Monday, November 23, 2009

Wife Rule #122: Appreciate the Good Days

I am now finishing day eight of a nasty run-in with Swine-Flu's lesser-known little brother. This illness looks, acts, and feels like Swine or any other good, hearty flu, but yet turns up negative on the flu tests. That means Tama-Flu won't help. There's nothing to do but try to rest (while juggling life) and wait it out.

I am getting weary of being sick and am a little discouraged today, having taken a step backwards, and especially since three of my five kids have now joined me on the Fever and Cough Train. I tried my hardest not to share. Really I did.

But Wednesday was a good day. It was the first day since last Sunday that I didn't feel foggy around the brain. It was the day my appetite ventured back, at least into the background. It was the day I only napped for two hours and still felt pretty good by 8:00 at night. It was also the day Mom and Dad dropped in to visit.

That was a special treat, because I had been wanting to see them fairly badly since we had to cancel our visiting plans on Sunday on account of this sickness. Dad started chemotherapy two weeks ago, and I hadn't seen him since--only talked to him on the phone. Everyone else in the family had found a way to make it up for a visit but me. It just hadn't worked out. I wanted to see him badly, just to tell him in person that I am sorry he is sick, and I am sorry he is suffering. But delivering both comfort and the Black Plague to a sick man with a weakened immune system didn't seem like a good idea.

So it is a little ironic that it was me who was crashed out on the couch on Wednesday and awoke to find Dad standing nearby, greeting me with a smile and a bit of a concerned look on his face. He told me that he was sorry that I was sick. I reciprocated. I stared up at that man that I love with all my heart. He didn't look tired; it is his week off chemo, and he was having a good day. I longed to give him a hug. It's all I've wanted to do for several weeks now, but I knew better. There will be a chance for hugs later, and for that I am grateful.

Mom and Dad didn't stay long, and now that four of us are running hundred-and-two's, I'm glad they didn't. But it was so refreshing, so comforting to see them, even if for only a few minutes. It made Wednesday an extra good day.

And to cap off a good day, Wednesday night held an extra treat in store, specifically the hour from 3:00 to 4:00 AM. It was during this hour that I found myself unable to sleep, with my mind recalling in vivid detail the Alaskan cruise my wife and I took with Mom and Dad and one-year-old Charity back in June. It was a most pleasant hour.

Mom and Dad had planned this cruise with friends several months earlier. We tagged along at the last minute, quite frankly, because of Dad's cancer diagnosis. We had talked of going on a cruise with them for years, but it was never convenient. Then cancer, the Great Priority Reshuffler, suddenly made it convenient. We got one of the very last cabins in the price range we could afford.

It was our first experience cruising, and we had a marvelous week. Even though cancer spurred us out the door, it was absent on the cruise. I can honestly say that the week consisted of only smiles, happy conversation, adventures, recreation, amazing food, and the occasional poopy diaper. We had a great time together and I will always cherish that week in my memory.

I just hadn't gotten around to writing it down before now; I don't know why. Maybe it's because there was too much detail to record in a few hours. Maybe it's because I was afraid of not doing it justice. Maybe it's just life. But the hour I spent back on the cruise again Wednesday night, in a pleasant, dream-like state of silent reverie, devoid of any sight or sound or workaday worries to distract me, felt something akin to heaven. I decided then, while wrapped underneath two quilts with my heated mattress pad on (chills, you know), that I needed to write it down, and soon, before the visions passed forever from my mind.

* * *

My memories centered around and kept flowing back to one certain day of the cruise, the day we sailed up Tracy Arm. Tracy Arm is one of the Alaskan fjords that runs several miles inland, winding its way through a dramatic canyon cut between majestic glacier-topped peaks. While the famous Alaskan Inside Passage afforded rather spectacular scenery during much of the cruise, this was the only day during the week when the windows and deck of the boat were the front-row seats of the primary attraction.

Tracy Arm was spectacular; it was the best scenery of the week. The imposing gray cliffs of the mountains often plunged into the water at the same nearly-vertical angles they maintained for hundreds of feet up the mountainside, disappearing into the inky, glacially-tinted aquamarine waters. Every so often the cliffs were segmented by fissures, in which grew hardy pines and shrubs, or were split clean open by a miniature canyon barely wide enough for the continuous onslaught of meltwater that roared and foamed its way into the Mother Sea.

