Breaking Down the Wall on a Panama Canal Cruise

by Naomi Cornelius

Naomi and her father running on the Promenade deck
Naomi and her father running on the Promenade deck

At almost 80, my dad lives and thrives! He’s found the essence of life. And it happened in January aboard the cruise ship, Coral Princess, somewhere between Cartagena and Panama City. Both he and I have been irrevocably altered by this magical and extremely spirited two weeks of time.

My father and mother were courageous souls, endeavoring to rear a family in the heyday of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Complicating matters, we’d lived abroad for most of our formative years. My dad, a member of the Canadian military, was stationed at numerous bases overseas and as such, we were repeatedly uprooted. We constantly crossed borders – France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and the list goes on.

Although my parents did attempt to keep a handle on us and provide their three kids with all of the necessities to succeed in life (like a decent education, regular dental appointments, and just generally avoiding the hippie influences of the day), a divide somehow developed. Tragically, one by one, we three little soldiers mutinied. I’d always feared we’d disappointed them.

Decades went by with sporadic Christmas and birthday communication. By the time we’d reached our 40s, we each tried to build a bridge back to our parents. We increased our telephone call frequency, tried individual visits, even planned a get-together for their 50th anniversary — we all have not  been together since the 1970s. Seemed no matter what creative solution we employed, we were always met with an impenetrable wall.

Little did we realize, there really was a generation gap. We three products of the flower-children generation were given to enjoying life, exploring opportunities, and much, much travel. We tried regaling our parents with tales of our adventures. Alas, there was the wall.

Then, a couple of years ago, we got that call. My mother was ill. In fact, my mother had been ill for many years. We were not privy to the details. My parents, the stoic, intensely private and staid sorts that they were, had kept most everything to themselves. Now blatantly apparent that support would be needed, we tried desperately to help. Yet again, that dastardly wall.

My mother passed away last January, in the arms of my father. They’d grown up together in the ‘30s, dated in the ‘40s, married in the ‘50s and had never left each other’s side. They lived alone in the country, the way they wanted it. We three feared for our father, now lost and very isolated.

But something marvelous had taken hold. After a rocky six months, my dad suddenly announced he wanted to go on my next Princess cruise vacation with me. And he wanted to do this during the anniversary of my mother’s passing. And he wanted to cruise through the Panama Canal. And he wanted to pound the Promenade deck at dawn. And he wanted to eat escargot. And he wanted to wash them down with a full-bodied red wine. And he didn’t want to miss one port, venue, event or moment.

Over the last decade I’d enjoyed various Princess cruises and sent copies of my itineraries and pictures to my parents. I never heard much in return, except for the odd query for details regarding the cruise ship’s preparation of a particular dish, whether I’d met the captain (always), what the sheets were like (felt like satin), and whether I’d slept (rarely). Somewhere along the way, these adventures had lodged in my father’s mind.

After much fretful planning (had to get my dad, who hadn’t travelled in decades, from Canada to meet him in Ft. Lauderdale), we set sail.

Those two profoundly moving weeks have altered the course of my life, and given life back to his.

We dined together; long sumptuous meals, each capped-off with a menagerie of divine chocolate desserts.  We indulged in each and every show; from raucous musicals and transcendent concertos to comedies.  It was hard to believe that this was my dad; that guy next to me who was hooting and clapping, and first to stand for every ovation.

We danced – on a myriad of dance floors.  I couldn’t have imagined that my dad would be the guy who finally teaches me how to complete a full waltz-twirl.  We sashayed over outside decks, through the Piazza, the Princess Theater, whilst traipsing down the stateroom hallways and even did a little jig in the Horizon Court.

We ran on the Promenade deck together at dawn, met the captain together, stayed up most of the night together and cried together. I can still see that ring of chocolate sauce about his mouth after his third dessert.

We now talk most every day. Mostly cruise itineraries and stuff – we’re planning our next cruise to Europe for his 80th birthday so he can finally see Rome.

He’s more alive than I’ve ever seen him. He says he feels like he did in the ‘50s. Not his fifties … the 1950s.

And, the only wall in our future is the Great Wall of China, upon which he intends to walk. He’s announced he wants to go on whichever Princess cruise will take him there.

Clearly, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Naomi lives in Dallas, Texas and has taken seven Princess cruises.  Her father, Paul, lives in Blockhouse, Nova Scotia and is now planning his second Princess cruise.