On a bright, cloudless day in September 1983 I stood on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth 2, waving goodbye to no one in particular. I was 26 years old and all around people threw streamers and shouted farewell to loved ones on the Manhattan pier below. Since this was a business trip, I assumed nobody would be there to see me off.
I was wrong.
I happened to look down and there was my father in his business suit, scanning the ship’s passengers. “Cliff!!” I called, using his first name. I’m not sure why I didn’t yell out, “Dad!” Maybe I knew too many men would respond to that name. Maybe I wanted to appear grown-up and sophisticated. Maybe it was the first thing that came to mind. Whatever the case, my Dad heard and found me, waving from the ship’s rail.
We looked at each other and grinned. I gave an exaggerated shrug. “Do you believe this?” I was still pinching myself over being chosen to help my company celebrate its 200th anniversary with a trip to England aboard this famous liner. My father gave an exaggerated shrug back, shaking his head. “No, I can’t believe it,” he seemed to say.
A huge blast sounded from the horn and we started pulling away. By degrees and inches, the distance between me and my father grew. Above, sea gulls called to each other. The air smelled briny and oily and sweet. Tug boats and sail boats and speed boats swirled around New York harbor. I watched my father grow smaller on the dock. I was touched he took time out of his work day in Long Island to see me off. As far as I know, he stayed till the ship disappeared from view.
We sailed past the gleaming towers of Manhattan, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and finally into the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. In my cabin that afternoon I found a bouquet of flowers from my parents wishing me “Bon Voyage.” Five days later, I arrived in Southampton, England safe and sound.
Thirty one years have passed since that September afternoon. The Queen Elizabeth 2 was retired in 2008. I now have two sons, almost the same age I was back then.
These days my father spends most of his time confined to a hospital bed in his home, weak and frail, unable to move. All his food must be pureed into unappetizing lumps to prevent choking. He must be hand-fed every morsel by my Mom or an aide. My father’s dependent on others for everything, including the most intimate details of his life.
Sometimes I think of that day when he and I waved goodbye to each other. Only this time that Bon Voyage is reversed. I’m on the dock and my father’s on the ship. But instead of the QE2, the vessel slowly pulling my Dad away is Parkinson’s Disease, taking him inch by inch, bit by bit, from the family and life he loves.
I picture him standing on the deck, giving a sad shrug. “Do you believe this?” he asks. I shrug back, trying not to cry. “No, Dad, I don’t.” Like that day the QE2 finally disappeared from my father’s sight, my father will someday disappear from mine.
I know this is part of getting older. And up till three years ago, my father led a good, happy, healthy life. So many people have gone through these hard times. Now its our turn.
And yet it doesn’t make things easier. Every time I see my father I tell him how much I love him.
And many times I’ve thanked him for showing up on that beautiful September afternoon… simply to wave goodbye.
(Postscript: My father passed away from Parkinson’s Disease in July, 2015).
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