Where the vertical cliffs gave way to more tempered slopes, they were blanketed by dense forest growth of a surprisingly lustrous green, giving the canyon walls a look similar to tightly-packed boulders with a heavy moss coating on top, magnified a hundred thousand times.

The individual mountains were demarcated by grand, U-shaped valleys, each with its own glacier, whose erosive forces subtly but surely increase the reach of the tentacles of Tracy Arm as she claws her way further inland, year after year. These long, narrow valleys often looked like a slice of paradise, paradoxically juxtaposed against the fury of a world of ice and snow. The verdant fields of grass and lazy, meandering streams seemed to hold a magnetic attraction to the spotty sunlight that day, illuminating them with gold and giving them such an idyllic appearance that I was almost amazed not to see great herds of moose or caribou luxuriating in the gentle caress of their meadows.

But, it seemed that the wildlife that day was all in the fjord, sharing the waters with our ship, the Golden Princess. In fact, just as we (my wife, Charity, and I) were finishing up breakfast while enjoying the scenery out the window, an announcement came over the Public Address system to look for some seals alongside the ship. We all got up to look, since the announcement came from the very dramatic voice of our trusty, on-board naturalist.

A few words about our naturalist: he was probably forty-something, maybe pushing fifty, but apparently still believed he was quite a catch. He wore hippie garb and had long, flowing brown locks and a thick mustache below beady little eyes; kind of a hybrid of the musician Yanni and Geraldo Rivera, but without the talent or the broken nose. His oratory style was singularly dramatic, uttering every single line as if it was both profound and deeply moving, with his voice inflection sinking down a full octave on the last syllable of each phrase. Think of the melodramatic tempo of William Shatner: "Space... The final frontier... These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise..." but imagine that his voice dips from normal range to a deep, sultry bass on the words Space, frontier, and Enterprise, and you will get the sense of listening to our naturalist. We only survived the first twenty minutes of his first lecture, through hushed sniggering and gleeful sideways glances, before leaving. But we carried his legacy with us throughout the week, often repeating phrases in his oratory style for dramatic effect ("Please... pass the breadbasket...").

So as I said, I was just about to bite into my last sausage when our naturalist came on the PA system to announce that a mother seal could be seen with her cub, resting on a small iceberg up ahead. Then he went on: "You know... it's amazing up here... in the mighty Alaskan wilderness... that nothing is wasted... I once saw a bald eagle land on a blood-red iceberg... it was ravenously eating something there... but it wasn't a baby seal... it was the afterbirth... the baby seal was safe with its mother... and the eagle was well fed... nothing is wasted, not even the bloody afterbirth..."

After that moving and emotional story, I looked down at the greasy piece of meat on my plate and asked my wife, "You want my sausage?"

It was about this time that my parents found us and we all decided to head up to the top deck to better enjoy the scenery. It was fairly warm for a June day as far north as we were, and the breeze was nearly non-existent. We marveled at the slate cliffs and waterfalls, the green of the forest, the height of the mountains, the ominous coldness of the water, and the small chunks of glacial ice floating all around us. Every once in a while the ship would run right over the top of one large enough to hear just a little crunch and groan as it was pulverized beneath our weight (see, all that cruise food does some good!).

Speaking of excess weight, our naturalist came over the PA again: "Now here in these frigid waters... where waterfalls cascade down like satin ribbons... a human will only survive about ten minutes... before freezing to death... the longest record of human survival here... in majestic Tracy Arm... was a native woman of the north who fell in... and it took them almost an hour to find her... but she was still conscious... and holding onto a log... she survived without any serious injuries... How did she do it?... She was less than five feet tall... and weighed over 300 pounds... like the seal or the otter... her natural insulation protected her..."

