Daniel

This is a repost: Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Estonia Ferry tragedy.

No boy was ever born who loved the sea more than Daniel; he wasn’t born for any other reason than to wade into the water. Up until he was five years of age Daniel wasn’t a child you could love more than any other child but after his fifth birthday, that all changed. His mother and I bought him a Shetland pony; being fortunate to live on an island, off the west coast of Scotland, and having land available. We called his pony Barnaby Rudge, no bigger than a Saint Bernard dog. Barnaby followed Daniel everywhere, even into the kitchen of the old barn house; much to his mother’s disgust and to my amusement.

Life in the open air made Daniel a sturdy child, with cheeks so ruddy his face resembled an October apple. Often, I’d look out from the window of my study to see him sitting on the grass amid a flock of sheep, hearing his mother telling him not to pick up the dark brown marbles scattered liberally over the grassland. Alas, this he only learned only after his first taste!

After their day’s work in the pasture, the dogs would rush up to him, licking his face, setting him to giggling. Daniel was just eight years old when we left the island, and over the next two years of his life his feet only touched land a few times as his mother and I fulfilled our dream of sailing around the world.

He was just eight years of age, hardly old enough to make decisions. But one over-riding plus in Daniel’s mind was no more need to attend school. Daniel hated school. Once a week, I could count on his teacher coming to the farmhouse. It was always the same story; Daniel was a child incapable of sitting still in class, disrupting the lesson, disadvantaging those children who were well behaved. Sure, that was Daniel; if he had an aura around him, it was Indigo Blue.

Barnaby Rudge was the first thing Daniel ever missed that tore at his heart. It was almost two years to the day when we returned. Then, Daniel could stand astride Barnaby. It was a shock to see how much he had grown. Our voyage had taken us around the world, stopping off in places like Gambia, South Africa, and New Zealand for a couple of weeks at a time to do some snorkeling and diving, but mostly to eat ashore for a few days. Daniel’s life at sea had separated him from the natural growing up of a boy, and when we returned home he found difficulty adapting back to living on the island. He became reclusive, not wanting friends round, not wanting to play any kinds of game. It disturbed us greatly. Had we done this to him? Daniel took himself off to the harbour just about every day.

When he came home in the evenings, he had a look I recognized. The sun and wind had cracked and bronzed his skin, and his imagination had been working overtime. It then became time to relocate Daniel back into school, which proved to be no more successful than his first years. Daniel became rebellious. It gave his mother and me some heartache. He was losing his patience all too often, not just with his friends but with us, his family. He sulked and skulked alone in his room. When we sat him down to talk to him it was hopeless. All he ever said was: Why aren’t we away, what is the point of being here? I don’t want to be here, or play with other kids.

Daniel had become a loner in many ways. That first year back home was made intolerable by his actions and sulks. His mother tried everything, but I knew what was wrong. I mean exactly. I was frightened for him. I knew so much about the frustration of living away from that which he loved most, the sea. It was on our doorstep and yet it was so far away. Daniel was a boy made for leaving the land, not standing on it.

Eleven years after the date of his birth he came home from school, emptied the contents of his piggy bank onto the bed and counted out thirty-seven pounds and four-pence. When asked by his mother why he was counting the money, he announced he was buying a yacht. He didn’t want to live on the stupid island. We smiled, but we knew what we had done to him. We had done something that no parents should ever do; we had lost our child to the world.

At eleven years of age, he was planning on leaving us. Yes, ridiculous, yes, many children develop strong personalities, but we had shown him too much. He had not lived the life of a child for two years; given tasks that required real discipline and strength of character as well as muscle. In the next month leading up to his birthday, I agonized over my decision. Daniel would not be content to sail in the confines of the harbour, nor could we offer a round-the-world sailor a dinghy such as many of the teenagers used on the island.

The yacht I looked at, one I’d seen many times, was moored in the marina with a for sale sign hung over the deck-rail. What every sailor should look for in a sailboat is seaworthiness; meaning, a boat that will take care of you when you can no longer take care of it. I had done everything I could to make Daniel understand that sailing is all about preparation and knowledge; being prepared at all times. (Here is not the place to tell you what kind of preparedness I mean, because this is about Daniel and not about sailing.) He was ready; you must take my word for it as his father; as a man who loved him. I can indicate this to you by the first thing he told me when returning from his first sail around the island. Dad, the rudder’s out of balance. After an hour at sea together, that same evening, I knew I’d lost my son. The rudder was indeed out of balance.

In the next year we hardly saw Daniel, nor did his teachers. He was so incredibly wonderful in many ways, but when it came to education; algebra, history, Latin, Daniel suffered more than most. In his year between eleven and twelve, Daniel was a stranger to us. I was growing frustrated myself, anxious about him. He was determined and stubborn, and those two traits together had turned him into a lone sailor and not a schoolboy.

Daniel loved me, he loved what I did, loved what I taught him, and when it came time for him to teach me things, I learned them with pride. By the time he was thirteen, he was over six-feet tall. His hands were no longer a boy’s hands.

Daniel did have one weakness, if weakness I could call it; his mother. You might have thought she had no natural strength of her own the way he protected her. Regardless of our fights and our voices raised and the sometimes shuddering disagreements about how to raise Daniel, he could put his arms around her, and everything would become calm. She would kiss his cheek and tell him he was impossible to love, when of course it was the least impossible thing to do. His arms around her, I knew, like being encompassed in strength and security.

Daniel was difficult in everything — except how he loved his mother; it was serenity itself to watch them. Daniel and I battled constantly, we rubbed shoulders at sea, stood together as men, but my regret is that he was hardly ever a child; playing with other boys, running and climbing trees.

So, you see, I never quite got it right with my son.

I was on duty in the Adriatic on the fateful day they boarded the ferry going from Helsinki to Tallinn. They never arrived. Nor were their bodies ever recovered. There has never been a golden day since the fateful day they journeyed. Then came the days following when nothing in the world seemed brilliant or clever or ordinary, and these days begin in a variety of ways, but mostly they just have to be got through.

This story is not a request for sympathy or understanding. Trust me, Daniel will have been holding his mother in those strong arms when she most needed him. He was fourteen years of age, one of the best men I ever met. He lived his life daring to do whatever his calling tempted him to do. I am fortunate, very fortunate, that such a young man now guards his mother forever. She could not be, nor ever will be in better hands while they make their journey together.

These many years later I watch the breakers rise, bringing the tide home. Some drama at sea is always unfolding. The seaborne awakenings, the deliriums of surf, the shivering of birds that hover and hang before rolling over on the wing. It is the life of the ocean. Bottomless nights and dawns of sunlight. Heartbreaking movement. Its life-force dictated by the moon’s pull.

Even so, I still think it holds some magical mystery.

After all, it is the place my family play and hide; the place they went to become nature.

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