A Deathbed Lesson in Living

For my entire life I’ve been blessed to live in a place that other people visit. Not the Bahamas, or southern California, or Europe; Alaska. The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun and whatever other catchy tagline we’re using these days (Palin’s Pasture?).
For three summers I had a front row seat to those retracing the routes of John Muir, the gold rush and sled dogs. I worked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau as a whale watch guide, deckhand and bear guide (bear viewing that is, not hunting).
I was fresh out of college, and had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I had lined up an entry level position with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) only to have the federal budget frozen and my position unceremoniously tossed out four weeks before I was supposed to begin.
I didn’t know the first thing about guiding. But I knew whales, the ocean and my Dad had once been charged by a Grizzly so I felt qualified. Virtually the entire tourism industry in southeast Alaska centers around the cruise ship. The 2,000 passenger floating hotels that market themselves as holding everything you could ever want.     Upwards of 15,000 people can flood Juneau off the boats in the summer; a town with a population of about 33,000.
I fidget on the dock. Bright orange polo tucked into Carharts, black and orange ball cap jammed on top of curling blond hair. I feel like a 6’4” carrot. Slowly couples begin to gather around me; from Germany, Texas, Boston, and Australia. I hand out the weight sheets to ensure the planes are balanced for the flight portion of the tour and try to make conversation. A beer or two would’ve helped.
My last couple staggers slowly down the gangplank towards me. It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The husband’s steps are uneven, his breath ragged, he looks exhausted and beaten. Cancer will do that.
As we board the bus bound for the airport his wife pulls me aside. Yes, her husband was terminally ill, his life expectancy could be measured in months. But if I could, please, try to treat them as normally as possible.
I climb the steps behind her and collapse into my seat mind whirling. I was supposed to be in a lab, or a research boat measuring the bioenergetics of forage fish. Fish that couldn’t tell me their physical condition. That there last wish was to see the glaciers of Alaska.
What the hell had I gotten myself into? What did this man care how big a humpback whale was? How long a brown bear slept or how much fish they could devour in a day?
The trip slides by as the plane sends us over the glaciers and over to an island called Chichagof which has one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Naturally we see none. Nature doesn’t understand the concept of the storybook ending.
In the small native town of Hoonah, a boat collects us and we begin the three hour trip back to Juneau eyes scanning for whales. Slowly I begin to pluck up the courage to talk to him. His name is Dan, he’d lived his whole life in Houston, Texas and had just been diagnosed a couple of weeks ago.
He’d rejected chemotherapy and other treatments, emptied their bank account, and was seeing as many of the places he’d dreamed of experiencing before the sickness shackled him to a bed. Alaska had been his number one pick.
Juneau had been their boats first stop. “No pressure,” I told myself. I apologized that the bears hadn’t shown, that the glaciers had been partially obstructed by clouds.     He shrugs, “it’s just enough to know that I’m here.” he answers.
Twenty minutes later a humpback blasts out of the water like a rocket, sending a crescendo of foam across the surface and we cheer like our team just won the Super Bowl. There’s a spark in Dan’s eyes, a glint of joy and life that I can still see four years later. For a few seconds he looks reborn until another coughing fit sends him back into the boat’s cabin.
An hour later we’re within sight of Auke Bay, Juneau’s largest harbor. From the water, the Mendenhall Glacier looms over the boats bobbing along the dock. Even from two miles away it dominants the skyline like a giant frozen sky scraper. The boat captain screams the boat to a halt and ushers me onto the deck with Dan and his wife.
“Get their picture with the glacier,” he whispers.
They lean against the boat’s railing, the ice framed perfectly above them. I swallow a lump in my throat and blink away tears. For the second time Dan looks half his age as he dots a kiss on his wife’s cheek and wraps an arm around her as I click off a shot. The moment passes, the boat revs, and they slowly move back inside, wrapping their down jackets tightly against the wind.
Minutes later we’re on the bus, headed for the cruise ships 15 minutes away. I search for something comforting or inspiring to say. Some magic words that could somehow make their plight better. Instead I just listen as they talk about their kids, their work, their life. My ears doing more than my tongue ever could.
Feet from the dock Dan looks out the window and sighs, “it’s a magnificent place you have here, David.”
“Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s all of ours. It grabs hold of something deep inside of us, resonates, makes us whole.”
He nods, “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could climb the mountains. Maybe go fishing, you hunt?”
I confess that I’ve never killed anything bigger than a salmon.
“Well don’t wait,” he said, “live out your dreams while your young, don’t wait for your come to Jesus moment.” His wife sniffs and he gives her a little squeeze.
The bus stops, I shake Dan’s hand and hug his wife. Slowly they walk away, inching up the gangway, his last words echoing between my ears.
Don’t wait, live now. See what needs to be seen. Breath the air, walk the trails, climb the mountains, swim the rivers. Don’t let life get in the way of living.
Four years later I sit in a cabin perched on the shores of British Columbia, living. NOAA never called back, hallelujah. Maybe I’ll get a real job some day but I doubt it. Not after seeing that look in Dan’s eye as the humpback broke the surface, telling me everything I’d ever need to know.

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12 thoughts on “A Deathbed Lesson in Living”

  1. David, I’ve enjoyed your adventures vicariously through your blog. Thank you very much. I hope you remember me, Capt. Tom from Glacier Bay days. Red sailboat, Serac driver, etc. My wife and I will be passing Hanson Island on our way north this summer. I was wondering how long you are going to be there and would look forward to seeing you. Cheers!

    1. Hi Tom! Of course I remember! We’ll be here through the end of April, if you can make it by before than we’d love to see you.

      If not, I’ll be in Glacier Bay working for Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks if you’ll be back in that neck of the woods this summer.

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