An Abrupt Course Change
“Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives, the merest breath of a circumstance, a random moment that connects like a meteorite striking the earth. Lives have swiveled and changed direction on the strength of a chance remark.” (Bryce Courtenay)
I made smoked salmon chowder on Sunday afternoon. Sautéed onions and red peppers, tossed in potatoes, carrots, and parsnips, kept an anxious eye on the clock. It wasn’t the best time to start cooking. I needed to leave the house by 3:30 to make it to Village Books for my Beyond Belief author friends’ reading. That watched pot needed to boil – fast.
As soon as steam curled from the red cast iron, I snapped the burner off. Car keys and wallet were in my hand when the phone rang.
Joel’s voice was garbled. “I’m in an ambulance. I blew out my knee.”
“I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
The drive from our house to the ER is 8.2 miles. A distance that’s nothing for folks whose biannual commute is a 1000 mile cruise up the Inside Passage, but a wide open range for thoughts to tumbleweed in a life-altering emergency. With every twist of the road, my thoughts shifted from fear for my beloved (A knee, fuck, sweetie, I’m so sorry) to the practical details of our livelihood (There are six weeks between now and when we have to be underway to Alaska, the boat’s nowhere near ready, and the money from last season is gone). The sun beamed brightly that afternoon, as we slipped into every self-employed fisherman’s worst nightmare.
I found my sweetheart on a stretcher in the hallway. Whether influenced by shock or the high traffic surroundings, his explanation was remarkably calm. “I was playing pick-up basketball at the gym. When I stopped fast, my knee kept going. I heard a ‘POP!’ and it just went out – I was on the floor. I couldn’t see my leg, but I could see everyone else’s faces… They all looked sick.”
His teammates rallied, linking arms to carry him out to wait for the ambulance. A nearby volleyball player brought him some water. Another man found his locker and passed his things along to the medics. One of the medics was funny, with an Australian accent. Everyone was kind.
We’ve both been working out to prepare for the season, joking that our gym memberships should be write-offs, preventative maintenance for our line of work. It’s the responsible thing to do, right – to be fit, active, before making such extreme demands of our bodies? So there was the rub: Joel hadn’t been doing anything “wrong.” As he reflected, “I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I just got really unlucky.”
After X-rays and an eyeball/finger poke assessment, the hospital sent us home with a brace, pain prescription, and orthopedic referral. With three stairs to get in the front door, followed by another three up to the kitchen and four down to the bathroom, we got a swift lesson in how poorly our house is designed for folks of limited mobility. (“This is not the house that we’ll be growing old in,” Joel muttered.) We made him a new home on the couch – pillows to keep his knee elevated, a table within easy reach – and rolled out a sleeping bag on the floor for me. Neither of us slept.
That was five days ago.
Tuesday’s MRI led to Wednesday’s diagnosis. A torn ACL. Torn? Completely snapped – the doctor pointed out the ligament’s stump in the picture. A sprained MCL. Cartilage damage. Bone bruising. Surgery required. Four to six months – minimum – to recover.
One of Joel’s nurses was a man who’s trolled out of Southeast Alaska for the past 15 summers. He shook his head with compassion. “I’m sorry, man… As soon as I saw your MRI results, I knew you wouldn’t be fishing this year. Your knee’s hashed.”
From our first conversation in the ER hallway to every phone call to friends, Joel had made his best “It is what it is” noises. He planned for the worst, telling me, “Marlin still needs a second deckhand. If I can’t fish this season, you’ll go with him – he’ll have the best crew in the fleet between you and Mikey.” He embraced his friend Dan-o’s policy of identifying three positives for every negative: “Thank god I have catastrophic health insurance. Homemade mac & cheese for dinner! And even if my knee’s fucked, at least I still have legs!”
He did a herculean job of being his most positive, accepting self. But to receive the official word that he really was so severely injured, and there truly would be no going to sea for him this year… The reality was nothing less than devastating for a man who’s spent every summer of his entire life fishing in Alaska. A 30 year streak broken, leaving him unsure of what – who – remained.
We’ve seen other fishermen allow this kind of news to destroy them. For so many of us, our work is not a mere job. Releasing the dock lines, tilting our heads back to take a deep, salty breath, feeling our bodies become one with the sea and our vessels… We find ourselves whole out there, while we wander, incomplete, on land. Out there, we know ourselves in a way that, on land, we often aren’t quite sure who we are or where we belong.
Joel’s knee is too swollen yet for surgery. He’s got a pre-op appointment in two weeks, with surgery to follow. The doctor warned him that the first week after surgery will be the worst. I’ll be here to take care of him for that period, then transfer caregiving duties to his parents. As Joel commits himself to a summer of physical therapy, I’ll spend the season crewing for Marlin. The Nerka will sit patiently. This will be a first for her, too – the first season that she hasn’t spent in Southeast Alaska, since her 1979 launch. Bear the Boat Cat will be Bear the Not-Spending-This-Summer-on-a Boat Cat. (She, of all of us, will be pleased.)
As soon as Joel posted this news on Facebook, the kind wishes began rolling in. Friends urged him to keep his attitude up. “I firmly believe that adverse circumstances can produce positive outcomes,” said one who knows. Wrote another, “Life altering moment, be open.”
Stranded on the couch as he is, Joel has a lot of time to consider these wise words. He’s squaring his shoulders, bracing for what’s ahead. Even in intense pain, even knowing the worst pain is yet to come, he’s looking to the distant horizon, trying to see what he’ll welcome into his life this summer, in place of what’s always been.
I’m certain that my sweetheart will experience the great pain of his injury – physical and emotional – and move through it, finding valuable lessons and new opportunities in hardship. This is within his abilities. When he took the helm of the Nerka as a 22 year old kid, he had a trial by (everything but) fire debut that was notoriously, epically riddled with disaster. As I’ve said previously, if I’d gone through everything that he did, I don’t know that I would’ve been able to face another season. But Joel did – because he loves fishing that much, and because he’s simply a person who won’t be cowed by adversity. I know he’ll persevere here, too.
This season, Cap’n J’s job will be to repair himself. Next season, he’ll be back – he, me, Bear and the Nerka.
I know some of Hooked’s readers have had your own health scares, serious diagnoses that you’ve had to battle your way through. If you’re comfortable sharing what helped you get through, we’d welcome your guidance. How did you keep your outlook positive? How did you handle the times you weren’t able to be positive? What made the difference for you? When you weren’t able to be very physically active, how did you occupy your time and mind? Thanks, friends.
A postscript for those of you in the Bellingham area… The day before Joel’s injury, his sister and I set up his first photography show. Eleven framed photos and many greeting cards are available at the BookFare Café, upstairs in Village Books. (I hear one photo is already spoken for… Thank you, dear patron!) BookFare has long been a friend of ours – while you’re checking out the images, order the Northwest Salad to enjoy Nerka–caught smoked salmon – and we’re grateful to owner Charles Claassen for generously promoting local artists. Though this show was scheduled many months in advance, the opportunity to promote Joel’s back-up career now seems quite fortuitously timed. If you’re not able to visit his show in person, you can check out Joel’s photos here. (It’s very easy for us to make 4x6 greeting cards from any image — just ask!) Thank you all for spreading the word to your landscape photography-loving friends.