At this point we all agreed that we felt pretty optimistic about our chances for survival. After all, we had spent the whole trip up to this point preparing for just such a catastrophe by stuffing ourselves to the point of exhaustion during every meal. I mean, let's be honest: the main point of a cruise--yes, the main point, even more than whatever sights there are to see--is to eat like a pig. You could actually emulate a low-budget cruise fairly realistically by dressing in fancy clothes and parking yourself in Chuck-a-rama every day for twelve hours straight.

* * *

The food on the Golden Princess, of course, was much better than Chuck-a-rama. Instead of struggling to decide between the fried chicken or the roast beef, you had to struggle with the decision between filet mignon with sauteed shrimp, or the blackened swordfish with lobster reduction. It didn't take long to discover that in reality there was no reason to choose between the two at all, when you could solve the problem by simply having both. This proved to be an essential strategy, because most of the menu items only showed up one night of the cruise, only to be replaced by other outrageously yummy items the next night. I employed this strategy at almost every meal, and as a result I maximized my chances to sample some of the tastiest food I have ever eaten in my life.

Of course, let's not forget the appetizers. From a person who has never ordered an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert from an ala carte menu, these simply could not be missed. I almost always ended up with a shrimp cocktail (available every night) and some other adventurous thing, such as a lobster souffle, or thin pieces of meat with artfully drizzled French sauces on them. I don't even really know what most of the appetizers were; but they were almost always delicious. Even the escargot was surprisingly good, like eating cheesy, garlicky, buttery, rubber bands. The lone exception was the caviar, which was like eating grainy tapioca soaked in super-strong fish oil--no, thanks.

Then of course there were the desserts: each night there was a different dessert menu, again with several "standard" choices available every night and a half-dozen or so items that only appeared once. I always ordered any available dessert souffle after my first rewarding experience with the chocolate souffle, punctured personally by my waiter and filled via teaspoon to the brim with warm caramel ("Are you sure you want another spoonful, sir?" "If you've got more, keep it coming!"). I almost always ended up with two desserts as well. I think my stomach stretched significantly during that week. Those were good days.

Dessert also provided some of the best entertainment of the whole meal, as I'll explain in a minute. We spent our first dinner at the buffet, but on the second day we went to one of the several formal restaurants early, to avoid the hour-long lines that often formed during peak mealtime. During our second meal at the restaurant, one of the MaƮtre d's, an older gentleman from Portugal named Antonio, took a particular liking to Charity. When he came to personally take our dessert orders he asked, "And what would leetle Charitee like?" We replied to bring a small dish of ice cream. "Oh no! No, Charitee would like The Volcano!" So it was that he brought her a large dish with three huge scoops of ice cream and a mound of whipping cream and chocolate sauce about five inches high. She took one look at her Volcano, looked up, and smiled. Antonio was smitten.

At the end of the night, Antonio asked us, "How would you like to have a reeserved table here everee night, by the window?" Are you kidding? There were only about a dozen tables by windows at all, and this meant that we would never have to wait in line! "Just come at seex o'clock, and Antonio will take care of you, right leetle Charitee?"

So we came every night at six o'clock, strolled past the long line already formed at the door (rumors of the filet mignon and prime rib must have reached the buffet crowd at last), and sat down at our reserved table by the window. There was always a high chair waiting for Charity. Antonio would come by to take her order while the rest of us were still deciding on appetizers. Then he would personally bring her food out and painstakingly cut it into bite-size pieces on her tray. "Ees thees leetle enough?" he would check with my wife or me. When he saw that Charity was settled in for her meal, he would disappear to his other duties and let our normal waiter staff take care of the rest of us (which included bringing our courses, taking our dishes, swiping crumbs off the table, smoothing the tablecloth, etc).

Antonio would reappear 45 minutes later or so and ask "Ees Charitee ready for her meelk now?" and take her sippy cup back to the kitchen, wash it, and fill it with milk. He would then disappear again until making his final appearance to bring Charity her Volcano for dessert. Antonio made sure that Charity kept her own eating schedule, regardless of whether there was a backup in the kitchen for lobster for the rest of us, or whatever. He really made the difference for Charity.

