Anchor

By Erik Dolson

The marina where we’d gone to do repairs cost more per month than the mortgage on my home. Parties down the dock were too long and loud. We’d been sprayed with water by a young man washing the boat next to us, and he was belligerent when we objected.

It was time to go. Irish wanted a quiet day on the boat before we headed south, and so did I. Besides, crab season had opened and she had a license! Continue reading Anchor

Shower stalls

By Erik Dolson

A sailboat is a world of small spaces. If the boat doesn’t have a water maker, fresh water is precious and saved mostly for drinking and cooking and (efficiently) washing dishes. Showers are further down the list, so sailors often shower on shore if a nearby marina has facilities.

Taking a shower in a marina has challenges. Here are a few tips.

First, give up any idea you want to be “presentable in public” while walking up the dock. You are on your way to the shower, and that’s how you look. Continue reading Shower stalls

Who’s blind?

By Erik Dolson

We were back on the boat at the end of December, planning for a New Years celebration in Victoria. The fireworks had been cancelled, or were never scheduled, but we didn’t know that and didn’t really care. We were on the boat and with friends.

Irish’ last doctor’s visit had been great. Her left eye had improved after the injection of steroid. (I held her hand, but could not watch.) While it was impossible to know if the methotrexate was effective, signs were positive even if her vision wasn’t improving much past 20/30, even with the new glasses we bought her last summer. Continue reading Who’s blind?

Push

By Erik Dolson

I have been asked to participate in a forum on Parkinson’s in Washington, D.C. next month,” Irish said one morning in February. “They want us to talk with members of Congress.”

“That’s wonderful. You’d be great. I think you should,” I replied.

“They’re willing to pay travel expenses for me and a caregiver. Want to go?”

“Um, no. A hotel room for five days isn’t …”

“Three days, we travel there on Sunday and back on Thursday…” Continue reading Push

“It’s Stable”

Fishing for salmon, January 14, 2018. Photo by Joan Newman

By Erik Dolson

“Not exactly romantic,” I said at Christmas when Irish tore open the botched wrapping on her last gift under the tree.

“It is, because it shows you were listening,” said Irish.

She’d become addicted to fishing after hooking salmon in Canada and Alaska last summer. I’d heard enthusiasm in her voice when she talked about fish finders with her friend and salesperson and fish guru in Victoria. So, I got her a fish finder. It broadcasts a Wifi signal to the note pad we’d won the Christmas before with the lights on our boat.

Continue reading “It’s Stable”

Just working on the boat

by Erik Dolson

The trip to Victoria started twice. I left on Wednesday, just as Irish got a call from one of her docs in Portland. They wanted her to come in for an injection of corticosteroids behind her remaining eye. I asked if she wanted me to stay, and after a short laugh that was not funny, she told me to go, she’d be okay.

So I headed over the Cascade mountains. Two hours later I arrived at my favorite pit stop, oatmeal cookie and cup of coffee at Rosie’s Mountain House Cafe. I’d already decided I needed to go back. I could have turned around sooner but I’d invested myself pretty heavily in this trip. There was a to-do list for the boat. It took a while for the needed-to-do to break through the wanted-to-do.

The boom vang and backstay ram, hydraulic pieces that push and pull to move the sail, had to be sent off for rebuild. The toilet had to come out and get replaced. The batteries needed to be checked and the charger sorted out. In the blink of an eye it will be spring and too late to get these done before sailing season.

Part of my brain said these were what I needed to do, but it was lying to me, as it often does. Two or three days would not matter. What I needed to do was get back to Sisters so Irish wouldn’t feel so alone with the prospect of someone slipping a needle into the back of her good eye, a procedure they don’t do unless necessary and the fact that it was necessary carries its own set of terrors.

So I drove back over the mountain to Sisters and we left on Friday for Portland where she had the procedure. Of course she withstood it well, and was kind of funny on Xanax. I drove on toward Victoria after it was done, and two days later one of her sons drove Irish part way back to Sisters and a friend from there drove her the rest of the way.

I’d not yet completely realized that vangs and toilets and batteries were only part of the reason for my trip to the boat in Victoria. I also needed the break. I didn’t really realize that until I was standing on the dock a week later with friends Irish and I up here in Canada. I’d just put Christmas lights on Foxy. It was almost exactly one year after Irish fell on the boat, crushed her face and lost her right eye.

