Dad always wanted to take a trip to Alaska. Mom did not. They spent annual vacations at the Jersey shore, made a cross-country trip to California, took a cruise with friends, but frankly, if there was not warm weather and a beach, Mom was not going.
When Mom passed away last year, Dad started lobbying my sisters and I to either check out our ancestral roots in Germany, take a cruise to Alaska or embark on a little drive over the Alps. Dad was getting older – and slower. If there was ever going to be a “big” vacation, now was the time.
Lisa and I started planning. Dad said “just tell me when to be ready to go to the airport”. Lisa said “I do not want to go to Alaska and I do not want to take a cruise”. None of us knew a word of German and driving over a huge mountain range seemed a little ambitious. So, the cruise planning commenced!
Raincoats, and sweatshirts and bathing suits and about 15 pairs of shoes. We had camera equipment, binoculars, kindles, chargers, smart phones and 1 dumb phone. We also packed portable oxygen, Dad’s magic sleep machine, a duffel bag full of medication and a secret stash of cigarettes for Dad and alcohol for us.
Exhausted and cranky we arrived on the ship. Dad and his equipment were ensconced safely next door to us. We discovered if we stood on tip-toe and leaned over the balcony rail we could spy on Dad who seemed determined to get us kicked off the boat by sneaking cigarettes in his room. But, my sister and I travel well together and once we got the lay of the land (and a cocktail) looked at each other and said: “This is going to be a great trip!”. We had a cozy little room with a balcony, Dad seemed excited and happy and we all knew where the cookie stash was. Cookies available 24 hours a day!
We saw whales and porpoises swimming in our wake and showing off at sunset right next to our balcony. We saw gorgeous sunsets and glaciers up close. We took a little bus tour in Ketchikan and saw eagles and salmon and the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.
The most memorable experience of our Alaskan adventure was our ride in this:
You got it – our very own private ride from the ship to Juneau, Alaska in a teeny tiny medical airplane! I got to sit in the co-pilot seat once I promised to not push any buttons. Now, I am not going to bore you with the excruciating details of the next couple of weeks we spent in Alaska trying to get Dad well enough to get back home to New Jersey – you will have to wait for the Lifetime movie for that. But, for every bad experience there is almost always good, and if you approach life experiences with an open mind and heart and a sense of humor, life is a heck of a lot easier.
Looking back, what could have been our most horrible vacation experience also includes our most memorable moments. The kindness and generosity of the doctors and staff at Bartlett Regional Hospital was amazing – from making sure Dad was well cared for with dignity and respect, to making sure Lisa and I were fed, housed and had transportation. The doctor and ICU nurse lent us their personal car while we were there! “After all”, they said, “its not like you can go anywhere.” We just had to ignore the week’s worth of recycling in the back.
Dr. Bob found Lisa and I wandering around a grocery store one day and offered a ride back. On the way he gave us a tour of Juneau – driving past the Governor’s residence, out-of-the-way hiking trails and restaurants the “locals” frequented. My colleague, Denny came to the hospital one day and whisked us away for a visit to the salmon fishery and then an amazing tour of the Juneau Empire Newspaper offices – a personal tour of the 2nd largest native art collection in Alaska.
Juneau, one of the quick stops on the cruise turned out to be a two-week adventure, including the most delicious salmon and crab we ever tasted, the most spectacular views and scenery, including an afternoon hike at the Mendenhall Glacier. Most of all, an opportunity to take care of Dad who had always taken care of us when we were sick, and to spend valuable time with my sister who is an amazing nurturer and always makes me laugh.
So, on second thought – maybe this was not a Bust at all.
Rest in Peace Albert J. Ehlbeck, Jr., January 7th, 2013