Since his graduation from a <b>very</b> liberal arts college, he has taken a solo bike ride from Chicago to New York City (with almost no cash—he existed in at least some part on dumpster diving, the rest on the kindness of strangers), visited Guatemala, bought a school bus to drive through Mexico to sell, picked coffee beans in the mountains of Puerto Rico and then came up with the idea of going to sea. He’s always claimed <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moby-Dick" rel="wikipedia">Moby Dick</a> as his favorite book, but growing up in landlocked northern IL, the sea was not a passion easily pursued. This did not dissuade Stephen. He headed out with his friend, Will, who decided to move to Texas. Once there, he scanned that never fail source of all great ideas, craigslist, and found someone looking for a companion to escort him on his 37 foot sailboat on a trip “out of the country” and best of all <em>no experience necessary! </em>This was of course perfect, as <b>Stephen had NO experience</b>.
The boat needed lots of work, which Stephen took as another great life learning experience, and it was. He learned about electronics, and boat repair. He met cool people who were preparing larger sailboats for ambitious trips out to sea. This was lucky as they taught him about sailing, and in the end, probably saved his life. However, Stephen’s new compadre, Frank, was not quite the seasoned veteran he was claiming to be. He was…lots of things I would like to list in the format of words that would appear in the thesaurus under “crook”. Stephen insists that he was also convinced that life on in these United States was about to undergo a radical transformation that he did not want to be around to witness, and perhaps had….well, we disagree on this point. I would say Frank was someone who was “sipping the Kool Aid”. Certainly, he was planning to leave the United States and never come back. Thus his interest in finding someone like my son, who would have no interest in what was really going on, who really only wanted to learn to sail for free, and to get a free trip out of the deal.
Stephen convinced Frank that they should set sail for Puerto Rico, where his older brother and wife live, and that sounded fine to Frank, who had no place in particular in mind anyway. After six weeks of work on the boat, they both agreed that while there was a lot more to be done, they could do it later, and why not just get going? So they did. It was not until the back end of the hurricane caught them that leaving these “little details” that had been left to wait seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. Stephen was at the helm when the first huge wave, probably about 20 feet, hit. He did not know how to properly steer into such a wave, and they took on a tremendous amount of water, nearly going over. (Proper lessons on steering the craft in stormy seas also seemed like something that could be put off, right?) They lost all their electrical power. They lost their main mast, and their second sail. Frank and Stephen tied each other to the boat with rope (at least they had that!) and tried to use the manual bilge pump to get rid of water. This now critical device, a pump to remove the water from the boat, had not been checked out before leaving, and it failed almost immediately. For the course of the day and a half of the storm, they took turns bailing water by hand or fighting to hold the wheel steady. Both wore their hands raw from the work, but it was that, or die.
The only reason the boat did not break apart and capsize, despite the size of the waves, is because the waves did not “crest” or curl at the top. Still, it was remarkable that they did not die, and had Frank been alone, he most definitely would have. While listening to the song “<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wreck_of_the_Edmund_Fitzgerald" rel="wikipedia">The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald</a>” I’ve always felt chills. Now I feel horror. For two weeks we knew Stephen was missing in the vast Gulf, and feared the worst, but I really FELT he was alive. He said after the storm that he and Frank needed to continue to bail water and steer manually, but they were able to use the smallest sail to do a bit of directing, though it was painfully slow. They were covered in ash from an exploded bag of charcoal, and miserable. They would allow each other to sleep for one hour at a time, and it was the deepest sleep he ever felt. I swear I could feel him then.
Finally, they came up on a small island that is a sanctuary for birds near the Isla de Mujeres. The island is guarded by men of the Mexican Navy. They spoke no English and Frank and Stephen spoke little Spanish, yet they were able to communicate what had happened to them. The Navy men gave them rum and let them sleep, then directed them to the Isla. It took them what seemed forever to reach there, but they did. It was a Saturday morning, and though I had no idea I would be hearing from him, that morning I felt a surge of anger at this crazy son of mine. I wrote him an email demanding he come home and work and pay off his student loans. I was sure he would read it soon. And a few hours later I heard his voice, more tired and worn and <b> old </b>just impossibly OLD than I could imagine, apologizing to me for almost dying in the way I had feared he would, at sea, cold and scared, and with no way of knowing where his body was. But he was alive. I apologized for just hours before sending him an angry email, and we laughed about it. It is impossible to describe the relief and joy I felt to hear my son’s voice. Despite his independence and refusal to ever accept help, he allowed me to buy him a plane ticket, and a few days later he was safe with his brother and sister-in-law.
You would think the next time I saw him that I was wild with joy, or that I shook him and slapped him. I was not at either end of that. I was restrained, muted. I fear loving him as much as I do. Because he had my heart out in that sailboat with him, and it nearly drowned…what will he do to it next? This is what you really can’t tell someone about being a mother. How impossibly tied you become to a child that love. Stephen came home to me for awhile, to earn some money and pay off the student loans that I ranted about in those emails. He wanted to be completely debt free, so that he could be free and clear for whatever adventures beckon to him next. I will kiss him and hug him and send him forth with my blessings, and my heart tucked in his backpack. He thinks he travels light. That’s because he doesn’t know how much he is really taking with him.
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