"Mind your head. Watch your step.” So advised the neatly framed signs posted every few dozen metres on the third-floor wraparound deck of our cruise ship, the MS Zuiderdam. Each afternoon during a 10-day voyage I took last winter with my partner, John, and his father, Bill, I would read those warnings on my one-hour buffet-busting afternoon constitutional. And I couldn't help but wonder whether Bill, on his own daily walks, saw in them the same corny but comforting message I did.
It had been eight months since Jean, his wife of 62 years (and my mother-in-law for 28 of those) had died, and after a difficult year, those on-deck admonitions seemed more Deepak Chopra than Holland America. Mind your head. Watch your step. All they were missing, I thought, was “Guard your heart” – which, I had suspected, was what Bill had been doing when he shrugged off our initial suggestion of taking a winter trip to Buenos Aires, where John and I thought the three of us might share an apartment for a few winter weeks.
When my own father died several years ago, I remember being hesitant to travel anywhere new, because arriving at my destination only confirmed the fact that he was nowhere on Earth to be found. Bill, I figured, was perhaps afraid that going away would only add to the sense that Jean was no longer at his side.
But then he made an alternate proposal: He and Jean had taken a cruise to Alaska a few years back, and, after a lifetime of off-the-beaten-track travel, they liked the combination it had offered of a well-charted voyage into what for them were uncharted waters – scenery and excursions they'd never experienced, combined with an absence of things they didn't want: parasites seeking a Canadian host, B&Bs with lumpy beds and bad wallpaper, Turkish toilets.
Sounded good to us. And so we chose a cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Panama (whose locks both Bill and John had always wanted to see) and back, via the tiny Bahamian island of Half Moon Cay, plus Aruba, Curacao and Costa Rica, where my niece was expecting a baby (due about a month before the Zuiderdam would be pulling into port).
Still, I think we all embarked on the idea, and the trip, not only with hearts guarded but with fingers crossed. On a practical level, how wise would it be for John and me to travel with a parent; and for Bill, a very independent man, to spend an entire vacation with us? And on an emotional level, how would any of us tread the line between missing Jean (no doubt more acutely than ever; 28 years after my dad's death, I think of him the most when I kick back and relax) and allowing ourselves to enjoy a getaway we needed more than ever?
I am here to report that after some of the choppiest months of our lives, our trip on the high seas was smooth sailing. A lot of that can be credited to two words: organized freedom, a concept the cruise industry has down to an art. Whether you're into glitz or quiet, self-improvement or self-destruction, cruise ships offer loads of options that Bill, John and I could opt into or out of, with or without the other two guys, and with pretty much no planning required. Take a fork in the road, and we'll see you back at the room for cocktails, or on aft deck nine when we hit the first Panama lock.
That no-planning approach works especially well when two generations are travelling together. A friend of ours took his parents to India once and was overwhelmed by the endless accommodating that his parents quite reasonably required. But even on a straightforward trip to, say, Vancouver or Paris (or Buenos Aires), the advance planning and on-the-ground co-ordination – involving hotels, transportation, directions, hiring tour guides and negotiating local customs – can be an onerous, pleasure-busting job (and one that tends to fall to the younger generation).