I’ve written some of this down before, but it’s been lost to the Internet and time.
Six months before my father died, we were in Alaska. For some reason he’d gotten a wild hair and decided that he and his boys were going to journey to the Last Frontier and do some fishing. Dad was in the best health he’d experienced since his first hospitalization in 2008, so it was now or never. He, Blake, and I flew from Memphis, Tennessee, to Minneapolis/St. Paul, then we boarded a smaller plane to Anchorage. We arrived, exhausted, and he rented a Chevy Suburban that barely fit through the spiraled airport parking deck ramp. Then we drove for hours, because Alaska is fucking huge.
At the time, I was freshly single and in a mental place I don’t want to fully dissect here. I am not sure if pre-grief is a thing, but since my father’s initial illness, I had been in a sort of malaise about his future, and mine, and what it meant to potentially lose a parent. I made all sorts of wacky decisions in this fugue state that I’m just starting to come to terms with. I flailed around, hurt a lot of people, and spread wreckage over the years before and after his death.
In 2010, I was still wearing my battered cowboy hat and gripping Hemingway, attempting to tame the bronco of life. Obviously, especially to those who know me well, my hubris knows no bounds, but that’s a story for another time.
It was an overcast day in early August when my father, my brother, and I boarded the Tia Rose to do some deep sea fishing. The old men around seemed to be, if not shocked, then at least a bit curious that the captain was a woman. I will never forget my father asking her permission to come aboard. Always the gentleman, I think he must have had the etiquette book memorized. We were about to set sail with a bunch of wealthy greyhairs and some rowdy teenage deckhands. This was an adventure.
We set out into the bay, and pretty much immediately my brother and I started having what I’ve always referred to as “the regrets.” I’d heard people speak colloquially about turning green but until that moment I wasn’t aware that it literally happened. I had popped a couple of Dramamine before the trip, but it was no use. Blake was on the back deck puking into one five gallon bucket while sitting on another. I kept looking at the horizon but I felt the illness coming on as well.
By the time we got to the first fishing spot a couple of hours later, we were absolute wrecks. The retirees were all either immune to motion sickness or had scopolamine patches behind their ears. I’d never heard of this magic before, and I’ve never left on a journey without it since. At the time, however, I was experiencing something that rivaled one of my worst hangovers.
We were barfing everywhere. We upchucked over the side and onto the deck. Dad was visibly shaken by all this and he began to apologize repeatedly. Did we fish? I remember at least two attempts. The first time we were bobbing heavy weights off the bottom of the ocean floor. The old men seemed to be having a great time and I, the guy who could do fifty push-ups, could hardly move it. I got my line all tangled pretty much immediately and a deck hand gave me another. I surrendered about two minutes after that.
The second time, the captain herself had gone to the back of the boat, hooked a fish, and yelled for me to come back and haul it in. I did it, and as soon as I got it in I handed the pole away and vomited over the side. I’m pretty sure Blake puked on someone’s fish as they pulled it in. This may have been after the captain had cut up a pineapple, which she claimed was an old sailor’s remedy for seasickness. It worked, miraculously, for about thirty seconds, then here came the pineapple express. Dad exclaimed what an amazing cure it was while I simultaneously messed up the cabin floor.
A bit later, the guys were all at the back fishing. I looked out the back cabin door as the bow of the ship pitched up, and there was a commotion at the stern. “Whale!” someone shouted. The old men fumbled for their cameras.
A black hump surfaced, close enough that someone could have touched it with a pole. I don’t know how we didn’t hit it. There was no way I could have gotten my shitty Blackberry knock-off Samsung out of my pocket in time, and I’m glad I didn’t try. A wave lifted the boat into a steep incline and I stood at the top, my view unimpeded above the fishermen’s heads. The whale slid up and then down, as if to say hello, and my father’s voice rang out.
“Bobby, did you see it?”
Yeah, Dad. I did.
The captain said it was a right whale. She wheeled the boat back around to see if it would pop out again, but it didn’t. I spent the rest of the ride staring at the horizon from the back deck, a seasickness-prevention trick I’d learned from a Hemingway story. I stood out there and shivered for hours, but it worked.
The deck hands cleaned the fish behind me as we sailed on through what might have been a pleasantly cool day on land. It seemed like eternity, however, as I rocked over the unforgiving damp. I finally stopped keeping track of time and locked my eyes on the dark line above the sea. It eventually grew into looming cliffs. We sailed along side them as thousands of white gulls peeled off to greet us. I am solidly agnostic, but I remember saying to myself, “God lives in Alaska.”
I turned to my left and Blake and Dad were seated in a booth on the other side of the cabin glass. Blake’s head was down on the table, and Dad put his arm around him and stroked his hair. He ran his hand through it over and over, which was something I’d never seen him do. It was the same thing I did to Dad as he slept in his hospital bed. It is the same thing I do, now, when I hold my children.
I looked up at the cliffs. Here lies eternity.
There is something to be found out there in the wild, whether it is God or Earth or Nature or Life. The Universe. The carelessness of Nothing, but it’s something. You can read about that shit in your History of Ecology textbook, you know. Bust out some Thoreau. I am nothing if not an unoriginal bastard, so I admit that I am not breaking new ground here. Maybe you’ve had a tingle on a camping trip. Maybe you saw the face of God while summiting Denali.
I don’t have any answers for you. The cliffs had none for me. All I can do is tell you what happened. The sea was angry that day, my friends. The bay was quiet. We were there. Now some of us aren’t.
If I were a moral of the story guy I’d tell you to set your jaw and stare at the horizon. That’s as good a line as any. It’s tempting to do that, to the cliffs and the birds. To set a screen on it. To capture the whale. To make it mean something.
Though, as Freud is accused of saying, sometimes a whale is just a whale, and the deep is just the deep.
Thanks, Sigmund. Thanks, Henry. Thanks, Ernie.