It is inevitable, this bus ride down the sunless highways of New England. Southward to the airport where bags in hand the next three months of my life will begin. This is the dreaded commute filled with a numbness I’ve cultivated from a young age. A commute filled with acceptance of the unescapable reality that has shaped the lives of mariners for centuries. Filled with goodbye hugs and sad text messages. Filled by reluctance and anticipation.
At a young age I remember my dad disappearing into the sky over Maine. My mother would pull the van to the side of the road along the runway and there we would watch my dad’s plane lift off the ground. I remember the seabag he would pack, a massive black navy style seabag big enough to fit all four of the kids which he joked about doing so he could bring us to sea. There would be socks and underclothes, razors and shaving cream and a brown briefcase with his license. That was about all that filled the nearly empty bag that drifted down the conveyor and disappeared through the wall.
Those goodbyes were hard on my mom as were the next three or four or six months raising four boys in the woods. Knowledge of these goodbyes were the only reason for which I hesitated following in the same path to work at sea. Yet the education and then the job felt so right I forced myself to ignore how hard these mornings are and learned to deal with it numbing myself a little each time until I could at least get back on the boat and see the open ocean.
Change is inevitable. When it involves leaving all that is good in my life at least I have the time to prepare. I do this in two ways, one of which I realize is hard for some of my friends to understand. “Why aren’t you going surfing today?” A friend asked the other morning. I couldn’t blame him for not understanding why cleaning my apartment and wrapping up all the loose ends was more important than enjoying my last 72 hours of freedom on dry land or in the surf.
Yet this is how I deal with leaving an empty home. I clean it thoroughly, unplug all the appliances, lock the windows and secure the systems. I leave it like a mothballed ship ready for reactivation as soon as I return for the comfort of knowing my home is clean and waiting, my business completed and my life on hold, allows me to better keep moving forward and to tackle the impending voyage at sea.
The other way I deal with the change is to pack. Unlike my old man’s nearly empty sea bag I attempt to bring every comfort I might need with me to sea. With the luggage limitations, and the green impression a massively overpacked bag brings with it to a ship, I have gotten better about packing lighter and leaving as much gear on the ship as possible. Still, it would be a lie to say my duffel didn’t contain a bottle of Vermont maple syrup, a pound of Starbucks coffee and enough Tom’s of Maine toothpaste to last a year.
Packing in itself has become a chore I dislike as much as these predawn departures orchestrated by a penny pinching company reluctant to pay for direct daytime flights. Even after years of practice it is a stressful affair feeling as if I’ve missed something, some article without which I will not be as prepared as I should be. Even on the bus I feel like something must have been forgotten sitting on the kitchen table or the bureau. Perhaps it’s just the knowledge that once I’m hurling down the road towards the airport there’s no turning back and if I ever did forget something, like a passport or my eye glasses, I’d just be plain old screwed, blued and tattooed.
Cleaning, packing, commuting. They are a few of the challenges involved in seafaring but they hardly compare to saying goodbye. It’s leaving the people, the friends and the family, that make this commute so brutal. The mornings we watched my dad’s plane fly away, something which my mom would learn not to do with time, were heavy events. Nothing has changed from then to now except that I’m the one saying goodbye and there are no children involved (At least not my own).
No matter how many reassurances that cheap satellite phone calls and internet connectivity are a blessing to long distance relationships there is nothing to fill that physical void left when you leave someone (Very) unique and close to you behind. Just as this bus increases the distance between two people it also increases the time apart and this is a burden unlike any other I know in relationships. It has to be true that no other wife, husband or partner knows any greater sacrifice than that which is required to love a sailor. Not even soldiers will spend as much time away in isolated places doing dangerous work.
As the bus passes by the sleeping homes of Boston and I am furthered on my way to meet the ship there are two additional things which I carry with me that bring more comfort than all the maple syrup I could pack. One is having work to return to on a good vessel with excellent management and therefore a means to a living. The other is knowing that someone is waiting for my return. The two most important things I have.