“This year has been very hard for you, too,” said Joan.

“I don’t talk about that,” I replied almost before I knew it. “If I think about it, I feel either sad or selfish.” I  was shocked that came out as quickly as it did, stopping only to throw a pinch of pepper into my eyes on the way. I swallowed hard, pulled it together, hoped thy didn’t notice.

“Of course,” she replied and let it drop because she and her husband are sensitive and sweet and have the wonderful manners we enjoy so much being around Canadians.

I pulled the hydraulic pieces off the boom and back stay, but couldn’t remove the hydraulic pump or tachometer without another pair of hands. I was only an assistant for removal of the nasty old toilet and install of the new one. That job required someone who had the tools and knowledge to cut fiberglass without it looking like a seven-year-old tried it for the first time, which sometimes happens with my projects.

Some changes to the boat seem small. Toilet is a toilet, right? No, not right. Most marine toilets are complicated double action pumps with rods that leak saltwater or worse and flapper valves that allow black water back into the bowl and two-piece bowls that have to be occasionally retightened which you only find out when they get nasty. Saltwater also stinks when it sits in the supply lines for any length of time.

Irish takes care of every other inch of the boat, but the bathroom is mine to clean. Fair trade off, it seems, especially with floor drains. Just like a guy would, I spray soap everywhere with a squeeze bottle, scrub it with a deck brush and hose it out with the shower wand.

But salt water and urine together form crystals that clog the hose to the holding tank unless you take the hose out and bang it on the deck or a dock or a rock or whatever is handy. Or run powerful muriatic acid through the line regularly and hope it doesn’t dissolve anything important on the way. Taking the hose out of this boat is guaranteed to spill foul contents somewhere impossible to clean.

So I bought a Levac, a toilet one third as complicated and three times more expensive. One big pump, a little vacuum, and off the black water goes to the holding tank. I took the old toilet to a recycling center where I paid $25 for them to take it off my hands.

Somewhere in there I also decided the banging of hoses or splashing of acid weren’t the best alternatives, either.  Some boats use freshwater to flush, but fresh water is precious on a boat without a water maker. So I designed a little system to use gray water from the shower and sink to flush the toilet. No salt, no crystals.

Gray water also has the little bit of soap the toilet maker says to run through their system once in a while, and the water goes overboard, anyway. Why not use it twice?

It took a couple of tries, but the system came together and works pretty well. I’ll have to get used to seeing gray soapy water in the toilet bowl, but after all, it is a toilet bowl. Maybe I’ll get one of those little floral tablets that turns the water blue. Or not. If I’ve overlooked an obvious design flaw, the saltwater supply sits capped next to all the new piping.

Work like that takes me out of myself. I’m focused on the project, solving problems, putting puzzles pieces together. Problems and puzzles that don’t hurt, that actually have solutions.

When not working on the boat, finishing up the new novel Indecent Exposure, I run to the gym to lift weights. After three weeks I’m back to eating yoghurt and oats in the morning and one other meal mostly of meat in the evening, which seems to work for my metabolism because my weight is down and acid reflux much improved.

Irish needs to eat about six times a day because of complications from her Parkinson’s disease. She can’t eat the protein and fat I thrive on, but needs the carbs that can kill me.

Tomorrow I take the ferry from Victoria back to the states. Irish has asked if I’m ready to come back, if I want to come back. Yes. She’s going back to the doctor on tomorrow and I’ll be there for this visit, too, maybe for another injection into the back of her good eye in the attempt to save it, and save Irish from going blind.

The answer isn’t that simple, but it still boils down to yes. That’s one other reason I needed this trip, besides working on toilets and hydraulics. In the time away and the doing of that work, I got to do a little work on me, too. It’s more than just a boat, now.

Puppy Love

by Erik Dolson

A month ago, Irish let slip that she’d been looking at puppies. Australian Shepherds. I cocked an eyebrow. That’s all. Loving a puppy is soul food, and after the last three weeks, Irish is close to starving. But the thought made me take a long, deep breath. Again.

