Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

And then in 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from them shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.

The deer

There was a show in the summer of 2019 at the National Gallery of Art, called “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art.” There were several deer, and one of them—not this particular deer—snuck into my work. Whether it stays or not, who knows? For now, here:

As he thought about truth—perhaps the most slippery but indelible of ideas—he became aware of a murmur from among the host of the gathered djinn. He, the dark djinn, and Jabari turned to locate the cause and center of this gentle disruption.

A blue deer walked through the assembled djinn. From its sides and back rose thick shards of white crystal. It could have been quartz or moonstone. Perhaps salt. Its paws pressed deep prints into the earth, revealing the weight of the animal was. As it neared, the gold djinn could tell that it was made of lapis lazuli. And yet it walked. It was tall, almost as large as a horse, and around its legs two cloud colored foxes romped and played. The stone and crystal deer was walking through the crowd and toward them. It was regal.

When it reached them, it lowered its head, and gently—but coldly, since it was stone—nuzzled the dark djinn and gold djinn in turn. It was strangely soft, belying its nature—it was cold stone—but remaining true to its essential nature—it was a deer. The foxes moved around Jabari, who stumbled over them, thrown off by their play. They were like smoke but firm, and this unnerved the ‘Ifrit. They were unnatural.

All the djinn had turned their attention to the scene: the blue and white deer, tame and regal, and the two cloud foxes, playful and disruptive. The three djinn at the center were not aware of the attention given to them, because the animals before them had entranced them. Blue, and white, and silver smoke.

A crack began to form along the deer’s supple neck, and another at its hind quarter. Then a dozen others, opening its body and dividing the crystals ridged along its back. Bits of crystal fell to the ground. Blue stone chipped away from its body. Then it collapsed into rubble, beautiful rubble, but no longer alive. The foxes dissipated.

The djinn were struck silent. The deer had been beautiful and impossible. It had come through them and to them. It was a message and a messenger. Quietly, each member of the throng walked to the pile of stone and crystal and each took a piece of what had been sublime. There was enough for each of the assembled djinn—no more and no less. The remaining wisps of fox-smoke drifted over their heads.

“What was it?” Jabari broke the silence when the taking had finished.

The white haired goddess stood with them. “It was him.”

Lessons from Sailing: Patience and Course

We gathered a twice a day to listen to the nautical forecast, usually in the cockpit, but when the weather was execrable, in the cabin. For days on the ocean it was the only external information we had, and the computerized voice that intoned the zones and conditions annoyed and entranced us. My father never explained which particular slice of the forecast we should heed. If there was one, it was his secret. We did get a general sense: the information could reveal a significant change from the forecast with which we headed onto the ocean. For the most part, the weather we encountered was weather we could see.

Besides, what did the weather matter? We were going into it one way or the other. If something sudden arose—and in a storm, wind and rain could change direction in a moment—we had one rule: change course. At 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, Saturday afternoon’s destination could wait. That lesson only took one stern delivery.

I think I became an atheist on the ocean, or at least a pragmatist. If there is a god, it answered my prayers for relief with a simple, “You put yourself out here, jackass. You are going to have to get through it on your own.” At the same time I learned to believe in and respect a power much larger than my desire. Only a fool raises a fist against the weather or the ocean and then dares an impossible course. We had our foolish moments. On particularly bad days, my father would simply decree, “This is shitty.” If it was, we sailed through it.

In this way, we learned a sensible passivity on the ocean. Our single dare was the initial impulse: sail. After that we trimmed sails, corrected course, vomited, slept poorly, ran the engine through flat days, cursed the diesel odor, and gloried. We were sailors.

Every so often, the moment called for essential courage: tying down loose sheets at the bow while the boat bucked through night storm. I could hold onto nothing while grabbing the clew of the working jib and the sheet (line) that whipped back and forth, having worked itself loose. “You get that,” my father said, in a tacit admission that his Parkinson’s Disease would prevent him from ever again wandering forward in less than pleasant conditions. “It’s shitty, but we have to get that.” He didn’t even need to add that proviso. I had hooked my tether to the line that ran from bow to stern and was scrambling ahead—cursing, as is one’s right, and scrambling.

One learns not to wish for courageous opportunities. Danger is not a reward, even if it frees the soul from, what? complacency? On the ocean, complacency is death.

I knew about my father’s illness because, on the ocean, every limit will be tested, but it is essential to acknowledge those limits. You do not ask a first time sailor to take the helm in a gale, nor do you ask uncertain hands to tie a bowline. Few are those who ask for something hot to eat and a place at the helm in any weather. And my father’s illness was a limit–he wanted, desperately, to be the one who managed every danger; after all, he was our father. When he could not, we had to know it, and keep him safe.

Even while waiting on the ocean, one never stops being on alert, ready to absorb the next challenge—and boredom (bored in a week? Bah!) must be one of those challenges. But, who gets bored between the sun, the sky, and the endless blue?

Still, I wonder about the lesson—prepare and wait. It is easy to forget that while I waited, I was on board a 36’ sailboat that made steady and infernal forward motion—through all kinds of placid and idiotic weather. Yes, wait, be patient, but for the love of all that’s right, keep going. Even if the pace is a mere 6 knots, keep going. Even if a storm causes a momentary reversal, there is a destination, perhaps on the other side of the world. Keep going. And be prepared for what comes. It is, it will.

The Cats

My cat is dying. I have four cats, and one of them is dying. In the past 35 years, I have had 9 cats. 5 of them have died. I have been present for the deaths of 4 of them—3 in the auspices of cat hospitals, where their deaths were hurried on beyond their suffering, 1 as renal failure finally blotted out his light. The cat who is dying now has some kind of neoplasm—a cancer—and his descent has been swift. He is just under 7 years old; he entered my life 6 years ago.

When you adopt a pet, you know you are, for the most part—tortoises and parrots aside—going to outlive your pet. Your cat or dog will die. A child’s first experience of death often happens when a pet dies (or Santa Claus is excised from their lives, another kind of death). But, by the time you are older, mortality has been hanging around, making itself known. It’s a savage kind of knowing.

I’m in the middle of teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets—bouncing between the appeal of the “eternal summer” and hard fact of Time’s “bending sickle’s compass.” There is no comfort in death, or in the slow inexorable passage of time. All the comparisons he discounts in Sonnet 130–the sun, coral, snow, roses, perfume, music, goddess—are ideals that flower easily in the imagination. These are worth striving for! And yet, we are all “Time’s fool”—how can we be anything else? We must “tread on the ground.” Life—and its end—happen here.

Of course, I hear Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And I do. I wear glasses that alleviate the dimming light. I adapt. I go to the pool and the gym, preparing to extend that rage, thinking “Only halfway!” Perhaps the rage blinds us to the grimmer particulars. Then I’ll take that blindness for now, and rage.

Still, my cat is dying, and is confused and anxious about what has happened, is happening to him. I try to comfort him, and know that in the end, easy passage may be the way (I have phone numbers at the ready). I wish I could hold him, pet him, and reassure him that his girls—the two kittens he tended when they followed him into my household, who are now 5 years old—will be all right. That I will take good care of them. That he has been a good cat and a good companion. And I know those reassurances are echoes of words and thoughts I had for other cats. And, of course, for other people.

I may be done with death, but death, I know, is far from done with me.

The Way Ahead

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.