Thursday, August 28, 2003

The End Is Near: Last Days in Alaska

Mars is closer to the Earth tonight than it will ever be in my lifetime. Yellow and bright, a tiny moon, it looms over the horizon like a lighthouse. The waves below are choppy as we return to the open seas for a quick getaway over the Canadian border; the ship sways drunkenly beneath our feet and seats. If Darcie’s case is prototypical, the seasick-prone have all gone back to their cabins, where they lie in bed moaning and cursing the water below.

Although queasy myself, it seems important to jot down the day’s events before they fall through the sieve of my mind, for you, for me, and for posterity. The desire to preserve and share without my hard four-fingered typing rattling away at my wife’s now-tender ears has brought me to the ship’s library, a quick trip downship through the bustling and bright-lit casino. In the background, a string trio plays a merrily uptempo waltz in the nearby bar; behind me older postprandial rumblers flip the pages of out-of-date newspapers in their easy chairs. Regathering the day in the mind isn’t easy when the stomach rebels at the deck’s every lurch and heave, but here goes the old collegiate try.

We disembarked this morning into a cloudless warm Ketchikan, splitting up after a quick group answering-machine message to Aunt Lil, 80 years young today. Having learned a thing or two in our previous excursions, Darcie and I had decided to play things by ear today rather than sign up long in advance for the cruise-run excursions. Thus, while Dad and Jesse went off on a bus tour of the greater city, and Mom and Sarah hopped a boat for a two-mile sea kayaking adventure, Darcie, Willow and I set off to find the town behind the town.

And quite successfully, too, I think. Town was, as promised, more diverse and substantive than our two previous stops: where Juneau boasts little more than the state government, and tiny Skagway little more than post-gold-rush ghost-town history, until very recently Ketchikan boasted a pulp mill and a major fishing industry, and even though the mill closed a few years ago, dropping the local population from 24 thousand to just over 14K, tourism and a continued fishing boom in the midst of otherwise-global fished-outedness seem to be sustaining a much richer local economy and culture. Sure, there were the by-now-expected cruise-ship owned diamond stores and “craft” shops, but around the edges this place is still a real place, run year-round; around the edges and in the cracks Darcie and I managed to find a funky bookstore, several fun artist’s shops and galleries, and plenty of locally blended coffees and beers.

After several minutes snapping shots of rivers thick with salmon spawning and dying under the town boardwalks, and a Chinese lunch at the end of a long wooden pier called Creek Street – complete with cinnamon-tinged egg rolls, which I’m assuming was either a regional stylistic choice or a total and quite odd-tasting local anomaly – we joined Jesse and Dad fresh off their bus tour for the lumberjack show. It’s hard to imagine how best to describe the ten well-narrated events pitting world-class athletes against each other in contests of will, speed, strength, and balance which followed; it will have to be enough to say that if you’ve never seen a lumberjack competition, it’s exactly what you think – so be prepared for flying woodchips, souped-up chainsaw roars, and huge men wielding fifty pound axes. I know I’ve seen this stuff late at night on ESPN, so maybe some day you’ll get a sense of what this looks like if you’re a lumberjack show virgin.

Back on the boat just before sailing hour after a solo wander through town, one wherein I finally found an Alaskan Amber Ale tee shirt with the logo on the front (backside logos being totally useless when your hair is long enough to cover the design), revisited the funky bookstore for a native-design stuffed shark, shopped unsuccessfully for a nice gift for Darcie, hit the internet café to post yesterday’s blog, and, at the last, joyfully overtipped for a latte in a nice comfy coffee café because Alison Krauss’ Oh Atlanta was playing over the speakers. A swim and a hot tub with Jesse and Willow and Darcie in the setting sun, a beer on the deck with same, and back to the cabin to dress in tie and jacket for dinner – rack of lamb and tiramisu, both excellent – brings us right back where we started, with Darcie getting vertigo during dinner and having to have her dinner brought down to her while Willow slept in the ship-owned crib at the foot of the bed, and me retiring to the library, now nauseous from screenwriting in the heaving waves. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s Sea Day won’t be as nauseating, even with the time change back again cutting an hour from all our sleep as we pass silently over the Canadian border under Mars’ watchful eye.


Final day at sea. Up late last night – cigars and gin on the observation deck with Sarah – and a slight hangover this morning. Breakfast line, the longest I’d seen, left us scant moments for a small-scale family meal before a slightly ill Darcie went off for her final massage, leaving me with Jesse and a wandering Willow longing for Mama, comfort, home. The fog was thick until just a few moments ago; the abrupt foghorn scared the crap out of the baby, sent her running to my arms, calling “mamai, mamai,” and I felt helpless before her, and hid my tears.

Passing into Canada moves us back a time zone; this is now the seventh time zone change I’ve experienced in just three weeks, with two more due over the next 48 hours and then work early the next morning. I no longer know what time it is back home. My watches and clocks do not coincide. I’m expecting a difficult adjustment.

Not much else to say about a Sea Day. Islands creep ever closer and the waters are dark with driftwood and scum. Tiny birds dodge shipwaves as we pass, ducking underwater like aquarium penguins at the last minute, flying under the waves. The ship is filled with last-minute on-board shoppers, scarfing up their duty-free liquor and diamonds; the casinos are filled with squinting old men and women, money left to burn, cashing in that last hundred, hoping for a jackpot, or at least a good story for the folks back home. The lecture about how and when to tip, missed due to those long lines at breakfast, plays over and over on the on-board television. The naturalist says dolphins and whales among the islands until six, and in the distant waters darker spots bob in the waves, but my eyes don’t follow them; I’m all whaled out.