One more dessert story before I return to Tracy Arm: tired of mousses, warm fruit cobblers, ice cream concoctions, dessert crepes and souffles, and everything else the menu offered, my nothing-if-not-adventurous wife decided to order the "fruit and exotic cheese" dish. The cheese, was, well, exotic. She enjoyed a few of the varieties, but crinkled up her nose when she poked at something called "esrom cheese." Mustering her courage, she forked off a small bite and popped it in her mouth. Her eyes immediately turned red and started watering, and she struggled to swallow before spluttering out "Sweaty armpits!" We had all paused to watch this spectacle and with her official assessment of esrom cheese we burst into laughter. And then, for some unexplainable reason, my nothing-if-not-persistent wife took another bite, setting off another chain of tears, hacking, spluttering, and even harder laughter. "I just wanted to see if it was really as bad as I thought it was," she later explained. "And it was even worse. It was like... like putrid feet!" My dad thought that was one of the funniest things he had ever seen, and mentioned esrom cheese with glee for weeks afterwards.

* * *

It was this type of humor that provided the good cheer we found ourselves enjoying up on the deck of the ship while cruising up Tracy Arm. Enjoying the scenery from the ship was a different type of recreation; not necessarily the superior type for every day, but today it felt like the best place to be.

Over the previous days we had hiked the lush rainforest surrounding Mendenhall glacier out of Juneau, and taken a bus ride into the Yukon from Skagway (yes, take the bus, not the train, unless you get a real charge out of riding a rickety old train; but the bus goes much farther north whereas the train doesn't even reach the best scenery). We had marveled at a river that splits clean in two on the continental divide, emptying into both oceans (really!), watched Iditarod dogs clamor to pull sleds (Charity loved the puppies), and saw a bear rummaging through an old Yukon railyard. In the next several days we would enjoy both the shops and the rainforests of Ketchikan, and the beauty of the city and shores of Victoria. The on-shore activities were top-notch.

On the ship we had fully utilized the available venues, having gone to the musical shows with mixed reviews of what we saw there; enjoyed ballroom dancing lessons (thanks again for babysitting, Mom and Dad); been to several of the dances--some alone, some with the whole crew; watched the amazing skills of the performers of the Rolla-bolla act as they performed mind-bending balancing feats atop stacked layers of rolling cylinders; laughed at the charming juggler guy whose appeal probably came as much from looking and acting like a normal guy as it did from his skills; and spent hours being dazzled by Chris May, their on-board Jazz pianist.

Chris was amazing. His arrangements were top-notch and virtuosic, his repertoire seemed endless, and his voice was that of a classic New Orleans jazz man. He was surely the least appreciated of all the performers, coming out only later at night and playing to a small, intimate crowd. My wife and I sat there, mesmerized for at least 30 minutes every night after we discovered him. I would sit right by the piano with a rather stupid-looking grin on my face as I watched his fingers fly across the keyboard effortlessly. It was exceptional entertainment.

There were a couple of memories of dancing that will stick, too. The first is when all of us--Mom, Dad, Charity, my wife, and me--went dancing to the music of a small, live band at the back of one of the clubs. We only stayed for maybe fifteen minutes, but in those minutes my mind recorded footage that I will cherish forever: Mom and Dad dancing, not just the slow dances, but the faster ones too. Them laughing; them together; them looking at each other like newlyweds; them taking Charity, allowing my wife and I a slow dance together; holding my wife and softly pecking her on the cheek; dancing all together in a circle, with Charity in the middle. It was one of those times where, for the sheer joy of the moment, time slowed to a crawl and I found myself wishing it would never end.

The other was when my wife and I, who had been practicing our West Coast Swing moves (I only do dances I have been taught, not having any natural aptitude at all), were given a "lucky stick" by some random guy. He walked up, gave it to us, and told us to hang onto it. I should have known that was trouble. We didn't realize that the random guy was a staff member who had been charged with finding three couples to do a Twist competition, and our "lucky stick" was our ticket into the competition. I panicked. I didn't (and you may have a hard time believing this) even know what the Twist was, and as fate would have it, we were Couple Number One. I had no idea what to do, so with the spotlight and all eyes on us, I gave my wife the most desperate look I could that pleaded "Please don't abandon me on this... whatever you do, just keep ahold of my hand!" and led her through a snazzy West Coast Swing while the band played a Twist.

