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.
But the experience gave me doubt, for a sleepless night, that I could pull off this trip to Alaska, as green as we are and as frail as Irish sometimes seems to be. Then we spend another few wonderful days preparing, buying supplies, and Irish studies the weather and the route and the tides, and I think, “We can do this!”
But her frailty frightens me. What if I’m wrong? What if this trip is too hard, too demanding? She lost an eye while we were tied to the dock. What if she suffers another injury when we are hours or days from help? What if she falls off the boat and dies?
The trip up to Sidney to haul the boat for bottom paint flagged another warning. In the hour before we hit the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we were filling the fresh water tanks when I heard the bilge pump kick on. I opened the floor and saw water streaming from … someplace. I put my finger into the stream and tasted it — fresh, not salt. I tracked the stream back to a closet, where I’d removed a crucial valve that hadn’t seemed to matter at the time.
We stopped filling the tank (it was overfull, after all) and I found the valve, which I had not thrown away.
But then, while trying to transfer fuel from the port tank to the starboard tank, fuel shot from the vent. The gauges were wrong, I didn’t have a quarter tank to transfer, but only about five gallons. I killed the pump and put paper towels down to keep the fuel out of the harbor, but the cockpit deck was still quite slippery.
I also failed to adequately secure the dinghy, which began to swing back and forth as soon as we hit water rougher than we expected.
Irish’s anxiety ballooned, and I didn’t help things at all when I grew frustrated with her fear.
“You’re right, it’s all a sign from God that we shouldn’t make the trip. We’re likely to die.”
“Thanks,” she said in the flat voice that appears when I’ve hurt her feelings.
So, guilt for my thoughtless words piled onto the embarrassment of my sloppy preparation. And there were hours still to go.
“Take the helm,” I told her, then lay on my belly across the transom to tie the dinghy more securely to the stern.
She took the helm, but was trying to steer by using the moving map on our iPad instead of looking out at the sea. The lines on the map do not line up with her internal GPS, so when we needed to turn toward starboard, she’d swing the boat to port. The seas were heavier than expected and there were rip tides that spun us about. This was not the most auspicious beginning of our first trip since last October.
It was also our first trip since Jane fell, smashed her face and lost an eye. But I was the one who was blind.
I thought we were fine. I thought by having her walk on and off all those boats in Seattle before we came back to Foxy, I’d made things better. And she made me think things were better than they actually were, because she’s afraid that she might come in second if I had to choose between being on the boat or being with her.
“Erik! You have to take the wheel!” she said after the whorls started to swing the bow toward the rocks on shore, faster than she could adjust.
I started to give instruction on how to read the moving map, then stopped. The look on her face told me that this was obviously not the time.
When we turned into Haro Strait, the waters calmed, the wind was behind us, and we were able to treat the cockpit sole so it was no longer a hazard. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, except for a misreading of rock warnings for channel markers. But we made it without further incident, and spent the next few days doing major work on the boat.
The trip south was a cake walk by comparison. The water was flat, the day languid. Until I suggested a change of course, a short-cut traverse between an island and the mainland.
Irish’s anxiety level ratcheted up as if pulled by a winch. She didn’t want to change course. It wasn’t something she could identify, but the uncertainty of an on-the-fly course correction caused near panic.
I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t try as hard as I might. We took the long way around. I worried how this reluctance to explore might affect Alaska.
The root of anxiety didn’t snap into focus until two months later, when we were in Portland with the Dr. Loyo, the surgeon who rebuilt Irish’s face. During her regular questions, Dr. Loyo asked Irish how she was doing with everything.
“It’s mostly fine,” said Irish.
“She’s fine until she isn’t, then she’s not,” I added, trying to prod Irish into being honest with her doctor.
“I’m reminded of the fall every time I rub my left eye, my good eye, and the world disappears. Or when I smile, or move my face, or blink and feel the titanium plates you used to fuse my face back together,” Irish added, struggling to hold it together.
The doctor was immediately sympathetic. She recognized this reaction..
“When people suffer severe trauma, especially to the face, the brain doesn’t just remember, it relives the experience at some level. This is a common situation. I’m going to give you the name of a therapist.”
It was as if a secret was out. A combination of relief and pain brought Irish to tears.
So did the visit with Dr. Perry, the surgeon who removed her eye.
“What do think about how you are doing?” he asked.
“Do you want me to answer …” I asked Irish with a smile.
“Do I think I can be honest?” she smiled back. She knew I was trying to help, and let me believe I was helping. She told him that she wasn’t too happy with the droop of her damaged eye, that it was difficult to see what she saw in the mirror.
“I think we can do better,” said Dr. Perry. He described what he saw as the problem, and the fix: a small surgery to place a bit of support under the socket. Maybe an hour long, likely on an out-patient basis.
Irish cried again, this time from knowing that what she had been living with could be and soon would be better.
Dr. Perry was going to be leaving Oregon, but his replacement, the man who “wrote the book” on the type of surgery she had, would do a good job, he said..
But Irish (and I) have bonded with Dr. Perry, and Irish decided to have him finish this before he left town. The only appointment that could be made was in July. Right when we were supposed to enter Alaska. She made that appointment, and I agreed. The sooner the better. This has been a burden..
And another contact was made, with the therapist recommended by her facial surgeon, to deal with the post traumatic stress of her fall.
What was I thinking, that climbing aboard a few boats would end, or even erode, the trauma of what she’s been through since last December? She’d been putting up such a wonderful facade for everyone, and especially me.
Everyone tells her how amazing and brave she is, being back on the boat, willing to continue with the plan to go to Alaska. But Irish is afraid, and all this while she’s been facing the double, or triple, terror:
“What if I can’t do it? What if I fall? What will Erik do if I can’t do this? Will I die?”
The questions lurk like glances of a stalker. But we are heading to Alaska this week. Irish will go as far as Ketchikan, then fly back to Portland for her surgery, then recuperate for a few weeks.
Her best friend is coming up to take care of her for the first few days, and our neighborhood “back home” has made it clear she will not be neglected.
I will continue north, if I can find crew. The plan, as of now, is for Irish to join me back in Ketchikan for the trip south. We will be apart for a month for the first time since we’ve been together. This raises its own spectres, on many levels.
“It just dawned on me,” Irish said a few days ago. “This is the ‘Trip to Alaska,’ and I’m going to miss the Alaska part,”