After our return to Depot Bay on Tuesday, August 25th, I received an email from my wife saying that my father had died at 4:30pm the previous day. He was 93 years old.
At that time we on Arctic Tern had just arrived at our most remote location to date. The closest airport was 300 miles away, but behind us ice moved down on a strong NE wind, blocking a retreat up Prince Regent Sound, and ahead, Franklin Strait had yet to shake itself of winter. We were fighting to maintain an anchorage free of ice and had no hope of escape until something shifted ahead. In our quest for the Northwest Passage, we were now at our most committed and vulnerable. Against this the news of my father’s death hit hard, but it failed to surprise.
Dad had been declining for several years. When I announced in 2010 that I would attempt a solo cruise in my small boat, he was already having trouble holding a conversation. Over time, repeated small strokes had taken their toll. Still, my adventure interested him deeply, and he wished to help me plan. We would talk for hours about the differences between compass variation and deviation, for hours because he couldn’t quite remember which was which. And then he couldn’t remember that he didn’t remember.
Conversations with him became tortuous. Dad knew he was failing to communicate; he became frustrated, frequently shutting down, and I did not always push to get through. Through to what? It was too difficult.
Then once about a year ago we fell into a bout of talking. It lasted over an hour. The subject, I think, was a particular musical band or instrument from his younger years in the Midwest. I say I think because we never got there. I asked him questions (Do they play trumpets? Do they march? Is it a school band? Are they from Chicago? Do they dance? Is it Polka? Were they your friends? Did they use sheet music?) and Dad would answer “yes” or “no” but then often change his mind. Sometimes a question would create a spark; he’d attempt to form the word for this sudden flash and fail. He’d strike at the word with his head, then sink back. I’d resume my query, two men playing 20 questions, neither knowing the answer. What was different, though, was that we were BOTH trying to get through. It was the trying, the joint effort, that was meaningful.
By the time I left for the Arctic, Dad was essentially silent. Mom, his caretaker for years, reports he began to lose his famous appetite. His eyes couldn’t focus long on the television or distinguish it from the light in the kitchen. When we talked on the phone he couldn’t remember where I was. “Phoenix?” he said, when I called from Greenland. During my last visit home, I sat close to his chair and put my hand on his bare ankle. We sat this way most of the evening. When our eyes met he nodded his head as if knowing.
For years I have been philosophical about my father’s always-immanent passing. “We get old; we die, and we have known this forever” I said. But I was leaving something out; something I couldn’t quite touch. Several times I began a eulogy for what was obviously coming, but couldn’t figure how to start. The file still sits empty on my desktop.
After all, what does one say?
I hike out to Fort Ross the day after I get the news. Fort Ross is two buildings and all that remains of the Hudson Bay Trading Company’s post on the shores of Depot Bay. One of the buildings is derelict, but the other is kept up by the RCMP as an emergency shelter. Inside are beds, a stove, food, maps, and a log book to be completed by any who pass that way. It has become a tradition for yachts attempting the Northwest Passage to sign in. I write my name and address, my boat name, the year. Then I walk around taking photos. But just before leaving, I circle back and enter below my name, “In Memory of my Father, Roy Reeves, who died in California on Monday. He got me here.”