Repetitive farewells to fellow cruisers contrast sharply with an unexpected death in my circle of friends.
A final zodiac ride back to the ship from the last excursion ashore: happenstance boat-mates exchange meaningful glances. A last nightly briefing from the cruise director at the pre-dinner get-together: small groups of friends make a point of sitting together and raise their glasses in bittersweet toasts. A last shipboard dinner: new acquaintances who might yet become friends linger over coffee, just a little unwilling to let go. One last zodiac ride, one more bus ride: standers-in-line at the airport gate, jostled together without respect to connections established, smile without speaking.
And so we reach the start of the end. The group that came together nine days ago for a tour of the Galapagos gradually disperses. Some stay in the islands for a few days of scuba diving. Some peel off in Quito’s international airport, headed for Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu. We’re in the largest group, headed back into Quito for one night before launching for home.
One more bus ride, one more milling-about in the hotel lobby: folks make slightly anxious plans to meet for dinner. A come-whenever-you-want farewell dinner sees comings and goings over the course of an hour: people without definite plans to hook up the next day wave as they go by, or come over to the table to shake hands or hug someone.
A final day full of chance encounters in the hotel lobby and at the nearby attractions: informal dinner groups coalesce and then break up with more hugging. One final milling-about in the lobby of those with similar flight schedules, one last bus ride to the airport: couples say goodbye quickly on the sidewalk and then are unceremoniously swallowed up by the airport.
But our leave-taking is not done yet. Several sets of cruise travellers are also flying Delta: standing in the check-in line, we discuss our snowbird experiences with permanent Phoenix residents. Nor does check-in mark the end. Two other sets of travellers are on our flight to the Atlanta hub. As the countdown to the midnight departure proceeds, we sit apart at the gate by mutual if unspoken agreement, done with talking to people we don’t really know, but smiling and nodding when they go by.
Six hours later, feeling and looking like death warmed over after our red-eye flight, we straggle through immigration and another security check just behind one set of our cruise cohort: we mutter together about security theatre.
And now, surely, it is done. All 98 passengers from the ship are off on the next phase of their adventure, or homeward bound. Yet as I head off to find a bookstore, leaving carry-on bags in the Big Guy’s custody, I see a set of familiar faces coming toward me down the concourse. We all smile one last time, a tad fixedly.
Boarding the plane for the next leg of my own way home, I try to count the number of leave-takings in the last two days. I give up, and settle for leave-taking events, which I figure at about ten. For the degree of connection achieved in a one-week cruise, even one based on shared interests in nature and photography, this is ample, I feel. Maybe even excessive.
Finally arriving home in late afternoon, exhausted but unwilling to disrupt my biorhythm any further by going to bed at this hour, I start going through my email backlog. My perusal is idle, as befits my mental state. But as I clear out the underbrush of exciting commercial offers, a more personal subject line catches my attention: an old friend and former colleague in Edmonton has died while we were away.
Stunned, I think back to our last meeting, late last November. The leave-taking was, as always, quick and casual. Good to see you; see you next time we’re out.
Stunned, I wonder how it is that the connections from a one-week cruise end in ten self-conscious leave-takings, but a twenty-three-year connection ends in a strip-mall parking lot outside a fish-and-chips shop, with a cold wind cutting short any chit-chat. Good to see you; see you next time we’re out.
Reading the email, I don’t regret our absence: there was no warning of the end, no missed opportunity to say goodbye. I don’t regret the speed of his going: I would not buy a chance to say goodbye at the cost of a lingering death for him. I don’t even regret the bare fact, or not unduly: at 87, he had full measure.
But I regret that with him I didn’t have—or take—just one of the farewell chances that abounded on the cruise, with its time-certain end. A chance to exchange a meaningful glance, to raise a glass, or to linger over coffee. A chance to acknowledge the coming, albeit unscheduled, end. A chance to say goodbye.