09/16/2014 08:06 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Losing My Father, Losing My Balance

Four months after my father's death, I found myself on a sailboat off the coast of San Diego. We'd planned the trip the year before, a four day cruise to Catalina Island and back on a beautiful boat with an instructor and food enough for a minyan. I thought a few days on the water would soothe my grief, and perhaps, recharge my soul.

We set out at six in the evening. At once, the water put me at ease. My father loved boats and he'd shared that passion with me. I relaxed into the motion of the sea, watching the gulls recede back to shore as we pierced the night. The lights of the Pacific coast dimmed and then disappeared. There was no moon. The sky and the water were like black syrup closing in around us. We donned sweatshirts and jackets as the temperature dropped. And then, the most surprising thing happened: I felt sick.

I'd never experienced seasickness before. I'd been on ocean trawlers, cruisers, catamarans, and pontoons and never had a queasy moment. I was suddenly alone in space, shivering and sick inside my foul weather gear.

"This happens to a lot of people," the instructor said. "When there is no moon and you can't see the horizon, and the brain can't figure out what's up and what's down. It's disorienting." My husband went below to get some sleep. I stayed on deck in the fresh air sipping ginger ale and counting my breaths as my father taught me. "When you are afraid," he'd told me, "breathe in to the count of four and out to the count of four." I breathed and counted.

A sailboat is noisy at night, especially when your vision is hampered by darkness that feels as thick as pea soup. Water slaps against the hull and slurps, cresting, when the wind is high. The sails snap and strain against their riggings. The boom vang groans with every heave of the waves. And the wind really does howl through the shrouds.

I stood to fasten the zipper of my parka, tucking my foul weather gear inside. I stumbled and nearly toppled into the galley. "Watch yourself," the instructor shouted out. "Maybe you should stay seated until you get your balance." I tucked my chin into my parka and tried to sleep. Get my balance, I heard him say the words, but they didn't really settle into my conscious mind. Not then.

Later, when my stomach had settled and the daylight finally returned, I was surprised that my perspective had changed. I was without my usual boating confidence. I moved from one task to another with great deliberation. I no longer scurried on the deck, sure and secure. Instead, I proceeded slowly, retesting my balance with each step. When the boat heeled, I wobbled, nearly falling again. I held on, at all times. I watched the water as if reading the waves for signals. It was such a strange feeling. I wasn't afraid exactly. But I was not at all myself.

This is what it feels like, I said to myself, to be untethered, unbalanced. This is what it feels like to be fatherless.

We sailed into a quiet cove and anchored for the night. It was warmer here, in the shelter of the cliffs, and I was happy to peel off my foul weather overalls. My husband stood at the stove, heating up a pot of chili I'd made before we left home.

He chuckled as I stumbled trying to pull my foot through the rubbery pant leg. I fell back on the bunk and reassembled my clothing.

"What happened to you?" he asked, stirring the chili.

"I think I've lost my swagger," I said. "I keep teetering, like a drunk. It's like I've never been on a boat before! My father wouldn't recognize me like this," I wobbled and reached for the stability of the mast pole. "I've never been so unsure of my footing before."

He held out the spoon, loaded with steaming chili, and nodded at me. "Taste."

I tasted. The chili was spicy and hot, just the way I liked it. We filled our bowls, actual dog dishes with rubberized rims to prevent slipping, and climbed topside. The sun was fading. On shore, distant plumes of smoke identified bonfires where families camped in the parkland, cooking their meals over open flames. A child shrieked with laughter. A dog barked. The voices of mothers and fathers carried over the water.

We ate among the gulls, watching the last striations of sunlight reach across the water. In the morning, we'd set sail for the return trip. But for now, we settled in against each other and watched the wind and the waves.

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