As the fierce North Sea wind blows through my hair, I look up and brace myself for the worst. Eric Anderson is already up on the platform, but he is leaning over the rail looking ready to vomit. I breathe a sigh of relief, it seems Eric got a hold of himself and leaned back in. The vast expanse of water stretches out beneath me as I slowly make my way up the rope ladder, one step at a time, carefully watching the placement of my foot; a misguided step could lead to a 100-foot drop. After many close calls I finally reach it: the crow's nest of the Staatsrad Lemkuhl.
In the summer of 2001, my family spent a week participating in a re-enactment of the long sea voyage early immigrants took to the United States. A group of authentic-looking 19th century sailing ships started out from Esberg, Denmark, and made its way through major ports in Northern Europe before heading to the United States. Our leg brought us through Copenhagen and Gothenburg, Sweden, to Oslo, Norway. As participants in Sea Trek we did not just lay on the deck sunbathing and reading books. We were "trainees," part of the crew, facilitating the smooth operation of the ship. Some days we would have to run around on fire watch making sure no flames had made their home in the dark recesses of the ship. Other days we would stand at the bow looking for other boats, ringing a bell should we chance to see one. One day I had the opportunity to climb up the mast and stand in the crow's nest, a platform maybe one hundred and fifty feet above the deck.
I slowly suck in a bucket of air, smelling the ocean and stopping for a moment to take it all in. I look around me — 360 degrees of award winning photograph opportunities. I look down at my family far below and yell that immortal line from "What About Bob?," "I'm a sailor! I'm sailing!" I can't tell if they heard me, but I smile anyway. Up here so high I forget I'm human and try to fly away, flapping my wings in the wind imitating the sea gulls that would circle the ship. The Norwegian crew chuckles and asks me if all Americans are like this. The gentle movement of the ship is exaggerated up here, so far away from the surface of the ocean. To and fro, to and fro, like the metronome of a piano student, continually rocking back and forth. I can see why Eric felt like he needed to hurl, I could sense the beginnings of that feeling spark in my stomach. No problem, I could handle it.
Looking across the ocean I remember stories, stories of people dying at sea. Many of the other participants had lost family to the depths of the ocean and had come on this journey in their memory. One had lost her parents in the fateful Egypt Air crash, others remembered ancestors who died in the early crossings. One loss, in particular, came to my mind as I looked across the great blue — the death of my younger sister Camille.
Camille would've loved being here. The open air and the constant movement of the ship invigorated her twin, Karen. She would stand at the bow and run to the back and the ship would go up and down, up and down. I can see it now, the two of them, running and laughing, reveling in the brilliance of it all. It is hard to imagine two Karens skipping about, but I suppose that's what it would have been like.
Camille died when she was 2 years old. I was 6 and all I knew was that Camille had a crack in her heart. That is how my parents described her condition to me, a crack that ran through her heart. She spent most of her time here in hospitals and beds. My kindergarten-self loved to visit Camille in the hospital and peer at her through the prison-like posts of the cribs or the E.T.-esque plastic bubbles that surrounded her when things were really tough. I can remember when Camille was brought home in the months preceding her death, disconnected from her oxygen tank and ready to take on life. The distinct silence and cloud that descended on our house the day she died will never leave my mind.
As I stand here, in the crow's nest, pondering what it all means, I make a discovery. A self-realization, if you will. While I will always remember the day she died, I will forever cherish my memories of Camille as a vibrant, living, child — free from the plastic bubbles, free from the oxygen tanks and the plastic feeding tubes. Standing up here, up on the peak of the ship, up where the pure energy of the wind in the sails funnels down to the vessel and propels it forward, I realize that, at the moment, I am as free as I have ever been. I've escaped from the plastic bubble of my life. The problems that enclose me have opened and now I'm living, cut loose, breathing solely off of the oxygen in the open air. Maybe when I climb back down to earth I will lose that feeling, maybe the plastic bubble will return. But, if I forget everything else about my Sea Trek experience, my memory of standing there, atop that stand, closer to heaven than I have ever been, is one I want to keep.