I’d been circling the cruise ship looking for my family before I gave up and seated myself alone with a plate of cooked carrots, egg salad, lettuce, tomato and a glass of water. I was feeling sorry for myself. I don’t like eating alone. It makes me feel sad. I also was convinced no one was looking for me, which felt even worse.
“You were in the hot tub yesterday.” I turned my head towards the voice. Two seats over from me was a man who looked to be in his mid-60s, his face reddened from the sun. I scrunched my eyes at him and then I remembered.
“Oh. Right. Yeah,” I replied.
“Yeah, I was there with my grandkids and you were there with your kids,” he said.
“Right, I was. So you’re here with your family?”
“Yup. Here with my grandkids, my three daughters and my son-in-law. I’ve taken them on four cruises. But this is the last one.”
“Last one? Why? Had it with cruising?”
“No. I’ve had it with my family not being appreciative. I got one of my kids a brand new car and they said, ‘Thanks. I hate the color. Can you take it back?’ And this morning, I took my grandson mini golfing and he didn’t like how it was going so he threw his golf club down and left me there. My daughters, they, I dunno. It’s not that they disappoint me. I try to point them in the right direction. I say, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ Do they listen? Of course not. They do what they want. And then they get into trouble. So I learned a long time ago, don’t let people in too close. Like my grandkids. I love them to death, but I’ll always keep some space between us, because if I let them in too close, I’ll get hurt. Yeah. I learned that a long time ago.
"The other night on the boat my girls all took a picture together. They were all dressed up. They looked so beautiful! I had to fight like heck not to cry all over the place. I thought to myself, this is so beautiful! I felt so happy. I told them, ‘You gotta get me a copy. I need that picture!’ Because, you know, that picture looked like everything I ever wanted. And then my daughter told me the picture would be better if my son were in it. I told her, maybe someday. Maybe someday he’ll get it together and he’ll be in it. But for now, well, he’s in jail. It’ll be four years in May and then he’ll be out. I saw him once. Once. This past Christmas Eve I saw him. And I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe… maybe some kind of remorse. So he said all the right things, but I could tell from his body language he wasn’t remorseful. He wasn’t sorry. Maybe he’s been hardened from the whole thing. I dunno. But I know I wished he’d seemed sorry. More sorry then he acted anyhow.
"I grew up tough. Both my parents were tough. Lots of violence and yelling and that sort of thing. Not a lot of love in my house growin’ up. My daughter told me she didn’t want me to be involved with her kids the way my parents were with mine. My kids don’t remember them. When I was a kid, I barely saw my grandparents. You’d see ‘em once or twice a year and they’d take you out for a malted and you thought they were the greatest. It was really special because otherwise you never saw them. Once or twice a year – that was it.
"My youngest daughter, when she was just a little girl she got cancer. And that changes you. Let me tell you. That changes you in a second! And so I spoiled her. She was my little girl and she was my easiest and I spoiled her. I didn’t think I spoiled her too much, but I dunno. Then when she turned 17, in the first two minutes she met this boy and I said to her, in front of his face I said to her, ‘Really? Are you joking?’ But she was blinded by this guy and he said, ‘So? And? Who are you?’ And he stuck around. He stuck around until I got rid of him. It took me beating the guy silly.”
“He left?” I said.
“Yeah he left! He’s in jail! And he’ll be there for a long time. And I went to jail getting rid of him. I’ve done my job. I’ve done the best I can. It’s upsetting when your kids make the wrong choices. It’d be OK if it wasn’t for the worry.” He said.
“Well, people who don’t want to worry shouldn’t have kids, right?” I said.
“Yeah. That’s the truth. I wish I’d read that book before this all started.” Laughter.
“I know I’m a lot younger, I’m not a grandparent and you’ve had a lot more living than me for sure. But speaking to you as a daughter, I think if you go back to the moment you saw the picture of your girls, and you tell your girls how much love it brought up in you, that feeling will stick with them. You seem like a good man with your guard up for good reason. But I can tell you, hearing a dad say what you said to me, it means something. It can change things. It can make things better. It’s not too late for things to be different.”
“You know… geeze! I haven’t talked about this stuff in, I dunno… years! Well, I always say after the last family trip, ‘This is it!’ No more!’ But then halfway through the year my daughters start talking about a trip again and I say, ‘Eh, what the hell!’ and I give my oldest my credit card and tell her to plan it all. Then the bill comes, I pay it and everyone’s had a nice vacation. Like I said, I did the best I could. You’re a good listener. So, what’s your deal?”
I see my son about five feet from me at the dessert bar. I call him over with my other three kids trailing behind like ducks in a row. “Can I sit on your yap?” my daughter asks. “Yes, you can sit on my ‘yap.’” The man smiles and makes small talk with the kids for a few minutes before standing up to leave. “Well, I guess I’ll go find my family.” the man says. “It’s been a real pleasure talkin’ to you. A real pleasure…” And with a wink and a smile, he was gone.
Hand and hand go the joys and pains of life. No matter how hard we try to shore ourselves up, we get hurt, we get disappointed, we disappoint, we have regret. But living is about all that. It’s messy. And it’s wonderful. Sometimes we’re sitting alone, feeling sorry for ourselves when we realize we were never really alone at all. Sometimes you just need to make a little space at your table for a stranger to be reminded. To be reminded that hope floats.