Many times aboard many ships, during long and otherwise uneventful night watches, I sailed past other vessels going in the opposite or nearly opposite direction. Except for their running lights, these other ships were often invisible in the total darkness that covered the water. I could see their “blips” on the radar screen, and from these calculate their directions and speeds of travel. Beyond this information, though, these vessels and their crews remained anonymous as they sailed under the cloak of darkness—unless a lonely mate, yearning for even some temporary human companionship, picked up the VHF radio and called up the mate of the other ship. Then the time-honored inquiries of “What ship? Where bound?” would be posed and answered, and then followed by friendly conversation until the two vessels passed out of radio range.
A few such impromptu conversations stand out in memory even after so many years. One night aboard the Waccamaw along the coast of Cuba, the mate on another American ship called me up. After some preliminaries involving my course and speed and destination of Guantanamo Bay, he thanked me profusely for supporting the armed forces and helping to prevent the further spread of Communism in the Western Hemisphere. A very friendly fellow, I think he would have talked to me all night long, but we both had work to do, and so we bade each other farewell.
Another night aboard the eastbound Comet in mid-Atlantic, the mate of an westbound ship called me up. In this otherwise empty stretch of ocean, we had plenty of time to chat, and we found that we had much in common. He was a graduate of Fort Schuyler, about my own age, and through school and sailing knew many of the same guys that I did. It was a pleasant opportunity to catch up on the news of where everyone was and what they were doing. Then he went his way and I went mine, separated by only a few miles of seawater, but bound for opposite continents.
In these and numerous other inter-ship encounters, two people at random points in their voyages met briefly, spoke with each other cheerfully, and continued on their way. Most likely they would not meet again. Nonetheless, their chance meetings were happy occasions with uplifting conversations that enriched them both. After all, “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
A similar scenario sometimes took place at harbor entrances, in both daylight and nighttime. Two ships of the same fleet, one outbound and one returning, would meet in the channel or at the pilot station. They could be, for example, the Rigel and the Pawcatuck meeting at the Chesapeake Bay entrance. Even though busy with matters of arrival and departure, their Masters would take a moment to exchange a “Welcome home!” and a “Bon voyage!” and some collegial chit-chat over the VHF radio. The common ground that they shared was palpable. They worked for the same employer, sailed on the same ships, knew the same crews, did the same jobs, visited the same ports, ate the same food, and knew that they would meet again.
Implicit in all these ship-to-ship conversations was common ground. Even if not employed by the same company, the participants shared the rigors of the sea and the life away from home. They took sights of the same stars and endured the same rough weather. They lived in similar lodgings, worked similar inconvenient schedules, and enjoyed similar dubious comforts. In short, they understood one another without needing to say so. It just came with the territory.
In a broader sense, entering and leaving life are a lot like entering and leaving port. A newborn baby has a long voyage ahead of him, and an elderly person has a long voyage behind him. When they meet at the harbor entrance, one setting out and one coming back, there is so much the one returning could tell the one heading out concerning what lies ahead on the open sea of life. Yet with each one busy with the pressing matters of arrival and departure, the situation is simply not conducive to a lengthy and detailed analysis of the sea conditions. Some aspects of the voyage the newcomer will just need to learn on his own. Perhaps in mid-ocean a friendly mate on a passing ship will call up and chat with him, but that remains to be seen.
My mother, Justine Elizabeth Burns, entered Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, Long Island, on Christmas Day of 2017 at the age of 99, and was diagnosed with what the medical staff described as her final illness. They gave her a few days to possibly a few weeks to live on home hospice care. Mom said that she wanted to last long enough to see all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren one more time. With the meter thus ticking, the family rallied to her bedside.
In this last week of December, my oldest son flew in from Alaska; my youngest son drove down from New Hampshire; and my middle son, traveling by airplane and train with his pregnant wife, also arrived from Alaska. With this young couple was their soon-to-be-born baby girl whom they would name Katherine Elizabeth. Finally, on New Year’s Day, my daughter and her daughter, Miss Lydia Elizabeth, arrived by air from South America. Faced with such an impromptu reunion, Mom’s joy was complete.
In several days filled with heartwarming moments, the most heartwarming but also bittersweet moments occurred between Mom and her two great-granddaughters. She had of course seen Miss Lydia several times previously, but not Miss Katherine. She was thus very pleased to meet Miss Katherine, in a sense, by placing her hand on the appropriate spot and feeling her kicking in the womb. Awed by this little girl’s ability to make her presence known, Mom remarked on the miracle of life and the continuation of the family line. It was truly a very special occasion for her.
Like two ships that pass in the night, and with neither running lights nor radar, Mom and Miss Katherine were completely invisible to each other, yet at least one of them knew that the other was there. If they could have seen one another, what sights they would have beheld! If they could have spoken with one another, what conversation would have passed between them! Like inbound and outbound ships meeting at the pilot station, one was starting her life’s long voyage and the other concluding hers. If they could have called across the water to each other, what enthusiastic greetings they would have exchanged, and what wise counsel one would have imparted to the other! Alas, it could not be. As merchant seamen must do after an all-too-brief acquaintance, each had to go her separate way, one to return to Alaska and one to remain on Long Island.
All of Mom’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren likewise had to leave and return to their distant homes. With her goal of seeing everyone achieved, the family anticipated that Mom’s long voyage would soon be finished. But there was a delay.
On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, in Providence Hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, Miss Katherine Elizabeth emerged from the prenatal darkness and came into the light of the outside world. Her great-grandmother, patiently awaiting the news of this blessed event, received the announcement happily and thankfully. Soon afterwards, she saw the first photographs of Miss Katherine, transmitted to her bedside via cell phone. Once again, Mom’s joy was complete.
Everyone’s attention now turned to little Miss Katherine. As her cousin Miss Lydia had done two years previously, she came down from Heaven—descendit de caelis—to become part of our family. We all bore a serious moral obligation to treat her well, provide for her properly, protect her from harm, and help her succeed in her new life. That this new life was a miracle seemed self-evident, providing much food for serious thought and contemplation, yet leaving very little to say. It seemed best, then, to maintain a reverent silence and pray for God’s blessings to accompany Miss Katherine always.
Just as we waited for Miss Katherine to finish her descent from Heaven and begin her earthly voyage, we now wait for Mom to finish her earthly voyage and begin her ascent into Heaven. Exceeding the hospital staff’s estimated survival time, she displays no readiness to ring up “Finished with Engines” just yet. She has already requested enlargements of Miss Katherine’s photographs. She will keep these by her bedside along with Miss Lydia’s portraits, and she will gaze lovingly at these two most precious little baby girls’ images as she prays her daily Rosary for them.
Even if they never meet again in this life, Mom and Miss Katherine have already shared a very special time together. With the common ground of family, which is “ordained of God,” they met like two ships that pass in the night, unseen and unheard by each other, but probably more known and more loved by each other than the rest of us can imagine.