Irish is afraid, and I don’t blame her. There are hundreds of what she calls “starlings,” aka “floaters,” in the field of vision in her remaining eye. There is also a cloudiness. Something is not right. Irish pushed up by a full month an appointment with her doctor in Portland because she was worried.

Good thing.

After an exam, her ophthalmologist said, “This is a much different situation than when you were here eight weeks ago.” Dr. Davis sent us directly up the hill, back to Casey Eye Institute. The news was not good. Her body is rejecting her good eye as a foreign invader. Sympathetic Ophthalmia. 

“Half of all patients will have 20/40 or worse vision and one third of all patients will end up legally blind from Sympathetic Ophthalmia…” according to the literature.

Irish loves dogs. Me too. Dogs seek us out, as if they know there’s nothing we’d rather do than give a kind word and scratch around their ears. But I’ve avoided having a dog since my sweet Australian Shepherd ended up on the other side of the divorce ledger. Irish moved away from her dogs to move in with me.

There was less than one-tenth of one percent that Irish would suffer sympathetic ophthalmia. But she’s not had the best luck in life.

She lost a marriage she’d sacrificed to save, and then most of the money they didn’t really have. She lost a job she loved after a corporate take-over, and later, Parkinson’s took her ability to work because she gets scattered, and can read only minutes at a time.

Then she fell on the boat and crushed the right side of her face and lost her right eye.

Then her beloved father died. Then she lost a battle with Social Security for disability payments in a bizarre, soulless system. Now her left eye is threatened by Sympathetic Ophthalmia, a one-in-a-thousand condition where her body is rejecting her good eye because she spilled a few proteins when she fell and the other eye burst as the socket was crushed.

Australian Shepherds are wicked smart, intensely loyal, and become part of a family. They know. Dogs like that deserve the love and loyalty they are so ready to give. Traveling for months at a time, and now living half-time on a boat, doesn’t leave room for a dog.

Irish asks if I can love “an unemployed miscreant with only one eye – who has to take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of her life?”

She needs my help to stand against this avalanche of … of … what? Bad Luck? That so diminishes what she’s been through. She doesn’t believe it’s right to ask “Why me?” so I will. What in hell did this woman do to deserve half of what she’s been through, just in the two years I’ve known her?

“I don’t really like giving dogs people’s names,” she said while showing me pictures of Sam, a black and white tricolor Australian from a breeder near our home on land. At first I turned away, wary of assault by cute.

“I know we can’t have a dog, it doesn’t fit right now.” So I looked as she scrolled through photographs of the breeders stock of pups. I thought Sam looked like a great dog, too.

“Can you love me?” she asks, sometimes wordlessly when she comes to sit in the chair across from where I’m reading, or aloud as I pass her on my way into the kitchen.

l could say yes, easily. I’m a wordsmith, and I could float her a “yes,” light as a birthday balloon colored bright pink or robin’s egg blue and just as festively happy-making. She would take it and marvel that it is just for her.

But I can’t. Because it’s true. I can love her. I do love her. She wakes up chatty and cheerful nearly every damn day. Who has the strength to do that? She works around the house and accepts life on the boat that nearly killed her, she keeps me warm at night. We laugh often, cry seldom, harp at each other almost never. Of course I love her, and that should be the easiest thing in the world to say.

But I’m afraid, afraid of many things, and this is a Russian doll question. Inside “Can you love me?” is the obvious “Do you love me?” And inside that is yet another question, “Are we forever?” and inside of that, “Will we be married?”

Even if the answer is “yes” to one and “I don’t know,” to another, that’s a no to her, and to answer one “no” is to answer them all no, so I pause, to think about all of it and to breathe. She takes the pause as rejection.

She may be blind in the next six months. That will change priorities, and sooner than Parkinson’s, which we both now face with denial. So I rescheduled the trip to New Orleans I’d promised her, shifted it from January to this November, because time is not our friend when there is so much to see.

Then money got tight. Trip postponed. She is so understanding, but I feel guilt and sadness.

Maybe a puppy is not such a bad idea. Maybe if I loved her enough, the boat would be gone and a puppy would be sleeping right now in the crook of her elbow as she naps on the couch.

She is tired. Fatigue is another enemy. We went dancing last weekend, and she pretended to have a good time long after she was exhausted and ready to go home.

