Mike Penny recounts a sailboat journey, an illness, a friendship.
Back in the fall of 1994, we were living aboard our sailboat in Ventura Harbor, California. My wife had been offered a new position in Honolulu, and was scheduled to fly over the ocean with our young daughter.
My job was to sail our home – our sailboat – to Hawaii.
Coming from the mountains of Colorado, blue water sailing had always been more of a dream than a reality. To say the least, I was excited to make the voyage.
Unfortunately, however, there were major problems in finding crew. Many voiced a willingness to go, but few could drop everything for three or four weeks and a trip across the ocean. Of all those I asked, only one person jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. And, no surprise: it was Fred, one of my best friends from college and years of skiing.
As the day to cast off lines for Hawaii approached, an acquaintance from Ventura named Russ was also able to join us. Although Russ, like myself, had never made an open ocean crossing, he did have some sailing experience. My good friend Fred, on the other hand, had never spent a single day of his life sailing on the ocean.
We set sail from Ventura on a Saturday with two full weeks left in October, at the tail end of hurricane season. The voyage took twenty-one days, and nights, to finally make landfall in Honolulu. On the crossing we caught mahi-mahi on hand lines, surfed the boat down enormous waves in the trades, and gazed upon the same billions of stars the ancients enjoyed before the proliferation of modern night lighting on land.
Over the years, stories of that voyage have been retold many times. And though I don’t mention it until the end, I always toss in how Fred had never once been sailing on the ocean before this crossing.
Often, the response is something like: “You’re kidding; how did he do?”
I always tell them he did great. For Fred, it was simply a grand adventure.
I usually add as well: “You know, some people are just like that, capable of accomplishing whatever they undertake.”
To which the listener normally acknowledges with a nod. Yep, they’ve never met him, but they all know Fred.
But that’s as far as I go; I don’t usually tell them the rest of the story. I don’t usually mention how a year and a half after our ocean voyage to Hawaii, Fred was stricken down by Guilliam-Barre syndrome and how he nearly died.
Guilliam-Barre is a relatively rare autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the nervous system. For milder cases, there can be near total recovery and a return to normal life. Unfortunately, Fred’s case wasn’t anywhere close to mild.
In the beginning, Fred had to learn how to talk, as well as walk again. It took years of excruciating and dogged rehab to do once more what he loved best – to go downhill skiing again. From being able to step upon a boat and successfully sail across an ocean without a lick of experience, Fred had abruptly become incapable of nearly everything.
And yet, there are a couple things everyone has noticed about Fred over the years since Guilliam-Barre struck. Even if life dealt him a bad hand, he never gives up and he never complains. Sure, he still falls down sometimes when he starts to walk, and often the numbness in his hands won’t tell him if it’s coins or keys in his pocket. And the meds he must take every few hours for the blinding nerve pain are enough to tranquilize a horse.
But Fred never gives up, and he never complains. He plods forward in his own way, cheerful and gregarious with all he meets, strong and confident in spite of fate. He has a happy marriage with a wonderful wife, grown kids to be proud of, and scores and scores of friends. To me, Fred is still capable of anything.
Now that I’m back in the mountains of Colorado, I’m fortunate enough to see Fred quite often. I also come across old acquaintances and, by virtue of living in a ski town, meet many new folks as well.
When asked what I do, I usually say something about finally being lucky enough to write full time, something I’ve wanted since all the years ago in college. When they inquire what I write, I mention the novel about those with dementia and their caregivers.
Invariably, I’m then asked if the reason I wrote it was because of something personal.
I know what they’re asking, so I reply how my father had short-term memory loss problems before he passed away. Most seem satisfied with that, so I don’t go any further.
But I could.
I could go into detail. I could tell them it’s personal because the story is really about Fred and how he faces each day with a gritty yet upbeat resolve in spite of the calamity that sideswiped his life. Or I could tell them it’s personal because of Janice, my daughter’s art teacher in Hawaii, who selflessly sacrificed more than a decade of her own life to care for her mother with ever worsening dementia.
Or I could tell them it was personal because of Tom, a young man severely debilitated by spina bifida to the point where mere walking had always been next to impossible; yet, by virtue of a strong will and deep determination, he was able to achieve the freedom of movement and joy on a ski hill that he’d never before experienced in life.
Or if I knew these old friends or new acquaintances better, I could tell them it’s personal because I was writing about that someone in their life that is a Fred, a Janice, or a Tom. I could tell them I wrote a book about dementia and caregivers, and yes, it’s personal because I see “ordinary” people triumphing over the worst adversity, only to become stronger and more advanced representatives of our human species. And, personally, I admire that.
On the flip side of the coin, even though my other book about the years spent working among the elite 1% in Hawaii has only been out a short time, I have yet to be asked – in the same way – if it was written because of something personal. And honestly, I doubt I ever will.
Yet if someone did inquire, I’d respond that memoir too is a result of something extremely personal. In fact, the high and mighty 1% elite present an enormous affront to me precisely because they are everything Fred, Janice, or Tom – are not. Yes, I take it just as personally when it comes to the 1%, as I do when it comes to my good friend Fred.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is when a lot is taken away from a person’s life – as in the case of a Fred, Janice, or Tom, or similar people you may know – much more is given back in another sense. Whether it’s defined as strength of character, more depth of personality, or simply a bigger heart, these “losers” – even if they aren’t totally aware of it – unfailingly display an uncanny ability to give back much more to others than they’ve ever lost.
The same is true, contrarily speaking, for those who have been given too much. After all those years working with the moneyed and magnificent 1% in Hawaii, it’s evident to me that most of their assumed value and worth as humans is a façade. Indeed, much has been given them by hard work, fate, or whatever – but much too has been taken. Speaking in generalities obviously, their natures tend to devolve toward the sociopathic, while respect and concern for others dissipates. Life becomes a ceaseless drive to take and take some more, to deplete those lesser for an illusory gain at the ultimate expense of oneself. But that, as we all know, is an old story.
I do take it personally, and personally, I’ll always take someone like Fred.
When it comes to one’s best friends, I doubt I’m much different from anyone else. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be around them, even as you’re simultaneously awed by what they’ve been through and wonder if you could measure up. All too often they are people you could never be – and yet, they are always kind enough to treat you as their equal.
One’s best friends are of inestimable value.
That’s what they’re worth.