The summer of 1991, I was madly in love with a young Air Force ROTC cadet at Notre Dame when I left on my final Midshipman cruise onboard USS Puget Sound. I met the ship in Naples and would listen to a tape of Billy Joel music a friend made for me and think and write about this young woman. She, too, had summer training to attend to, hers in Arizona.
During training she got very sick and was hospitalized for several weeks. The news I got was that she was in critical condition. I felt helpless. The best I could muster was flowers via a friend. As I worried, I remember sitting with the young officer assigned to train me and told her that I would never make a career out of the Navy because I never wanted to be at sea when one of my family died.
Well, the girlfriend got well, dumped me and I made a career out of the Navy. So much for that plan!
I tell that story as prelude. My beloved grandmother did her best to live long enough so that I could be with her when she passed away. But after 100 wonderful years, she passed away as I took my ship to sea after an epic port visit to Boston over the Fourth of July weekend in 2010. I put my grief in a box, like all good sailors and soldiers.
Shortly after I took command of USS Nicholas the following year, I received the sad news that one of my sailors had lost his grandmother, too. I invited him into my cabin and listened to him tell me stories about her and then left to give him a quiet place to get his bearings.
Later that same night, I attended the double feature of the final “Harry Potter” movies. When Harry is preparing for his final battle with Voldemort, he has to face his fears and is visited by the spirits of his dead parents and his mentor. They tell him that he has all the strength he needs because he carries a part of them with him — it is because they loved him that he became a great wizard. It is that love that gives him the courage to face his mortal enemy.
Strange thing, fate. On that day, that sailor and Harry Potter gave me a key to unlock that box of grief so that I could begin my own healing.
When ships leave Boston, they transit through Cape Cod Bay, a refuge for what remains of the Right Whales. We have been trained to transit slowly and keep a close watch for these great creatures of the sea so as to not cause any more harm to this endangered species. When my grandmother passed away, I was on my ship in Cape Cod Bay. A pod of whales surfaced very near to us. As the last one dove back into the bay, it raised its fin up as if to wave goodbye.
Steve Fuller retired from the U.S. Navy in 2019 after nearly 27 years of service serving at sea on ships as small as frigates and as large as aircraft carriers. A visit to the Driftless and a desire for a radical course change brought him home to Wisconsin where he lives on a small parcel of land with chickens and horses and … more to come! He has been a creative writer since he first saw U2 perform in Live Aid, and now as he returns home after a life of service, he looks forward to sharing more of his writing with willing readers.