How a Minor Travel Mishap Helped My Family Through a Major Life Moment

A boating incident in the Florida Keys brings home the meaning of Thanksgiving

It was day two of our Thanksgiving break in the Florida Keys time-share, and my father was getting antsy. His wife and two adult daughters were content to lounge by the pool, out beyond the heavy curtains that shaded the interior of the condo. He was working his way through a book — a Jared Diamond tome, or maybe a historical biography? — but he wanted to do something.

My Dad bores easily. Vacationing with his 20-something children had set him a new challenge, to relax and pretend to like it. Spending holidays apart, though, no longer felt like an option: He had, and beat, an especially nasty cancer last year.

“Let’s rent a boat,” he said as we ate the eggs he’d made us. “I love boats.”

We all agreed. The water suited my sister and me, and my mother wanted to visit industrialist William Matheson’s 280-acre island, preserved since he bought it in 1919. It was the only Key on which the hardwood that once carpeted the other islands hadn’t surrendered to development; the foliage was pristine.

At the boat rental place, Mom was not thrilled with any of the options. It was her birthday, so we indulged her: My sister and I went in search of peanut butter M&Ms, her favorite, in the frosty convenience store while negotiations were undertaken. Eventually the tall man in charge, the one with the toothpick between his canines, was persuaded to give us a 26-footer for the price of a 20.

My father paced the pier next to the boat once, twice. “Are you sure you know how to drive this thing?” asked my mother. In one smooth motion, he balled up the towel that hung over his shoulder, tossed it onto the vinyl seats that ran the back of the boat, and leaped, his broken Topsiders gawping, onto the deck. “Well, sure I do,” he said with a cheeseball guffaw as he started the motor.

“Follow the channels,” the attendant shouted as he untied us. “Tide’ll go out in a few hours.” Dad saluted and accelerated.

We wound under the highway overpass that cuts down the Keys like a spine and across the flattish, lapping waves. My father zoomed between thin mangrove islands that weren’t really islands, just clumps of vegetation.

It was a little after mid-day and we had to be back around five to take Mom to the fancy beach bar to watch the sunset. We wanted to order her conch fritters and the kind of teenager drink—maybe a piña colada or a Sex on the Beach—that she loves but rarely orders.

Mostly we wanted do what she wanted to do, because my mother had not wanted very much in a while. She had sewed the last year and a half together while my father faced rounds of chemo and surgeries and months of physical therapy and my sister, Lizzy, and I — who both lived abroad — came home not quite often enough to be of much help. She asked the questions, talked to the nurses, took optimistic phone pictures from the chemo chair and sent them in emails with titles like “We’re starting the race,” and “hanging in there.”

On the island, we toured a small house with Shaker furniture and walked to the highest point in the Keys (19 feet above sea level). Back at the boat, Lizzy pulled her biggest smile and asked the park ranger if we could jump off the pier, and when he said it wasn’t allowed but he wouldn’t tell, we cannon-balled into the crystalline water. Mom giggled but resisted our entreaties to follow us in.

On the way back home, Dad wanted to detour a bit. We sat on the back of the boat, Mom’s face lifted and her eyes closed behind her sunglasses, Lizzy sunning on a towel in her bikini. It was around 2:30 or 3. Dad stood at the helm, his eyes ranging across the horizon under the wide flat brim of the floppy hat tied around his chin boy scout-style. I watched a school of enormous silver fish trailing us and dipped my fingers in the water, wiggling them. The fish didn’t notice.

It was 3:30 or 4 as we began to snake our way back to the boat rental place. The water started to darken as the sun lost strength, and we realized that the return trip would take longer than we had calculated. As the tide had ebbed, the entrances to the deep channels—the only ones in which the boat could navigate—had receded further and further from the shore. And the further out we went in search of them, the more time we lost, and the more the tide would retreat.

Dad was going slowly now, searching for the markers. I was looking back at my mother — asleep — when Lizzy shouted to stop the boat, now now NOW.

Sand churned beneath our propellers; my father jerked to a halt. Mom stood up, asking what was going on. “We’re bottomed out,” I said, looking at Dad. Tentacles of froggy weeds coated the swamp floor, and there were no boats in sight; just a few islands like a Dalmatian’s spots, irregular and spread too far away to walk or swim to. The sun was about six inches off the horizon. Just an hour ago its white light had felt impermeable, but now it was butter, slipping down ever faster. I hoped the motor hadn’t broken.

My father jumped into the water, old Topsiders and all, his face taut and tense like it would give off sparks if something touched his cheek, and Lizzy roamed from bow to stern, holding up her cell phone and squinting. The propeller wasn’t broken, my Dad reported, with his hand under it and water at his mid-thigh. He was audibly relieved.

I lowered myself off the ladder after him and he gripped the rope on the stern end of the boat and I pushed the bow toward the channel that he had steered out of ‘because.’ Mom shouted that we should push that way, THAT way, Lizzy poked her toe into the water and refused to jump to lighten the load, Dad clenched his jaw and said nothing and pushed the boat wherever it would go, because it was too heavy to really direct.

All of us hoped and hoped that the sun would just stop setting, that the water would stop going down, that the sheer force of what we wanted — something normal, dammit, during this year that had finally begun to resemble regular life again — could keep minor disaster at bay.

Later, when we sat at the beach bar—after we’d spent a half hour pushing and pulling the boat and moving it, inch by inch, out of the murk, and another half hour cruising ever so slowly back through the channels, after we’d returned the boat and rushed up the slim causeway, after Lizzy had convinced the host to give us the best table, and I had ordered drinks in the last of the purple light—my father would reach into the pocket of his cargo shorts and pull out a waterlogged camera and a wad of soaked cash. My mother would shake her head. “Drinks on me tonight?” I would say.

My Dad confessed that he’d been worried we’d spend my Mom’s birthday on a beached boat, waiting for the tide to rise again. He confessed that he didn’t know why he always got us into minor travel trouble, like the time we were in Mexico and he scraped the gas pan driving too hard on a bad road and we were stranded at a remote beach shack with no telephones. (Helpful truckers came to our rescue.) Or in Rio de Janeiro when the accommodation plans he’d made fell through two days before New Year’s and we had to split up, homeless in Copacabana, to check hotels for vacancies. (We found some.)

We all sipped our drinks quietly as the last of the light bled from the day. And when we ordered a second round, we started to laugh as Mom said something along the lines of what my sister and I were thinking, too: It wouldn’t be a true vacation without something going a touch wrong. Especially now that the real wrong had finally been righted.

Illustrations by Cale Ajioka

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.