The way ahead is all clouds, and has been for almost a day. Somewhere the sun rises, but the day that has dawned is just another shade of dark. From the horizon line straight to the stars, beyond the stars—defying reason and science as they rise as far as eternity—the clouds form a wall. They neither block the way nor invite us to some hint of a narrow passage—this gap, this lightening in the darkened whole—they simply wait.
My father emerges from the cabin after checking the charts, and notes that the sky behind us is cloudless. “Too bad we aren’t headed that way,” he muses. He is an old sailor and has seen a thousand skies. When I ask how this one compares, he shakes his head, “We’ll have to wait and see.” He looks at the sails, which bow out in a beautiful arc to transform the wind into perfect forward motion. “We’ll reef in the main at lunch.” I know that he hates to shorten the sails, especially when we are on a reach with the wind crossing us almost at beam, making an honest six and a half knots, but storms have knocked him down before and he will begrudge speed for caution.
When Ralph comes up for air after sleep, he asks, “What did the forecast say?” The offshore marine forecast broadcast a few times during the day and the computer generated voice compiles findings with forecasts and locates weather events over undersea features: the Hudson Canyon, the Baltimore Canyon, the Hatteras Canyon. All forecasts point to what our eyes already tell us; when storms come the radio is worthless. Only during days of extended reckless calm does the radio offer anything like hope. Somewhere out there must be some wisps of wind to wend us on our ways. What we see ahead will turn us amphibian. How fast it does so, and for how long, is a question for men who cling too hard to their most mammalian selves.
My father quietly calculated all night during our watch. He knows that not everyone possesses our raw stubbornness. Some people, even some sailors, are sensible. The two other men who sail with us have enough experience and desire to head out on the ocean, but they have no need to hazard the dangerous thrills that awaken both my father and me. Because he is older and wiser than I am, and because it is his boat and his crew, he prepares to do the sensible thing: furl the sails and alter course. “We are gentlemen sailors,” he acknowledges, resigned to doing the right thing.
I cannot help but think of this now, when clouds blot out another horizon. My mother, who joined us on dry land in Bermuda, but would never set foot on a boat bent for open ocean, is in a hospital bed. Doctors order tests to discover what has knocked her down. Answers dissolve in the face of symptoms. If not this, then what has her down? My brothers and I settle on this and that prognosis the same way meek sailors settle on forecasts. But we are not meek sailors, we our father’s sons, and we know the way ahead is cloudy.
My father died when he slipped off the dock at a marina, hit his head, and went under the water. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a decade, and we watched while he lost the physical ease that had buoyed him on his boats and made him the most reliable hand on board. He slowly changed from a gifted provocateur in conversation to a witness to his sons’ whip cracks of sarcasm and verbal retribution. He hated the stutter that came with his disease. He never told us that he was suffering, and never acknowledged his illness directly. We knew because our mother kept us informed and because we witnessed him.
My mother hates the idea of loss of control with a greater and more public vehemence than my father ever displayed. She watched illness sap her husband, and before that saw her mother diminish over slow painful years. Fourteen years ago, she survived a harrowing encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, living on her own, in a house she bought after my father died, she keeps a copy of Final Exit in her living room. She has set her limits.
I don’t think there is any other course ahead. The future looms and the possibility of proceeding as gentleman sailors dwindles. Maybe there will be time enough to furl the sails, and there may yet be some glorious sailing ahead, but the future will not brook a change of course.