Senior year of high school, my parents purchased tickets for the whole family to go on a cruise. It was our first ever. We were going to do the Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Cozumel circuit. This was a pretty big deal since most of our family vacations were taken with the Byrne Family, camping in upstate NY, bathed in Off! bug spray. As the cruise date got closer, my very good friend Alison, who had been fighting off a cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma for two and a half years, was suddenly losing the fight.
To Alison’s credit, she did such a bang-up job of protecting her friends that I never ever entertained the idea that she could die. It literally never, not once, flew past my teenage mind. I just thought she’d get through all the treatments, grow her hair back and we’d continue making goofy sketch videos. Things with Alison got really bad really quickly and I DID NOT want to go on that cruise. What if, God forbid, she passed away and I never got to see her again?
My parents weren’t having it. They were insisting that I go on this dumb cruise. I couldn’t believe it. How could they do this to me? It seemed so criminal, so wrong. We had several ugly screaming matches about it, but my mother felt that I had been so all-consumed by the devastation of seeing life being pulled from my friend that I needed this cruise. My parents were deeply concerned about my emotional well-being.
Looking back, I can see that they weren’t entirely wrong, because when the “S” hits the “F”, when grieving gets to gettin’ grieved and mourning is on and poppin’, when a situation hits high alert, I go ALL IN – I’m talking ‘bout IN. I give old Italian ladies and black mamas a nice run for their money. I absorb the entire reality of the situation. There is no “stiff upper lip” around these parts. The weeks leading up to the cruise, I would leave Alison’s house several times a week completely inconsolable.
Somehow, some way, they got my sorry ass onto that cruise. What my parents didn’t factor in was that I always fall horribly ill in stressful situations. I’ve been that way as far back as I can remember. Growing up, throwing parties brought out the worst in my parents. It would be so much arguing and stress that the day of the party I’d, without fail, be up in bed and surrounded by adults who were icing down my 104 degree fever. I climbed onto that cruise ship a sniffling, shaking, nauseous mess. As we all know, nausea is right at home out at sea. Match made in heaven.
At that point, any ideas I had about cruising, I’d gleaned from watching reruns of The Love Boat. People on The Love Boat moved about their rooms with grace and ease. The room that all five of us were occupying bore zero resemblance to anything I’d seen on the show. Our room was itty bitty. Two of the beds flipped down from the wall, stacking atop the beds below, with two metal ladders leaning against them. There was a rogue cot squeezed in against the back wall. My dad’s whole thing was, “Why get two rooms? Who needs two rooms? We’re never going to be in it! Who needs a view of the ocean?” But I think even he was shocked at how teeny tiny the room was. It was insane. We were literally packed like sardines in a can. The only bonus was that at night we could quickly form a family team huddle by simply outstretching an arm.
Being sick on a cruise is really not a cute look. Anyone who’s ever been on a cruise knows that the main event is eating. I was so full-body nauseous that I couldn’t even step foot into that banquet hall of visual puke grenades. Not only could I not see the food, but I could not hear about it. I put a ban on my family talking about food. Just hearing a whisper about how the assorted seafood was displayed in a whale formation would jump start a dry heave. I think it’s safe to say that I was the life of the party. A real blast in a glass. As my two younger sisters frolicked in the pool and participated in group fun, I sat on the deck, bundled in layers and blankets. I looked like a creepy teenage terrorist.
I needed to get something in my system so I asked my sister Lauren to bring me back a bland carb. I sat in the room by myself like a weirdo – no TV, no books. I just sat in the question “Why was I on this trip?” There were some cute, older, rambunctious boys on our floor. I was mildly curious about them. My big sexy move, back in the day, was to not make eye contact and avoid new boys at all costs. Super effective. Lauren walked into the room to drop off my plate of food and the cute boys barreled in behind her. They were drunk. I was petrified/thrilled. Before a single word was exchanged between us, I caught a whiff of the cheeseburger, plowed into the bathroom and puked my brains out. Shockingly, the boys took their good-time spirit elsewhere.
This brings me to the story that my youngest sister, June, will happily bust out at any gathering or function. There are two things that I can rest assured she will quickly inform people I’ve never met, am just meeting or – God forbid – want to meet. The first is that I used to dress like an “old lady” in high school. Freshman and Sophomore year, I rocked a look best described as “Blossom mates with your Grannie”. I wore bowler hats with giant flowers, heavy lace blouses buttoned up to the neck…broaches, blazers, scarves, pocket watches, pearls and slacks.
The second story June tells is the following…
One of the last nights on the cruise, I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. I was a nice mixture of exhausted, dehydrated, depressed and malnourished. After I flushed, something very strange happened. Now, I’m going to need you to pull in close and stay with me for what happens next because it doesn’t really add up to sense. When I went to flick the light switch in the bathroom off, I simultaneously shut my eyes. In complete darkness, I was trying to get from the bathroom to my bed. The entire distance couldn’t have been more than three and a half feet. I somehow managed to wrap my right foot around one of the metal bunk ladders. Both myself and the ladder went crashing to the ground. Because the beds were so incredibly close to each other I scooped up the other ladder on my way down. Both ladders landed on top of me, one of them smacking me in the face. I was letting out quite a few sounds, so I found it strange that none of my family members were responding. I finally screamed, “Put the lights on!!!! Someone turn on the lights!!! TURN ON THE LIGHTS!” After a beat, they all screamed back, “OPEN YOUR EYES!” Through the metal rungs, I saw my parents hanging off the top bunks looking down at me in horror and confusion. My sisters were squinting at me wondering what in “good grief” had happened. Realizing that my eyes had been shut this whole time was a hard pill to swallow. I simply peeled off the ladders and murmured, “Oh.”
The flight back to NY was arguably more miserable than the cruise itself. During the take off and the landing I had the gentle sensation of steak knives going in and out of my brain. If you’ve ever traveled with a clogged sinus situation, you know what I’m talking about. I’m sure my parents were tickled pink they laid out their hard earned money to take me on this trip.
I never did see Alison again. When I got back to NY, she was so far gone and so in and out of consciousness that she didn’t want her friends to see her in that state. We’d just go to the house and stay downstairs for a little while, so we could be close to her. She died a few weeks later. I did get to talk to her on the phone a few times, but I don’t think I ever told her the ladder story. Which is sad because she would have gotten such a kick out of it. She’s a girl who would prank the nurses at the hospital. She put apple juice in her pee cup and when a nurse walked in to take the “sample” she’d pretend to be just waking up and swig it back. They’d freak out and she’d be hysterical.
After all was said and done, I don’t know if my parents did the right or wrong thing by forcing me on that cruise. The only thing the cruise did offer was a new appreciation for camping, upstate NY, the Byrne family and Off!.
*I couldn’t find a picture from the cruise, but my confirmation pic communicates a similar emotion.