From The Heart: Home For Hannah

By Bernadette Bernon
March 23, 2001
Newport, RI
039 15.60 N 075 20.10 W
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
021 14.77 N 086 44.69 W

It had taken Douglas and me nine months by boat — since we moved aboard Ithaka in May last year, until now — to travel the distance I covered by air in one mind-altering day. After all the travel and experiences and changes in my life over the past three quarters of a year, I was suddenly home again, back among good friends, back in the frigid temperatures and snows of winter in New England, back to the media craze of political scandals I'd happily forgotten about while being out of the country. But most importantly, I was back with my family, especially with my brother Mark and his wife Gina, as they dealt with their baby daughter having heart surgery.

I was particularly affected by this situation with Hannah because Douglas and I are her godparents. With no children of our own, she holds a special place in our lives, something I've realized even more since we've been away cruising, and I wanted her to know always, when she got older and understood better the meaning of such things, that her aunty had dropped everything to be there for her. I wanted Mark and Gina to know that they could always count on us, too, especially now that we were leading lives that seemed to indicate otherwise. Mostly though, the fact is that I too have had my own heart problems and have had surgeries to try to correct them, and this has given me a unique feeling of connection with this baby since the day she was born 11 months ago, and we learned that she had a hole in her heart.

Photo of Hannah holding her toes

Cruising can make you feel very distant from your family, despite the effort and expense you and they may put into phone calls and e-mails to stay in touch. When you're away on such a fortunate adventure as bluewater cruising, it becomes impossible to remain really involved in anyone's lives — other than your own — as you may have been before you set out, or as you may have imagined you could remain. This is hard to deal with at times. Holidays, for example, are complicated. We've found that it's difficult and expensive, when you're outside the country, to leave your boat anywhere safe and fly home. Consequently, cruisers usually spend holidays aboard. I'm more accustomed to the idea now, but it came as a disappointing surprise last year when Douglas and I found ourselves still in transit over Thanksgiving and Christmas when we'd imagined ourselves returning home for at least one of these holidays.

Then, God forbid, if ever something happens to your loved ones at home, and you can't get back in time, your feelings of estrangement and guilt are compounded exponentially. As much as Mark and Gina assured me that I didn't need to come back for Hannah's surgery, eventually I realized that if I could go, I should go, and I would go, or I'd deeply regret what that would say to me and to my family about the limits of the cruising life. I wanted them to know they could count on us. And I wanted to be there, living this with them.

As soon as Douglas and I arrived in Isla Mujeres from Cuba, I found a travel agent, arranged round-trip ticket for a couple of days later, leaving from Cancún on the mainland, and in what seemed to be a stunningly short amount of time, I was waving goodbye to Douglas from the departure gate at the airport. This would be the first time in months that we wouldn't be together almost 24 hours a day.

Then by early that same evening, as Douglas was probably turning on the anchor light for the night, I was jumping in the car with my dad and my step-mother Suzanne at Greene Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, watching the condensation form from my breadth in the arctic air, and listening on the radio to the latest details of the Clinton pardon scandal. I felt a long way from Mexico, and Douglas, and my life on the boat.

Hannah's surgery was the next day, at Children's Hospital in Boston. It took four hours, she was able to use her father's blood, and the whole thing was a complete success. She'd be as good as new now, her doctor assured her parents, and would lead a completely normal life. I smiled when I heard this, and felt like tossing in my two cents on that matter. Heart surgery at an early age, I wanted to say, robs you a little of your feelings of invincibility, and that changes you. But I didn't say anything about this. Maybe Hannah and I will talk about this someday, about how surviving a serious health problem can make you more introspective about life, more sensitive, more vulnerable. I have a feeling she might understand.

Every day throughout this ordeal, I talked to Douglas on the phone and told him how things were going with the baby, as well as with all the boat errands I was doing. My to-do list was a mile long. After Hannah came home from the hospital, when I wasn't over at Mark and Gina's helping to care for her, I was running back and forth between Wal-Mart, and West Marine, and hardware stores, and accountant's because I figured I'd better do our taxes while I was here. The phone connections between Newport and Mexico took forever to go through, and when Douglas and I finally connected with each other, the phone crackled and cut out often, adding to the feeling of distance between us. I could tell by the tension in his voice that he was frustrated about being alone on the boat, and that he hated being out of the loop, but there was nothing that could be done about it.

In a flash, it seemed, my time in Newport came to an end, and it was time to fly back to Douglas and the boat and the cruising life my family still doesn't quite understand. Monday morning, I kissed my dad and Suzanne and Mark and Gina goodbye. I held Hannah a long time, kissed her tummy, and told her how much I loved her. She pointed to the bandage on her chest and smiled, one of her new habits. I felt excruciatingly torn between two worlds, both containing the people I love, and at that confusing moment, I wasn't sure in what world I belonged. Two hours later, I boarded an American Airlines jet with my four enormous bags filled with precious boat supplies and replacement parts and flew out. That American would lose two of those bags over the course of my three connecting flights back to the Yucatán would add to the overall chaos I will forever associate with my memories of this whirlwind week.

Emotionally spent, I caught a ferry from Cancún to Isla Mujeres, then dragged my two remaining bags from the ferry dock down the street to the dinghy dock. In the distance Ithaka bobbed at her anchor. I pulled out the two-way radio out of my knapsack and switched it on.

"Douglas? Douglas?" I called. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes! I'll be right there," he cried excitedly. "Welcome home!"
"I missed you," I said. "It's good to be back."