Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ferry Boats

Warning: the content of this post is not for the faint. On our way to and from a baseball game today (the New York–Penn Minor League), my son and I crossed New York Harbor on one of the cheerful orange boats that make up the Staten Island Ferry fleet. The ride was fabulous, passing Lady Liberty on calm waters, and the second round-trip we've made on the S.I. Ferry. I hope we'll do much more of this. The thing about the trip, though, was that it brought up a not-so-pleasant memory of another ferry ride, in June of 2006. My son was three years old then, and my parents were celebrating their ruby (fortieth) wedding anniversary. Despite how not romantic it might seem to celebrate a wedding anniversary with a daughter, son-in-law, and three-year-old grandchild in tow, this was how my parents wished to celebrate: with a family vacation to Block Island, Rhode Island. I had never been there, though I had heard wonderful things. The island lived up to its reputation—it was charming, laid back, a great place for a family getaway. The problem was getting back to the mainland after our holiday. The day we were heading back, there was a sea storm. There may have been a question as to whether the ferry would set out as scheduled—maybe there was a delay in departure, I don't recall those details—but sail it did, with us on it. And I, who have prided myself for years on a stomach of steel (honestly, the number of times I've experienced any kind of stomach illness I can count with just my two hands, and this includes pregnancy) . . . well, let's just say that I was reduced to a whimpering, quivering, Saltine-eating weakling on this trip. I remember the pitching and rolling, the way the windows steamed up with the chill of lashing water on the outside and too many people trapped on the hot-and-humid inside, unable to ventilate the space much. I remember we had a table, the five of us gathered around it. There was some food I couldn't look at. A roiling bout of nausea came on somewhat suddenly, and I tried to just focus on not vomiting on the spot. I could never have made it to a bathroom, that was clear. All it took for the bile to surge was for me to lift my clammy forehead from where I had it buried in my arms, pressed flat to the tabletop. Because I am basically never sick in this sense—the same is true with headaches; I very rarely get them—I was at a complete loss as to how to cope. I just groaned and kept my head down. The other thing I remember is this: I felt like the biggest failure as a mother in that moment, because as one could expect, my son was also feeling sick, and I could do absolutely nothing to help him; I simply couldn't move. I was too busy imagining immigrant steerage compartments and reminding myself pessimistically that in Greek legend, it's a ferryman, Charon, who traffics the dead to Hades. So, with me in such a state, my husband was the one who cared for my son during that boat ride—which meant he was the one to hold him while, eventually, my son threw up all over him. I don't need to describe to you, I'm sure, the acid stink that would in and of itself cause others to gag. The tan, stringy, chunky mess that covered my husband's black (I think) shirt. They changed in the car, found some kind of bag for the filthy garments, big and small. Eventually, the ferry pulled into its mainland slip. The moment passed, and I managed to keep some composure if not much efficacy—but the unpleasantness of this memory lingered. It was a long time before my son expressed any interest in getting on a boat again. For months he was afraid something would make him vomit, and then when I thought he'd forgotten about it, he'd bring up the memory again, defeating my own efforts to stuff it into some dark, unused recess of the mind. More than anything, I wanted to block out the shame I felt at being helpless, at being unavailable to one who needed me; my body was such a traitor to my good, maternal intentions. But I'm happy to report there have been no more incidents—nothing dramatic enough to remember. My overall constitution is back to something resembling heavy metal, and my son seems seldom bothered with any kind of physical complaints. This summer, we are both gung-ho about the Staten Island Ferry, and this is a good thing. Now, if the Staten Island Yankees could just clean up their fielding and give us a home-team win next time we make the trip . . .

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