tell him it was amazing. But he’s gone and the trip is done. Still – he left behind so much love woven through the world.

And like the beyond-description-blue of that Glacier Bay sky – they’d never seen it so clear, so cloudless, the captain said, maybe one other time without clouds, but this, this day was grander than anything ever before, which is saying something – even if I don’t have words and even I don’t ever return to that place and even if it’s never so perfect again, I was there and I had it and we shared it and the sharing of love/life/existence sustains, continues on, is contained within and moves through the world with us, through us, beyond us as we do our best to be proper vessels, good stewards of this time that has been given us.

What a gift.

 

 

 

 

 

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