Doug and I have been racing small sailboats on and off together for about twelve years, since right after I moved back from Chicago, a punk kid talking trash about roll tacks and gybe angles. (No, you don’t need to know what these things mean to understand this post, just appreciate how those words sound together.)
We went through a period where we bickered like teenage sisters – yelling at each other at starts and mark roundings, anytime things got a little stressy. Then something happened. Maybe it was maturity. Maybe we’d learned how to communicate from our significant others. Maybe we started talking to each other on and off the water. Maybe it was all of these things.
He’d tell me what he expected as the skipper, the decisions I should make, the information he needed about wind shifts, compass headings and fleet position. I told him how much notice I needed and the tone of voice I required.
We’d just started the sailing season five years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer. My oncologist told me I should try to keep doing things that brought me joy, even while (especially while) I was in chemo. Since I sailed every Tuesday night, I scheduled chemo for Wednesday mornings so Tuesdays would be my best, strongest, least nauseous day. I marched through the summer, a freaked-out skeleton, covered in sun screen and topped with a wide-brimmed hat. Sailing was, and has always been, my thing. It was one of the few things I held on to.
I don’t remember talking about cancer on the boat. I couldn’t. I had to sail. When we’re on the boat it’s all about wind pressure, sail trim and right of way. It‘s complete immersion that demands physical and mental devotion. It was my only escape, the only time when my long-term survival drifted to the back of my mind. I didn’t miss a single night that season.
I happened to be having coffee with Doug this winter when his doctor called to tell him he had Medullary Thyroid Cancer. We talked and emailed over the following weeks and months through his surgery and follow up scans and blood work, about the world of cancer in general and his cancer in particular. Our diseases were different but the ever-present fear of recurrence is now something we share.
The 2010 season started a few weeks ago. Doug is through with treatment and cancer-free. He’s light a thyroid now, his upper body strength isn’t what it used to be, and his vocal cords were jimmied enough during surgery that he has a hard time speaking loudly, but we were out there. We didn’t talk at all about tumor markers, scans or surgeons, only about lifts and headers, lay lines and mark roundings. We spent some time working on the coordination of our roll tacks – pushing all our combined weight to one rail to turn the boat then jumping to the other side to flatten as the boat accelerated. Even when our coordination was completely off, everything felt right. We were doing exactly what we should be doing, watching the wind move across the water, and holding down the rail of that boat.