“Can you love me?” So simple. Of course I can, of course I do. I could pretend certainty of the future, float a pink balloon to her and say yes, to all the hidden questions, yes. YES! But love is liquid, it is energy, it is a scent of the divine, and the more tightly we grasp at vaporous love, the faster it squeezes from our fingers.

I should tell her that I will be here for her, care for her forever, whatever the sacrifice, that I signed on for Parkinson’s and unemployment and blindness and I want to disengage from all future plans I’d made for this time, before we met. YES! I’ll do this for her and happily, with a glad heart! Because she wants nothing not given with a glad heart.

That is, finally, the only “yes” that would count. Maybe a puppy would not be a bad idea. So I pause to ask myself if I am willing to do that, or if I’m just being overly dramatic. Maybe we stay here, where she’d rather be anyway, adopt a puppy and see what happens. But that wasn’t the dream so I pause, to breathe and to ask myself if I could live so without resentment.

I question myself and see her brightness, her smile, her laughter recede, leaving behind the cruel irony that these things I love and cherish in her most are taken away by her need to ask the question and my inability to answer.

As if she needed one more cruel irony in life. What did she do to deserve any of this? Good smart cute Catholic girl who worked hard and tried to do right. The diseases that cause migraines and cramps in her toes and arms and legs, and take her balance, and muffle words that she works to find, now, that used to spill out of her like bright and brassy multisyllabic music. The fall and fractured face, and now her eyesight? Are you fucking kidding me?

After all this, she won’t ask the question asked often in the Bible, “why me?” God replied, “You won’t understand.” We don’t understand. There are no mortal answers, no moral answers either.

So, she leans on me, and I wobble. I ask for a moment, and she feels rejected. I am distracted, she feels alone. I am exhausted, she feels I’m disinterested. I ask for air, she thinks I want her to leave. I ask her to dial back the reactions, that sometimes I am just distracted, exhausted, unbalanced, and in need of a breath. This makes her heart hurt, and she’s afraid.

When she asks me about the future, I ask if she wants me to rid us of boat and racing and adventure so we can be here, where it’s safe, where I can be here for her, maybe with a puppy, she says no, of course not.

She means it, but she’s wrong. She has the curse of the romantic. A cynic gives up hope’s warmth to avoid freezing disappointment, while the romantic lives in hope that sometimes requires cognitive dissonance.

She wants me to want to give up these frivolities. If I love her, I will want to give them up, because she would do the same for me without a second thought. These are not who I am, as I always thought, they are just what I do, which will inevitably become what I did at some point, why not now? But love, love is forever.

She doesn’t want anything not given with a glad heart, and if I fear the transaction then I am not the man she thought I was, because he wouldn’t hesitate.

The kennel is not that far away, and she’d like to see if it’s clean and safe and full of safe love, not to adopt a puppy now, of course, but so she can know whether or not this is where she should look three years from now, whenever.

I finally ask her to stop taking me down this slippery slope, because it hurts every time I have to tell her now is not the time for a puppy, that I feel guilty that I am keeping her from puppy happiness, that I’d like to feel that small bundle of furry frolic and raise a puppy too, but now is not a good time, so please, stop, please stop. She says she will.

She is made vulnerable by the twisted ironies of her life, and now by me. I’m vulnerable because she is. I’ve always craved adventure, but maybe adventure is just a way of forgetting, of running away.

All this inside the question, “Can you love me?” Maybe I just need to say “of course I love you” in a way that gives her exactly what she needs in this moment. In this moment, it’s true. Perhaps it will always be true, but still might not be enough to keep me from mourning past dreams.

She sits at her desk writing, as I sit in this chair, writing. She writes of sadness and loss. The 50 milligrams of prednisone added to her tiny body each day, and the anti-rejection chemotherapy she injects into her belly skin once a week, no doubt heighten her anxieties.

I have no excuses.

Where to start… ?

By Erik Dolson

Dawn in my Treehouse feels warm, secure, and surreal. A mile away, from a neighbor’s marijuana field, wind generators fend off frost with a pulsing beat like that of helicopter blades. The fridge hums making cold and the coffee pot clicks with heat while sending a fat burbling stream steaming into the glass carafe.

