As my father lay dying, he had a vision of himself sailing home across the cold, dark Atlantic. After he had gone, I needed to see what he had seen.
Essay as published in HM Magazine, June 2006
By Suzanne Ahearne
All the lights in the living room had been turned off for the night; all except for the piano light. The head of this brass lamp had been rotated backward, throwing soft light on the wall behind it. The piano was now nothing more than a dark mass in a darkened room.
I was lying on the couch under a blanket, staring at the light as one would a campfire. My father, lying beside me in the hospital bed that we had set up for him a week before, was staring at it, too. It was a ritual I had come to enjoy at the end of days shared with my mother, my sister and an ever-changing guard of home-care workers, doctors and palliative care nurses.
Each night I phoned to say good night to my husband and young sons at our home in another city. Then I tucked myself into my makeshift bed here. There was a calm about ending the day this way that my father and I shared quietly and closely.
It was from the shared perspective of our beds that night that he pointed to the piano light and said, “I’m sailing home on the cold, dark Atlantic.” I looked at it again. Now I saw that it looked just like a solitary ship, casting its light into a dark, clear night around it. I went cold. Scared.
I had once read how the dying sometimes describe their leaving with symbols created from their life experience. My father had been a merchant seaman, based in his home port of Liverpool, England, for 11 of the most formative years of his life. I took the ship to be his symbol, but I couldn’t bear for him to leave in the cold and dark—symbolically or otherwise.
“Couldn’t it be the warm, bright South Pacific?” I suggested eventually. He laughed and said, “Maybe that would be nice.” Then his voice became serious again. “But no. It’s the cold, dark Atlantic.”
His ship of death that I dreaded and expected came a week after this night. But despite the fact that the image seemed to comfort him, the vision of a ghost ship, manned by one and sailing into the cold and dark, haunted me.
As a photographer, I have gotten into the habit of getting behind a camera as a way of trying to understand things. Perhaps for this reason I thought that if I were to cross the Atlantic on a merchant vessel bound for Liverpool, chronicling the passage with my camera, the image might no longer be so fearful and lonely. So, two-and-a-half years later, I left Montreal on board a container ship for a seven-day, 2,700 nautical mile voyage across the Atlantic to Liverpool.
I’ve never wanted to be in the open ocean before. I love coastlines in all kinds of weather, but the idea of 360 degrees of water in any kind of weather was frightening. It seemed too vast, too deep and too indifferent to be trusted. Now that I’m out here, I feel quite happy to be floating in so much blue, free of any responsibility.
I’m feeling bored though. Bored with photographing a blue sky and the blue sea. So my cameras mostly sit beside me, waiting. I find I can stare at the water for long periods of time and think about nothing. And everything. And I can’t be out here without thinking of Dad’s sea stories.
Like the one about getting locked up for the night in an Argentinean jail with a few crew-mates. And the one about the girl from Vancouver Island he met on a ship from India to England whom he visited years later when his ship sailed down the Alberni Inlet to load logs. And about the monkey he picked out of a writhing burlap bag at a port market somewhere in South America that became his short-lived, messy cabin-mate.
He retold these stories in the autumn of the year he died, while recording names and dates on the backs of photos of ships, foreign ports and old girlfriends — photos he’d kept in a shoebox for half a century.
Tonight we are served tinned peaches for dessert. Whenever we ate tinned peaches at home, Dad would usually tell us the story about how, in 1946, during one of his first long sea voyages, he nicked a can of peaches from the galley, took it to the loo and devoured the lot. When he returned from this seven-month voyage, he had grown from a five-foot four-inch boy of 17 to an almost six-foot man. For the rest of his 11 years at sea, he stayed close to the food, as kitchen steward, waiter, cook and baker.
I imagine the taste of illicit sweetness in that can of peaches became so inseparable from his memories of being at sea — the luxury of a full belly after years of wartime rations, the freedom, the smell of the sea, the adventure, the emotional leavings and homecomings from the Liverpool Docks — that a taste, a feeling, a glimpse of any one, would bring on a rush of memories of the others.
Before we set up the hospital bed for Dad at home, he had a brief stay in the palliative care ward at a rural hospital near my parents’ home. During those first few days, Dad’s eyes were mostly heavy and expressionless, his body adjusting to a radically increased dosage of morphine. Intermittently he would ask, “How long am I going to be here?” and “When am I going home?” On one of these days, as night was approaching, he was not so much looking out the window as gazing blankly in that direction.
Suddenly his eyes lit up and his face became animated, radiant even. He pointed out the window saying, “Look at that lovely old gentleman holding the door open for everyone!” Mum and I turned to the window, expecting to see a reflection of someone in the doorway of his room. We didn’t see the man Dad described wearing white clothes and having white hair and a beautiful face. All we saw was a darkened window and the reflection of our own startled eyes looking back at ourselves.
Around the same time, I had this dream: Dad took me to Liverpool to show me the waterfront where he grew up. We squatted on the bank of the River Mersey and he pointed out ships as they came in. Then we walked along a pier that ran into the sea. He was sick and weak. I knew he was dying.
When we got to the end, he stood at the edge and I was worried that he would fall. But then I could see a faraway, beautiful look on his face as he looked at the sea, and, without looking back or saying goodbye, he just leapt into the water. I felt horrified and angry because he didn’t say goodbye. But I knew that was why he’d wanted to come here and why he’d brought me: so I would know where he was going.
I slept fitfully last night, probably because I was thinking about arriving in Liverpool this afternoon. At about three o’clock in the morning, I came up to the roof of the wheelhouse in the cold and dark. At more than 30 metres above sea level, this is the highest and windiest place on the ship. I lie down in the middle of the deck and turn on my video camera. Everything looks blurred and dreamlike.
I stand up to shoot wide. As I sweep the camera across the horizon, I shout, “Omigod. There it is!” It’s Dad’s image as we’d seen it in the piano light that night shortly before he died. This time, it is a tanker several kilometres away, passing by in the misty semidarkness of the Irish Sea, surrounded by an aura of light.
I want to wave, beckon to it. Instead I hold up the video camera and zoom in, filling the screen with a grainy image that darts in and out of focus because my hands are shaking so much. I can’t tell whether I feel Dad incredibly close to me or whether I feel his absence more acutely than ever. When the ship becomes just a point of light on the screen, I put the camera down.
On Dad’s last morning our family watched his limbs slowly draining of colour. I saw a tide line of white and cold moving from feet to knees to thighs, from fingers to elbows, up his still-muscular arms, past the morphine tracks to his shoulders. I imagined that he was willing the cold to enter him, drawing it inch by inch toward his heart, replacing blood with seawater.
When he’d taken his last breath, his eyes closed and his face relaxed and softened. The warmth in his chest lingered for a few hours and when it was gone, I knew he was home.
The early morning mist becomes a dense fog at the entrance to the River Mersey. As we move downriver toward the locks, the fog starts to thin, just enough for a delicate light to shine down on a lighthouse, a strand of beach and a cathedral at the top of the hill in Birkenhead. Then the fog opens up over the river and the city of Liverpool reveals itself — a skyline rimmed in light.
The Liverpool pilot sticks his head around the wheelhouse door: “Sorry the weather isn’t nicer for ya,” he says. I had expected industrial dockyards, a mud-brown river and heavy grey skies. I’m too choked up to tell him that it’s more beautiful than I had ever imagined.