When I was little, my parents took me on holiday to the Isle of Wight. One memory always stood out among the others. I can still recall my father pulling the car over so we could watch the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship sail into port.
My 11-year-old self was astonished by how huge that ship was. It seemed as if the entire shipload of passengers were on its decks, smiling and waving to those of us on shore. A thought seized me: When I grow up, I want to do what they’re doing.
From that brief moment near the docks, just a mere fragment of my young life, my future was being cast. Although I didn’t know it, as I gazed at the ship and waved back to the passengers, that Queen Elizabeth II sighting would direct my career choice, which led to meeting Mauricio, and later the birth of my two children, who are the absolute center of my life today.
Of course, I didn’t spend each minute of my childhood thinking about cruise ships, but that moment took root. After leaving school, I worked at a jewelry store. As I was learning about gemstones and precious metals, I remembered the happy faces aboard that ship and sought a way to work on one.
I came across a company that placed employees in duty free shops, but the cruise lines expected plenty of experience. It took me five years to have enough expertise in selling jewelry to get hired.
Flying to Miami, where I was to board my first cruise ship, was like going to the moon for me. The blue-green color of the ocean from the plane was just as alien a sight to my eyes, which were used to the grayer half of the Atlantic.
In less than a year, I found a spot on the original Royal Princess, where I worked in the jewelry store and was swept off my feet.
Much like life below stairs on “Downton Abbey,” crew members have their own social life below deck. I met Mauricio, who was just starting out as a busboy, while I was moonlighting, helping with the costume changes backstage during the nightly shows. In between numbers, I’d sit outside the dressing room and watch people coming and going from the crew gym.
On one of those nights, I saw Mauricio pass by. He would argue that he was smelly and sweaty, but to me, he looked like a Latin god.
From that first meeting, we kept bumping into each other: at the crew mess, the aft-end pub, and the crew disco. I could feel his eyes burning into the back of my neck and knew he was somewhere nearby.
One evening, he came into the jewelry shop, wearing his white uniform with green epaulettes, making my heart nearly jump into my mouth. He quietly asked with such a delicious Mexican accent if I would like to join him for drinks.
He was leaning so close, I thought he was going to kiss me then and there! For a split second, I was speechless. Not wanting to appear totally weak-kneed, I tore off a piece of receipt roll from the cash register at my elbow and wrote my cabin number, followed by the words “Sssshh (secret)” He winked and glided out the door leaving me to wonder whether I had imagined the whole thing.
That evening, I paced my cabin, waiting to see if he’d knock. After what seemed like a lifetime, there was a soft tapping on the door. He pushed it open hesitatingly, and then grinned when he saw me there. Mauricio carried a bottle of champagne and a silver tray covered with foil. When I asked what was in the container, he joked, “Mexican jumping beans.”
We walked to the aft of the ship and he uncovered the tray. He’d prepared a dish of perfect strawberries, each pierced by a toothpick, to go with the champagne. Mauricio was not only a joker, but a charmer as well. These first moments are so vivid, they still make me catch my breath today.
From then on, we were together as much as we could, although mostly we were literally like ships that passed in the night, me on one and Mauricio on another. Thanks to the radio officers who’d transmit our Telexes back and forth, our love grew.
The passengers we’d gotten to know became caught up in the romanticism of our story. They’d ask Mauricio, by then a waiter, “How’s your girlfriend?” One time, I was thrilled to get a customer from the same town as Mauricio, who happened to be on leave at the time. She left the ship with a packet of letters to mail to him.
Sometimes we were lucky. Mauricio would find the rare day when both our ships were in the same port, taking me by surprise. Once, when our ships cruised to Cozumel, Mauricio got a note to the purser on my ship, which was relayed to me as I was taking inventory in the jewelry store. He beseeched me to board a tender and meet him on the dock. Fortunately, my boss graciously rearranged the schedule.
We married in the United Kingdom in 1996, followed later by a church wedding in Mexico. By then, I had left the ships and was working on land. Mauricio, meanwhile, remained wedded to the sea life. One time, he surprised me by making all the arrangements for me to join him on Sun Princess in Vancouver for three glorious weeks. That’s when I became pregnant with our daughter, Natalie.
Over our years together, we lived in the UK and in Mexico, where our son Mauricio, was born. Some of the time, Mauricio worked at resorts, but ultimately, he’d always go back to working on the cruise ships. I returned to England with the children.
I yearned for stability so we could raise our two children as a team. But our time together was often marked by geographic distance and great emotional upheaval. Things got worse when Mauricio’s mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. He flew back to Mexico to be with her as she lost a quick and brutal battle with the disease.
Mauricio decided to stay in Mexico while we continued on at home. Then I received the phone call. Two months after his mother’s death, my Mauricio was also dead.
Grief-stricken and depleted, I tried to figure out what had happened. Lost in sadness by his mother’s death and drinking more than he ever had before, Mauricio at the young age of 42 succumbed to a heart attack.
While I have lost the love of my life and my children have lost their rock and their light, I will forever be grateful that fate put Mauricio and me aboard Royal Princess.
This August 24 will mark a year since Mauricio’s passing.
I know exactly what to do. I will go to the coastline, no longer an innocent 11-year-old on the docks in the Isle of Wight. I will go to a beach in Barcelona, the mother of Natalie, 16, and Mauricio, 11, himself. We will go to this little lady I know who sells flowers and I will buy three, perfect roses.
We will drop the flowers into the waves, and cast our prayers to daddy, to Mauricio, my sailor and the love of my life, to all who meet on the ships at sea, to love, to bittersweet destiny.
And then we will slip away—to Porto Ventura, to ride the rollercoasters. My children know that is what their daddy would have wanted. We will look ahead, but should we stop to look back, we will only see the happy memories.
Following the sad death of Mauricio, Paula continues to live in the UK with her two children, trying to come to terms with their loss. She’s learning to remember a husband and daddy with smiles, the happy times spent on board, and precious moments with the family.