Behind me in the cabin Darcie and Willow draw pictures for the waitstaff, a token to hold them over until they can see their own children again, or for the first time, late in November. On the laptop as I type Patty Griffin sings “On Top Of The World” and I feel overwhelmed by the universe; I play my favorite sad songs – Phish’s If I Could, Deb Talan, Alison Krauss – and wish for those I could not bring. We’ll pack tonight, leave our bags outside the door before sleep, disembark by nine tomorrow morning: Vancouver, Dallas, Boston, Home. But it isn’t coming soon enough; I’m more than ready to stop moving; it’s long past time to come home in the evening, sit in my chair, sing in the morning to the mountains I know, take my family home.


Midnight; outside the stars are bright and the little dipper looms over us like a blessing, but the glow on the horizon says Vancouver all over it – all 65 Starbucks of it. As predicted, a slow and somewhat relaxing day. Orcas close by off the port and starboard sides today, their whiteness flashing into black at the top of their assumed underwater loops. Packing much of the morning, at least after Willow cranked her way through breakfast and fell head-first into the deck. Much filling out of forms, from disembarkation manifests to shipboard quality surveys.

Lunch late at the pool grill; dinner in “dress casual” with the family; a crowd watched Willow dance one last time to the now-traditional post-supper trio of strings – piano, bass, and violin – curiously listed as the “Anton Quartet” in the ship’s daily literature. Close-out sales in on-ship stores in which no prices were changed and which, thus, weren’t really sales at all. Tipping, which, thankfully, Dad handled for all of us. Beer on deck with Jesse; blog, (presumably) bed: we have to be out of our cabins at 8:30, for they need to clean the ship; the next shift of tourists arrives later that day for a trip down the West Coast, around Mexico, through the Panama Canal, and up into the Caribbean.

In the midst of all this excitement, about six thirty, a random meeting of the entire “original” nuclear family unit of my childhood – all siblings and both parents accounted for – wherein Dad revealed that he’s been checking in on the in-hospital progress of Uncle David daily from aboardship via rented satellite-phone, and the prognosis isn’t good. I hardly know David; we met once when I was young, a day trip to New York City; somewhere in my parent’s photograph collection there’s a shot of us all, Mom, Dad, Sarah and Jesse and Me, standing with this wizened, already-frail, well-dressed man at some famous New York two-floor deli. But I know of him: David is my father’s favorite uncle, a man who essentially raised my father, and who has no one else by choice – a retired army psychiatrist, solitary by nature, he lived alone after years living with his own mother, a master of the self-dependent life. Or, rather, self-dependent until recently, like when my father found him last week in his long-time apartment, dehydrated and incoherent at 92, having not left his bed in four days even to answer my father’s weekly call.

Now David’s in an ICU in a New York hospital, a quarter of a world away, and Dad had to call today to refuse surgery on his behalf just-in-time (hoorah for the wacky world of modern medicine, where even if surgery is contra-indicted and would probably kill an elderly and frail patient, a surgeon must operate unless he can get express and legitimate permission to refrain from doing so). David really never wanted to see anyone but my father, so I don’t think the sorrow I feel is that of the impending loss of David-the-person. But Dad’s clearly saddened at the prospect of losing a surrogate and partially-absent father, although he doesn’t let it show much – I’ve never seen Dad mourn, really; we’re all such private and reserved people at heart in the family, and a part of me is mourning for him, in a skewed empathic instinct.

But another part of me feels…well, it’s not pride that I experience when I watch my father prepare himself and support David simultaneously, in the ways that work best for and values both of their needs and limits, peculiar though they may be; not pride, exactly, but something close to it, an admiration and a resolve tied up together. May God grant me the strength and centered-ness to make the same hard decisions with the same confidence and knowledge, in the same calm and committed way, when and if I’m ever in his place – for I know I will want to; for I know here, too, is love.


Vancouver, B.C. Finally on land after an early wake-up and a very confusing off-loading process. Tried to check into the Westin Grand Hotel, which is – no foolin’ – shaped like a baby grand piano – but it was far too early for the room to be ready, so off we went, the entire family, past the circular public library to Gastown for a quick tour and some local artist small-size art for the walls at home, as it’s hard to figure out how to tote totem poles home when the car’s already going to be overfull with luggage from two consecutive trips, Dhaka and Alaska/Vancouver.

Gastown was nice the second time around but we’re all a but tourist-ed out; within an hour we were into the bad part of town, through it, and just as suddenly in Chinatown for a surprisingly nice Dim Sum lunch, and why is Chinatown always near the “bad” part of town? Willow woke up in Darcie’s arms as we finished the last of the wor mein and shrimp dumplings, and deep fried duck feet didn’t seem like useful baby food, so I bought pork buns to share on the way home and back we went to our big old piano-room. There’s a dishwasher and toaster in a cabinet here, and the windows look out on a big old crane lugging steel cable across the street; very nice digs inside, though, and comfy beds.

After hitting a sneaky-charge snag with the hotel ethernet connection – the directory says $1.25 connection fee plus ten cents per minute after the first 60 minutes, but then you need to agree to a $12.95 login fee to use the network for the day – I left Darcie and Willow there for a walkabout. No stores gone inside but lots of window shopping; it’s such a nice day the people-watching was especially fine, the sun warm and inviting on my face. Am now in an internet café, and from now on hope to be blogging one day at a time like a blog should be blogged.

posted by boyhowdy | 5:58 PM |

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