Out to sea
My dad was a storyteller, and stories of his days as a merchant marine were treasured favorites: adventure on the high seas, mischief and, most of all, camaraderie. Today he’s making one final trip out to sea—his ashes are aboard a naval ship in Norfolk, Virginia.
Dad’s been waiting for his proverbial ship to sail since February of 2012 when his ashes arrived at the naval base. Over the past year, when I’d call to check on the status of his military burial at sea, I was told he’d been “assigned a ship,” but that the ship had not yet been scheduled for service. So when I called a month ago, to check once more, there was a certain irony when they told me his ship would leave the dock on January 22, 2013, exactly one year from the day he died.
When my dad passed away last January, he was a month shy of his 88th birthday. He lived a long life, a remarkably long life considering all he’d been through.
I only have snippets of memories from my childhood, when my dad was healthy. By the time I was six-years-old, he’d had open heart surgery to replace a faulty mitral valve, and by the time I reached twelve my father had suffered a major stroke. He was a young man, in his late forties, but he lived four more decades with the left side of his body paralyzed.
Big Papa and I spent dad’s last three days, by his side, at Overlake Hospital. We couldn’t go anywhere, even if we’d wanted to. All of Seattle was at a standstill following a big snowstorm.
As I sat in his hospital room and watched the life ebb from his broken body, I thought about all he’d endured—physically—over the past 40 years. Heart surgery, stroke, prostate cancer, shoulder surgery, carpal tunnel surgeries, surgery to remove kidney cysts, surgery to clean out a strep infection in his “good” hand, and more.
For many years I thought my father would die in one of two ways: his heart valve would finally give out (he was probably one of the oldest—still living—recipients of the Starr-Edwards caged-ball valve) or he’d be in a fatal car accident. But in the end, he died from complications of aspiration pneumonia. His ticker kept on ticking until the very end.
I thought about the things my father loved and that I loved about him: pickle and sauerkraut making, gardening, woodworking, birds, photography, reading, old clocks, and being near (or on) the water. I thought about all the things about my father that I didn’t like: he could be stubborn, single-minded, and hot-tempered.
And I thought about all the stories I’d heard, mostly stories of adventure and travel, stories from his childhood growing up on Coney Island, stories from when he lived in Alaska and worked on the Al-Can highway, and many stories of being the ship’s medic and purser aboard the William T. Barry Liberty ship.
So it’s fitting he made his last journey back to the east coast where he was born and into the ocean he loved so dearly. Bon Voyage, Dad. May the waves of the Atlantic carry you home.
“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”
~Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea3 comments