This entry is part 14 of 25 in the series Cruising With the Mothers
With a whole day between parties, I’ve finally gotten back to work. In this chapter, the medical mystery takes additional form. I was initially inclined to leave it out altogether, but it was such a major part of my experience (and of life since), I decided I couldn’t tell the story without it.

Kris muttered a mild expletive, and I felt myself flush.

“Six-Six-Zero! Are you here?” said the crewmember.

Just barely audible above the din, two voices meekly replied. “Here.”

Kris and I laughed simultaneously. “They don’t sound too sure about it,” I said.

“Well, that’s a relief,” said Kris. “I thought we’d be organizing a search party.”

Once the attendance taking was done, the crowd was dismissed. Kris and I waited by the door until the moms appeared, looking perfectly adorable in their orange vests.

“We thought you were lost,” said Kris.

“Oh, no,” said my mother. “We just followed everybody else.”

“We couldn’t understand anything they said,” observed Pat, “and I couldn’t hear that man calling the numbers. I just hope we don’t have a real emergency.”

“If we do, it’ll be mothers first,” I said reassuringly.

“And their children,” added Kris.

I laid out a plan. “We sail at 5:00 sharp, and Garrison Keillor is throwing some kind of a party on the pool deck. Why don’t you put your life jackets back in the cabin, and then see if you can find your way to our place? We’ll have a little sail away treat on the verandah while we cast off, and then check out the party.”

“We’re in cabin 660,” said Kris. “Can you find it?”

I wrinkled my brow and gave her a look.

“What?” she asked.

“We’re in 220,” I said.

“Oh, whatever. You know what I mean.”

Back at the cabin, I retrieved my roll call nametag and stuck it on the door—as much for Kris’s benefit as for the mothers’. I had a bottle of champagne and four glasses ready to celebrate the moment we cast off.

With only a few minutes to spare, Pat and Laura knocked on the newly labeled door and were admitted. I ushered everyone out onto the verandah to watch the first phase of sail away. “I’ll give you fair warning,” I said. “When we sail, they’ll blast the horn and you’ll probably jump, so don’t stand too close to the railing.”

I borrowed an extra chair from the rear deck so we could all sit comfortably and be safe when the horn sounded. We relaxed in the warm afternoon sun, and my mother told stories of Boston as it existed in her youth (she grew up in Peabody, on the North Shore).

Pat recounted visits to her grandfather’s general store in New Brunswick, Canada, during her childhood. “He had black licorice ‘pipes’ in the penny candy section, and they were always my favorite. My Aunt Alvina sent me some every year until she died. I can’t find them anywhere in the states, so every time I go to Canada, I stock up.”

I almost forgot the reason we were there—until a glance at my watch produced a surprise. It was 5:20, and the ship hadn’t moved an inch. I walked to the rear of the verandah and craned my neck, only to see that Maasdam was still tied securely to the dock. No one on land was even looking at the ropes.

“The Captain must be having a snooze,” I said. “So much for punctuality. Maybe we should go up to the pool deck and check out the party.” The pool deck was right above us, and I hadn’t heard any activity up there. “Maybe the party is running late, too.”

“What about the champagne?” asked Kris.

“It’s supposed to be for sail away—I guess we’ll have it later,” I said.

We exited the cabin and climbed the aft stairs to the pool deck. Hundreds of people stood around, many with drinks in hand. I negotiated with a waiter for a “party punch” in a souvenir glass, which turned out to be a weak fruit juice concoction in a misshapen purple plastic tumbler. The ladies declined.

“Where’s the party?” I asked.

“I think we missed it,” said Kris “but there’s the host.”

Garrison Keillor has, as he is the first to admit, “a face made for radio.” He was standing in the middle of the crowd, head and shoulders above nearly everyone else. A long line of people stood waiting for a chance to greet him. I thought about the letter he’d written and sent to, I assume, everyone who was now on board. Maybe no one but me read it…

“…I look forward to meeting you and so do my colleagues. But we’ll all be a lot more comfortable together if we establish a policy of small-town equality right from the start.

Maybe it’s odd to meet people you’ve listened to on the radio, but imagine how I felt last month meeting Meryl Streep, a woman I’ve adored since The Deer Hunter—but I took a deep breath and called her Meryl and I didn’t tell her how much I admire her work and we got along well and so will we all on this cruise. We’re all kindred here and so we’ll dispense with the formalities and enjoy a week at sea.”

Photo courtesy of Joe Fliegel

I could just imagine the opening line that each person in the line used when his or her turn came; “I so admire your work, Mr. Keillor.” He stood there and passively took it all in, but I resolved not to violate his request if we should ever cross paths. I practiced a few opening lines in my head. “Yo, Gar—wassup? Howdy, Garrison—buy me a drink? GK, dude—howzit?” On further thought, I decided to simply avoid running into him…

Kris got the word from someone who’d been on time to the party that the ship was waiting for almost 80 people who were running late because of the airport and airline problems. Mr. Keillor—excuse me—Garrison insisted on it. I guess when you buy a ship for a week, you can have it your way. At one point, the crowd cheered and pointed skyward as a Northwest jet came out of the haze and made for the runway.

