In a simple society, a person belongs to a single tribe. As society gets more complex, any one person becomes a member of overlapping tribes. There are the tribes of work, of home, of church, of the voting booth. There are tribes of pro-this or anti-that, tribes based on skin color, body shape, and chosen method of transportation. Then there are tribes within the tribes: bikers are also sport-bikers or Harley riders, dirt-bikers or those with an Iron Butt. Sometimes these tribes are at cross-purposes. My guess is that a lot of the stress land dwellers know comes from trying to sort out the conflicting demands of the different tribes they call their own.
The cruising community, by its very nature, bucks this trend. The tribe of home is left behind, as is that of work, and of church. This is not to suggest cruisers are a tribe of heathens, but going to the same building with the same people once or twice a week gets a bit difficult when this Sunday finds one in one country, the next in a different country. (Though some of us are, indeed, heathens.) Most human tribes have given up wandering as a life style, the main reason ours is so different.
We do have our stink or stick boaters. But the truth is most live-a-board long term wanderers fly canvas when they can. And many of the tug and trawler crowd flew canvas once upon a time, so the tribal lines are blurred. (Jet skiers need not apply, unless they pull the jet ski behind a boat, not a pick-up truck.) In any case, joining the tribe of cruisers means leaving many other tribes behind.
For weeks now I have been in this place doing this thing I need to do. I expected it to be a long, sad, somewhat lonely sojourn far from my own tribe. Instead, I found myself part of a completely unexpected, and unsuspected tribe. Tonight, as I was waiting for the elevator, I noticed Grandma and Helen. Grandma speaks okay, but her conversations come from places far away in distance and time. A series of strokes left Helen unable to talk. She makes noises and waves her one good hand. Their wheelchairs were rafted up starboard side to. They were holding hands, clearly communicating; two friends far out to sea, helping each other along. A month ago I would not have noticed what was happening, but I am part of their tribe now. Grandma stops me in the hall to tell me Mom is going to be alright. Helen never fails to notice when I walk by, and I never fail to notice her. Somehow I know her noises and hand waving mean "Hi."
Molly is getting ready to leave the rehab center and move to a nursing home, having mostly overcome the paralysis caused by a stroke. Her boyfriend, Joe, will move with her. They have been together for a long time, and will finish their journey that way as well. I know this because Molly shares a table with Mom for lunch, and we have become friends. Mary has lost parts of both legs to diabetes. She spends much of each day in her chair, wheeling slowly up and down the hall checking things out, stopping to watch, often talking with others in a slow and labored voice. She always stops to talk with me. I always stop to listen. Where a month ago I saw people aimlessly wondering a hallway now, most often, I recognize a person looking for the doorway of a friend.
John once played in the Sugar Bowl. Now he works his legs from a wheelchair, laughing and cracking jokes that, sometimes, only he understands. He is usually in a better mood than is his therapist, which is pretty damned astounding, if you ask me.
All is not sweetness and light. The end of life is the hardest, most harrowing journey of all. Fear is a part of it, as is anger, resentment, and many, many tears. Often the members of this tribe live day-to-day, face-to-face, with a reality the rest of us spend a lifetime trying to ignore. For most this is their one, and last, tribe. But it is a human tribe, perhaps the most human I have ever seen.
I am going to miss these people when I leave. Still, this tribe lives in a hard place of walls and meds and near constant pain. For some of them it is a trial just to get outside, to see the sky without glass in the way, to feel a breeze that isn't coming out of a vent. And in spite of the walls, the seat belts on their chairs, the bars everywhere to keep the standing from falling, the call buttons, and the vigilance of the good folks who oversee this tribe, they sense they are far from safe. This most human of tribes knows a constant danger lurks. They do what they can to face it together
I will hold the time they accepted me into their tribe as a gift, a chance to learn some things I would never have otherwise learned. But I long to be home, back with the tribe of the open sea. I am not brave enough, or tough enough, to be a true member of this tribe yet.
But they have taught me to be human enough.