There was restrained applause when our 90 seconds of pure torture was over, and I was never more relieved to shrink into the shadows then when he announced Couple Number Two. They were a 60-something couple from Japan who did the Twist perfectly. After seeing what they did, I thought "Ooooh, I could have done that!" I just didn't know. The Japanese couple won the contest (and finished with an impressive flourish). A few kind-hearted souls approached us afterwards and said "I would have voted for you, but... you just didn't dance the Twist!" No kidding.

Happy to have that awkward moment behind us, I am quite content now to be up on the deck, viewing spectacular Tracy Arm. The four of us (plus Charity) have been chatting about this and that, pointing out interesting features in the scenery, sharing stories and memories, and laughing together in an idyllic way. It occurs to me that this is what the ultimate goal of family is all about; moments like these, where Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter are all together, sharing life as friends and peers, bound together in common love. Eternity was made for an unending stream of moments like this.

* * *

Suddenly the voice of our fearless naturalist bursts over the PA system, this time announcing a contest. After a brief quote by Shakespeare, he said, "I'm sure... that like me... you are all duly inspired... by the grandeur of magnificent Tracy Arm... So I'd like you... to write a Haiku... about our morning in Tracy Arm... and I'll award prizes to the best ones..."

And we were duly inspired. We all brainstormed for the best combination of quotes from William Shatner, William Shakespear, and our naturalist. Dad thought up several impressive entries along this line, such as:

Into Tracy Arm
Where no man has gone before
saith William S.

But perhaps the family favorite was this one that yours truly composed, as if inspired by Nature herself:

Ravenous eagle
Ingests blood-red afterbirth.
You want my sausage?

This triggered a whole new generation of gross Haikus, each of them eliciting giggles until the whole conversation had erupted into laughter. For several days following, Dad and I delighted in composing a Haiku consisting of some disgusting description in twelve syllables and ending with the line "You want my sausage?" We are all quite certain that if we had stopped laughing long enough to actually turn in our favorite Haiku contest entry, that it would have won. It certainly captured our experience in Tracy Arm, as narrated by our fearless naturalist.

* * *

As the fjord narrowed, we approached the bay where the water bumped up against the largest of the glaciers--a huge wall of crumbling ice that dwarfed our ship. The water around us now had much larger and more interesting icebergs floating in it, each pocked with holes, and criss-crossed with cracks, of a deep, vibrant glacial blue. We spent a long time on deck pointing out different icebergs and the bizzarre shapes and textures they had. Ever wonder why glacial ice is blue? As a helpful display at the Mendenhal Glacier informed us, "It is because all the other colors of light are absorbed by the ice and only the blue light is reflected back." Oh, really? Thanks so much for clearing that up.

It was here also that the true skill of our captain was evident, as he stopped the boat and did a complete 180-degree turn in place. There wasn't much room for error; it seemed like the bow and stern of the boat might each scrape the cliffs as we pivoted. Ice was sucked into the swirling vortexes left behind, and pulverized underneath our ship with great, shivering groans. And then we were off, at a little greater speed, towards the opening of the fjord and our next destination.

All too soon our adventure in Tracy Arm was behind us, transformed in an instant from present to memory. But what a pleasant present it was, and what sunny memories they are! Celebrating life's good days is a key to living happily, and our days aboard the Golden Princess, and particularly our morning in Tracy Arm, were some of the best we've had.

As we face an unknown future regarding Dad's cancer, there will be both bad days and good. The only certain thing is that the trials and pains of mortality will eventually pass away and we will be left with only our memories of these times. I hope that when that time comes, my wife and I, my parents, and the rest of us will be able to see that we have not let life wear us down, but that we "tipped the balance" in our favor by focusing on and appreciating the good days. With that kind of attitude, I'm sure that our best days together are yet ahead.


Jenny and Al said...

I'm jealous (of your cruise, not your illness). It makes me want to go again. I'm glad you had a good time.

Brooke said...

Thanks Matt. That sums it up perfectly. Even when life isn't perfect, our lives can be when we have love.

Mom said...

We will always remember that wonderful weeek. You captured it so beautifully. We just love you guys.