The excitement is high as we near Christmas. Nobody tries to pretend that it’s just another day. On December 25 each person gets ten minutes on the satellite phone with the cabin door shut as she talks to loved ones back home for the first time since we left nearly three weeks ago. Christmas Day also offers a great chance to do media interviews and update supporters and sponsors.
By my calculations it’s day eighteen, which makes it Christmas Eve, and I’m so excited that I ask Debs to send a message to my sister: “Tell her to remember to let all the families know about my phone interview with Sky Sports News.” Debs sends the message.
A few minutes later she comes out of the cabin, laughing as she reads Joy’s reply: “It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow, not today!”
As the day moves on and we move another twenty or thirty miles closer to our goal, I feel myself sinking from my upbeat mood. I think about the pressure to finish this row in time to break the world record. Mum is also on my mind, as she has been since I began the row.
I used to say that I couldn’t wait to get on the boat to have a rest and leave behind all the stresses and strains that have weighed down my family over the last year or two. I might not be spending hours in hospital corridors or experiencing the panic that hits the minute my phone tells me that there’s a call from my mum or sister or a blocked number, but I have not left it behind. Sometimes, when I’m alone in the cabin, the tears come with such force and speed that I dive onto my makeshift bed and bury my face in whatever clothes I can grab, hoping that they will minimize the volume of my sobbing. I feel heavy at times, and I realize that grief has me in its grasp. Mum is alive and doing better. Yet I grieve for the loss of her good health, for the troubles of home that can no longer be ignored, and for the ways that our roles have shifted.
Like my sister, I have become a parent to the woman who gave us life.
This builds up within me, making my heart race and my head feel light and dizzy. Christmas Eve arrives, and I know that if I still feel this way when I speak to everyone at home tomorrow, I’ll lose it. So I tell the girls that I need to talk to someone today, to try and do something to get past this. They’re kind and don’t make a fuss about my getting the extra contact with home. They must be worried about me.
I phone my friend Deborah. We’ve been close for years, and she knows me as well as anyone. She answers and is surprised to hear me, but her squeals of delight are soon drowned out by my tears. I sob on the phone for minute after minute.
“It’s just so hard, Deborah. We’ve had all these stupid equipment failures, there have been some real tensions between us girls, and sometimes I can’t breathe for the fear caused by the wind and the waves. My fingers, arms, back, legs, and skin are all in agony. I’m fed up with all this saltwater that stings all over. And I’m really, really worried that if I talk to Mum tomorrow when I’m feeling like this, it will totally freak her out. It’s so hard, Deborah. It’s just so hard.”
Deborah’s great. She just listens, then prays quickly. I feel better by the time I end the call, and by the next day, when our surprise gifts from Helen and Debs of corroded soda cans and soggy chocolate from the flooded hatch are handed around, I feel better. We wear our Santa hats, sing carols, and take turns in the cabin on the phone. We all emerge red-faced and puffy-eyed.
It’s so good to talk to Mum, though she sounds frail. When I ask about what she has been doing and how she’s feeling, she brushes me off. She says, “It doesn’t matter. I want to hear about you.” It’s typical of her. I tell her a bit about the row. We end up talking about mundane things like the vegetables they’re having with their turkey, and I love it. Hearing the voices of my niece, sister, and the others in the background makes me smile.
Joy makes sure that the phone is passed around so I can speak to everyone else there. She has become a mother not just to our Mum but to the whole family. I feel guilty leaving her with such a burden, and I know that she works hard to raise publicity about the row. She’s amazing, but she’s not immortal. I can hear the strain in her voice. She sounds tired.
Before my ten minutes are up I speak to Dad. We trade pleasantries for a few seconds. Then I say the same words that I used just after I moved back home. “I’m sorry that I have shut you out, Dad. I’m really sorry.” Shutting him out has been a hard habit to break.
Christmas Day leaves its mark upon our rowing. We make little progress, what with the talking and the crying. But we have made it to a psychological marker. From here on, Barbados seems to urge us to row harder so we can reach it faster.
Excerpted with permission from Row for Freedom: Crossing the Ocean in Search of Hope by Julia Immonen, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2014.
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Some of us will be spending Christmas Day far from home. Some of us are managing health crises, relationship struggles, isolation, and heartbreak right in the middle of singing about the joy of the birth of our King Jesus. How is your heart today? In the middle of your circumstances, take time today to tell the Lord about your troubles and to rejoice in His incarnation. We would love to hear from you! Come join the conversation on our blog!