My ears also ring from damage by 427 inch motors howling too close, or the squall of a 4-cylinder diesel engine inches from my head in the confined space beneath the cockpit of the boat. Or maybe from chainsaws while cutting up firewood decades ago. Or rock concerts from decades before that.

Or maybe my ears just echo with waves of compressed time. It’s that kind of morning.

It’s good to be back in the Treehouse. No, it’s not really a treehouse, but the living room on the high second floor is mostly windows that look out into green branches of juniper and pine on a hilltop surrounded by mountains. It feels to me like a treehouse so that’s what I call it. The outside is built of rusting steel, the inside done in golds and yellows and copper. I was cold when I built it a decade ago so I built it warm in fact and in feel.

It’s been almost a year since Irish and I took the boat north to Victoria, spent most of the winter there, then on to Alaska and back. An intense, at times frightening, awe-inspiring, cold, frustrating, rewarding, year. The boat now sits on her buoy, rotating on twice-a-day tides, drawing one and one-half amps an hour from an 800 hour battery bank.

I need to get some solar panels so that I don’t kill the batteries. But to do that I need a place to put the panels, and so I need to build the hard-top, which I’ve designed and redesigned and then redesigned, but to install the hard top I need to move the boom up eight inches, which means I need to get the sail cut …

The coffee pot just beeped three times to tell me it’s done keeping the coffee hot and if I want another cup, I’d better get a move on. That’s a good reminder about being in the moment, this moment, here in the Treehouse.

Alaska was tough on Irish, but she was tougher. She not only had to deal with the fear of being on the boat that tried to kill her last December and took her right eye, but then had to leave the Alaska trip for follow-up medical visits back in Oregon. While she was gone there were two different female crew members on board she had never met and no way to communicate assurances and all that. It was tough. Then the push back to Friday Harbor, almost a thousand miles, to see my daughters off to Japan.

Social Security denied her application for benefits. Parkinson’s, Fibromyalgia, nor the loss of an eye and inability to read did not convince the agency that Irish was disabled. They assert she should continue as a project manager running multi-person teams developing assessment data for America’s students. They understand neither her condition nor her work, or don’t care.

There were times I didn’t think Irish would make it on the boat. When she didn’t seem to remember that she was not supposed to get off the boat while it was moving. When she set the fender too high and we hit the dock — a depth perception problem from having only one eye. When she couldn’t see the log we hit that took out our water speed gauge, the result of seeing through a cloud of what she called her “starlings,” the mass of floaters in her good eye.

She’d been complaining of seeing spots. We had the eye examined in May before leaving, didn’t get many answers but some assurances they would fade with time. The eye was examined again in July when Irish was in Portland for an eye “realignment.” Again, nothing serious.

But Irish was concerned enough when we got back that she moved an appointment set for the end of October up to the middle of September. Good thing. “Cobblestones” at the edge of the retina. Cloudiness around the optic nerve. “So much different than July!” said her doctor, who then referred us to another doctor, who then referred us to a third, all in the same day. Glad we were at Casey Eye Institute where there were many experts.

The chance was only .05 percent that her body would try to reject her good eye after the damage from the fall, but that’s the most likely explanation of what’s going on. They’re going to rule out TB and other diseases that could be the cause of inflammation, but it seems that rejection is most probable. Now she has eye-drops, next week huge doses of systemic steroids, then immune-suppressant drugs probably for a lifetime.

No tears, no panic. We’re both probably in a state of shock. But this could change a few things. We’ll be doing a few calendared events a little sooner. A birthday-present trip to New Orleans may be celebrated a little earlier than planned.

But right now, she can still see and is on a couch not far from this chair. Outside some birds are loudly cheering the 30 pounds of feed I hung in the juniper below the huge windows that let warm sun pour into this room. I’ll ask Irish if I can get her another cup on my way to the coffee pot.

PTSD

By Erik Dolson

It may have been arrogant, or maybe just thoughtless. Selfish is another possibility. I took too much pride in having Irish climb on and off boats before we even made it back to Foxy. But I really thought we (I!) had moved us past the trauma of Irish’s fall.

Yes, we’d had trouble moving the boat away from the pump-out station, but the next day I rationalized our being pinned to the dock as the result of an unobserved flood tide and tight quarters. Continue reading PTSD