On December 30, 2016, Erik, the girls and I set sail on a Disney cruise out of Galveston for a 6-night, 7-day, forget-our-lives trip. Friends and family surprised us in October with this fantastic voyage to the Key West, Disney’s Castaway Cay and the Bahamas. My cousin Kassidy is a Disney travel agent and planned the whole thing for us, down to the dinner reservations and port adventures.
Bryce died in July, so the thought of the upcoming holidays was almost more than I could bear. The idea behind the cruise was to give us something to think about and look forward to after the holidays. I can’t tell you how much it meant to see this little light at the end of the long, sad tunnel of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
On Friday we hopped on board the Disney Wonder and took a long deep breath intentionally deciding to relax and rest. December 30 was five months to the day after Bryce died. Those anniversary dates are brutal, so the cruise was such a blessing for the four of us.
On the morning of the 31st we sat on the ship’s deck enjoying a gigantic breakfast buffet. If there is one thing Erik LOVES it’s buffets – all you can eat, colorful, plentiful, delicious food. I’m less intrigued by mass produced food that is breathed on and touched by thousands. But it’s Erik’s safe place.
I can’t tell this story without describing the most luscious little strawberry tart you’ve ever laid eyes on. It was so pretty and just mouth-watering. I think Erik ate several. At one point the girls dared him to put the entire tart in his mouth. They do this often…. whether it’s a cupcake, a doughnut. I don’t know why they are so fascinated with Erik’s ability to eat an entire thing in one bite, but it is entertaining, and we can’t help ourselves. Also, why can’t he resist a dare? (This is all his fault, really.)
So sitting in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico on a crisp December morning, the dare didn’t go down how it was supposed to. The tart got lodged in Erik’s esophagus and despite all his aerobics and hops and stretches, it would not budge.
Since his transplant, Erik has struggled with a stricture in his throat. Every six months or so he is supposed to see a gastroenterologist to have his throat stretched so that he doesn’t choke on food.
He can breathe when this happens, but it’s very uncomfortable. Also, it prevents him from eating anything (obviously).
On more than one occasion we’ve found ourselves in an emergency room waiting patiently while a doctor gets him into the lab for an esophageal dilation. It’s usually just a couple of hours, in and out.
How unfortunate that this time there was no ER to run to. There was only the Disney doctor down in the bowels of the ship. While the girls explored the ship on our first full day at sea, Erik and I sat in the doctor’s exam room for five hours while the doc tried to get this tart dislodged – up or down, it didn’t matter to us. Just get this darn tart out of his throat!
As we approached our 6th hour in the ship’s medical bay Erik told the doctor, “Hey, good news it just went down!” So the doctor signed us out and we made a run for it.
In the elevator I looked at Erik and said, “It didn’t go down did it?” He said, “Nope.”
We decided that the next morning when we arrived in Key West we would take a cab to an emergency room and try to be back on the ship before it departed later that afternoon. If we missed the ship, so be it – but we had to get this taken care of asap.
By early evening, Erik was feeling terrible. Try to imagine the discomfort of having something stuck in your esophagus right in the middle of your breast bone. And it doesn’t get better over time, it only becomes more distressing and more painful.
He rested for a couple of hours in our state room while I fussed and fumed and cussed and cried.
His gastro doctor in New Braunfels had warned us that this stricture, while easily fixed can also be life threatening. If the food was to break through the wall of the esophagus it could cause “sudden death”.
Yes, that was scary to us. But sometimes I think we’ve built up a resistance to being truly petrified by anything that happens to us. Maybe we have been numbed or just grown accustomed to bizarre circumstances that should typically have us in freak-out mode.
But short of asking for a helicopter to land on deck and rescue us, I really don’t know what else we could have done.
It won’t surprise you that Erik insisted we keep our dinner reservations at the ship’s FIVE-STAR Italian restaurant on the top deck. Kassidy had planned a romantic dinner for two and Erik knew it was something I had been the most excited about.
We got dressed up in the nicest clothes we brought, sent the girls off to get all the pizza and ice cream they could eat, and then took the elevator to the top deck.
By this time, Erik was pale and shaky and very hungry. At the risk of sounding over-the- top pitiful, he sucked on a piece of prosciutto and took teeny tiny sips of water.
On the other hand, I drank wine and ate all the antipasto and pasta I could get my hands on. (In my defense, Erik insisted. Also, I am not known to ever pass up pasta and red wine.)
I stress-eat, sue me.
Sitting at our candle lit table with the sun setting and the ocean before us, I couldn’t help but shake my head and think, “I hate my life. Why does this crap only happen to us? Can we not have ONE THING go right for us? Why is everything so unfair and hard for us? Jesus please come back tonight and end our suffering.”
A pity party with red wine is never a good idea. But if you’re going to have one, bring the Merlot.
Over dinner Erik’s condition worsened – even his saliva wasn’t going down. He got up countless times to go spit. Sorry for being graphic. I’m just trying to paint the picture.
We cut dinner short so Erik could lay down and hopefully manage until the next morning when we could leave the ship for medical attention.
I went to find the girls by the pool where the rest of humanity was celebrating New Year’s Eve, toasting to good luck and health.
I just could not hold back my tears.
I had been dreading NYE as much as Christmas for several reasons. Erik and I met on New Year’s 1996 and Bryce came along almost exactly a year later on January 7. New Year’s had always been a precious anniversary of sorts in a life which I was now struggling to tolerate or even care about.
I ordered a bottle of champagne and sat on a deck chair while we watched people dance and swim and clink glasses. Party hats and streamers fell around the girls and I as we sat and stared and wondered how long we had to celebrate before going to bed.
Picture the most depressed, pouting, feeling-sorry-for-myself, drinking straight out of the champagne bottle, lonely little victim.
This was a very dark moment for me.
About 15 minutes before midnight, I looked up and saw Erik walking towards us with at least 6 pieces of pizza stacked on a paper plate.
I froze in stunned silence. “What are you doing out of bed???”
Without nuance he said, “That tart went down. I’m starving.”
In a second, our entire night changed. It was reminiscent of the moment I met Erik just after midnight on New Year’s 1996. LIFE CHANGING.
We all hugged and kissed and cried. I thanked God for this tiny miracle as the fireworks lit up the sky and the bubbly flowed.
I don’t know that my level of gratitude would have been nearly as high if I hadn’t bottomed out earlier that day. Would the welcome of 2017 have been nearly as precious without the heart ache of the day before? I felt a big check in my spirit to remember that Sunday is always coming.
In this case, a new year. A new chance to get more things right and to stress less about the stuff I can’t control. A deep breath to start a fresh new year learning to navigate my grief while also embracing the promise God has called us to. (This is a work in progress.)
Thanks for letting me share this glimpse of our blessed, tragic, beautiful, hell on wheels life. A life that I would not trade for anything.
Every moment God gives us is a gift and strawberry tarts are not evil. Just take small bites and remember to chew!