Friday, April 16, 2010

The Darker Side

Four months is a long time for any community, especially one made up of primarily older people.  Life is lived to its fullest on board a cruise ship, at least by most, although there are some who complain of being bored.  But just as life is lived, so too it ends.  I was going to call this post “Life Goes On”, which seems a rather dark joke, because I am going to talk about illness and death, but perhaps it would be an apt title, because death is part of life.

It’s a part that we don’t seem to want to think about very often.  In a couple of the books the book club has read, there have been references to days in which the dead are celebrated.  The Day of the Dead in Mexico, the Ancestors’ Festival in China, these are days when the dead are remembered and bonds with them are renewed.  One question I raised for discussion was why Americans and Canadians have no such festivals.

No one had much to say, which interested me because it appeared that our culture’s reluctance to think about death extended to not wanting to even discuss the possibility that we might take a regular time, even if only once a year, to think about it.  North Americans are focused on the future.  We think about where we are going, and not about where we came from.  While some cultures consider the connections from the past to be of paramount importance, because they have shaped who they are today and the life they continue to lead, North Americans wish to shake off the bonds of the past.  It’s what is new that is important, ways in which we can change, grow, and become more than we are today.  As countries formed primarily by immigrants, with the exception of the First Nations people, our lives are, by definition, shaped by a desire for change and a hope for something better.  Remembering the past has no role to play in this.

There are always several deaths on a cruise ship.  I don’t know the exact number, but I’m told on a world cruise there are usually up to a dozen.  The first occurred only three days after we left Florida, where the cruise began.  There are also medical debarkations at pretty well every port, people whose illnesses need more than what the doctors and their facility on board can do.  Sometimes the people come back.  Sometimes they go home.  Sometimes they do neither.

I’d met the woman who died three days into the cruise.  She was a very large woman in a wheelchair, happy to be on board, eager to meet lots of people.  I knew the wife of one of the men who died.  He felt ill, the doctors wanted him to go to a hospital, he insisted he felt fine, but agreed to get off.  He died two days later.  His wife hadn’t packed anything, as she and her husband were expecting to get back on board at the next port.  Her friends packed for her, and shipped the luggage to her home.  How does one deal with a loved one dying so far from home, in a strange place, with no friends or family close by?

Today one of the watercolour teachers, the equipment manager, as the aides, such as she and Melissa, are laughingly called, learned that her husband, at home in Florida, died of a heart attack yesterday.  This woman, Jane, had accompanied Carol, the main watercolour teacher, two years ago, but didn’t come last year because her family didn’t want her to be away for so long, again.  Her children are grown and married, and this year she persuaded them all to do without her for the four months so she could come on the cruise again.  Her husband had heart problems for a number of years, and has had surgery for it.  Yesterday, he called 911 when he felt the chest pain, was taken to the hospital, was treated, but died.

Maybe it’s because I was at a birthday party last night, at which most people were Jewish, and we talked about Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt, but what is mostly in my mind now is how guilty Jane must be feeling.  Even though it sounds as if there is little that she, or anyone could have done for him, she must wonder.  Jane is a wonderful person, always smiling, upbeat, and energetic.  As one friend said, if they are on a tour together, and the tour is boring or tiring or a dud, Jane still always makes it fun.  I didn’t know her well, but I always enjoyed spending time with her.

Her husband died at home, in a familiar place, with friends and family close by.  It is Jane who is alone and in a strange place.  Did she, or anyone else here, think that when they get home, someone they looked forward to seeing might not be there?

And so I’m thinking of all the people who were on the ship, and who now aren’t, who aren’t anywhere.  They came on board expecting to spend four months on board, making new friends, and seeing new sights.  They spent time reading, or listening to music, seeing the shows, going to the movies, eating good food, playing cards, or whatever they liked to do.  Did they think, when they boarded, that they might die during the cruise?

And yet, despite the sorrow, I admire them.  Many of the people on board are not healthy.  You can tell, just from looking at them, listening to their harsh breaths, seeing the flushed faces, observing how little energy they have and how difficult the slightest things can be for them.  They chose to come anyway, instead of sitting at home, waiting for what is to come.

There was an elderly man on board last year.  He was called ‘the skeleton’ by others, because he was clearly very ill and was wasting away.  Most people assumed he had cancer, but no one knew him well enough to ask.  He was traveling alone, and one thing people did learn was that when he was younger, he had been a famous singer, giving concerts in clubs and later on stage.  One night there was a talent show for the ship’s guests, and he received permission to get on stage, not to sing, because he didn’t have the breath, but to play one of his recordings and lip synch to it.  He did this, and everyone applauded him.  After the show, he returned to his cabin, went to bed, and died, discovered the next day by his cabin stewards.

I love this story, and it has been corroborated as being true, unlike some of the stories I’ve been told.  He relived his glory days, and then let go.  Other people are here doing something they love, maybe experiencing the dream of a lifetime.  Maybe they continue to travel to carry on learning and growing as human beings.  Or maybe they just want to be with people they like, in a setting they like.  Whatever it is, they are living their lives in the way in which they want to.  Death comes anyway.  It is never welcome, but the knowledge it is coming cannot prevent you, or those you love, from living.

I don’t know what Jane is thinking.  Yesterday she’d gone to Tokyo with some friends, and so no one knew how to reach her.  She learned about her husband when she returned in the late afternoon.  Today is a sea day, and so she will fly home tomorrow.  Today, she insisted on playing trivia, which Melissa and I also do every sea day.  We call it our daily dose of humility.  Jane isn’t on our team, and her team sits at a distance from ours, so I didn’t see her.  She played because she always does and her teammates have become friends.  I like to think, though, that there’s a deeper reason why that game should have been her final social event on the ship.  So much of our lives is made up of trivia, the small but quirky, interesting, surprising, and unusual pieces that fill our existence.  I hope Jane continues to value the small elements of her life, even when they are overwhelmed by a larger event.  I hope her husband did, too.


  1. What a beautiful piece, Judy! Thank you.

  2. Re: Memorial Day as our family's time to remember. From chhilhood through adulthood my immediage family faithfully took flowers, any soldiers' grave markers (all from long-deceased generations), other mementos - starting with coverage of all nearby cemeteries (Miami.,Champaign,Clark), partly annuallessons to teach me about the generations that had come before - although the only actual military I remember was a great-whatever-grandfather who fought in the Civil War. Most of my relatives are divided between paternal (Oakdale in Champaign) and maternal (New Carlisle.Clark), with a lot of misc. scattered about.