There wasn’t much happening on deck, so we soon departed. I finished my fruit punch and left the souvenir cup behind—I didn’t think it would go with our collection of McDonald’s cups.

“There’s a ‘Welcome Aboard’ show in the theater at 6:30,” I said, “but we’d have to dress for dinner first. That gives us about 20 seconds to decide.”

“I’m not unpacked yet,” said my mother. “My suitcase was delivered just before we left for your place.”

“The first show of a cruise is mostly advertising anyway,” said Kris. “We can live without it.”

“I’m just going with the flow,” said Pat.

I agreed with Kris’s assessment, and we planned to reconvene in our cabin at 7:30, or when the ship started moving, whichever came first.

Later reports said that while the first show did indeed contain some of the usual promotional material, Garrison and the cast performed at length—in fact, as we discovered, the ship’s regular performing staff got the week off and the show’s cast provided all the entertainment on board. It was during the first show that the basis for a running joke was established—Garrison forgot the tune to a song called Rolling Home to Old New England and had to get help from an audience member. We should have gone. Oh, well…

When I finally popped the champagne cork at 7:35, it was to celebrate our togetherness and the continued prospect that we would eventually take a cruise. Maasdam was still stationary. Finally, at about 8:15, a long blast of the ship’s horn pierced the growing darkness and we began to move. We watched from the verandah as the ship slowly backed her way out of the channel. We had moved a few hundred feet by dinnertime.

“Well, I really wanted to watch the whole sail away from the verandah, but we have a date for dinner,” I said.

“Next time,” said Kris. I filed that statement away to use as justification for a future trip.

I checked the cabin one more time to see if there was anything announcing a change to our table assignment. I found nothing, so we hiked down to the dining room and found our table. I ordered a bottle of wine, and was surprised when my mother accepted some. She’s always claimed that she doesn’t drink wine—the champagne must have had an effect on her. Our waiter was quiet and efficient, and we had a fine meal followed by a fine dessert. I did miss the strange thrill of meeting a group of perfect strangers over dinner, but we managed to maintain a lively conversation among the four of us for the duration. A number of tables were empty, which I found curious—but I didn’t let it diminish my appetite.

After coffee, we toured the public areas of the ship. There were several performances underway, but we didn’t commit to anything. I could sense an early night in the making. A young couple stood alone at the main desk. Pat overheard that they were the very last to board the ship, arriving without their luggage. “They were giving them toothbrushes and toothpaste and a few other things—can you imagine?”

The most striking sight that evening was the casino. Although people walked through it on the way from one place to another, absolutely no one was playing. The croupiers stood like soldiers at their tables, trying to make eye contact with the passers by. The slot machines flashed their lights and whooped noisily, to no avail. I stuck a dollar in a slot machine and promptly lost it, just to do my part in supporting the cruise line.

By 11:00, our group was straggling. I suggested a quick stroll on the promenade, and after an eighth of a lap, the moms dropped out and headed for dreamland. Kris and I made it to the aft section hoping for a view of the retreating civilization, but there was nothing except darkness and mist.

Back in the cabin, I took time to read through all of the literature. As I read, I became aware that my left eye was watering profusely. Kris noticed it, too.

“Are you sad?” she asked.

“I don’t know what it is,” I said. “My nose feels funny, too. I must be allergic to something.”

“You should have gone to the doctor,” Kris said.

“Bah. Hey, I just found this thing that says that I have to sign up at the main desk for Garrison’s writer’s workshop. I’ll have to go down first thing in the morning, before it’s filled up.”

Kris went to bed and was sawing wood in a matter of seconds. About 12:30, I climbed in and got comfortable, which was pretty easy. I’d say that the bed in our cabin had already been upgraded in HAL’s “Premium Plush Euro-Top mattress” program—if not, I’ll be glad to buy one of the old mattresses when they make the replacement. Cozy…

It took me a while to adjust to the ship’s motions. We were rocking side-to-side very gently, and there was a peculiar up and down “jiggle” that I attributed to the powertrain—almost like a propeller shaft was out of balance. According to my reading, Maasdam’s propulsion system had been rather troublesome in the months leading up to our trip, and I hoped that I wasn’t feeling the precursor to another failure.

I found myself in a dream, though I can’t tell you much about it. What I do remember is the remarkable intensity of the sensory components. My nostril was burning as though doused with acid, an extremely odd sensation. Then it felt as though someone stabbed me through the left eye, an incredible, piercing pain. As I struggled to consciousness, I found myself disoriented and confused, lying face down on something wet. Suddenly awake, I sat bolt upright.

It wasn’t a dream. It was real. A living nightmare…

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