Passing Ships

Sometimes, you’ll meet someone going in the other direction.

The first time I heard the phrase, “Passing ships in the night,” was from my stepmother. I gave her a curious look, unable to intuit or infer what she meant. She’s made up a few of her own words, and she’s used them with confidence, as if the general public knew what they meant, as if we were the ones who were ignorant or out of touch. Passing ships was a little different. It sounded like a saying that might be real, that people might actually recognize or understand. I liked it the second I heard it, and rather than consult the oracle (my phone), I asked for an explanation from the source.

She told me, and the concept sound vaguely romantic. For me, this saying conjures up a night scene on the open sea. Two wooden ships with high masts pass each other, and they’re headed in opposite directions. Maybe the captains wave to each other in a friendly greeting, but maybe they don’t because it’s too dark to see. Whether or not they acknowledge each other, there are stars in the sky, and there’s also the certainty that since they are merely passing, that there’s no chance to have a real conversation. Both ships are headed toward some far away destination, and there’s no time to stop and chat. Maybe one captain’s just been through a difficult part of their journey, maybe they both have. Maybe they just give each other a simple look of understanding, as if to say, “I could try and tell you what I’ve been through, but words would not do it justice.”

I’m not sure why my mind always goes to wooden ships, as dated as they are, but the saying was applicable to the situation I was in. My stepmother said that we were passing each other as we went on our respective ways, and that there wasn’t time to say more than what was necessary. We were both moving with a sense of purpose, and that purpose was keeping us busy as well as sane. We both had somewhere we needed to be. Despite what we were experiencing at that time, I’d miss those days quite a bit in the aftermath. A sense of purpose proved to be elusive for most of my twenties.

During this period of my life, my stepmother and me were both living under the same roof. As one of us came home, the other would be headed to the hospice house to see my father. There would be enough time to exchange pleasantries, but not enough time to check in with each other and see how we were holding up. I confess that I didn’t need a check-in most days. When you’re in a situation like that, it would seem like you would need to talk about it, but we were all processing so much that it was hard to do anything else besides come home and just zone out. Sometimes we’d chat at the end of a long day, have a glass of wine, but more often than not I’d retreat to my room and starting writing about my experiences. I just wanted to be left alone, and for my stepmother I think it was something similar. There was no hostility, just a tacit agreement to let each other do our own thing.


The post could end right there, but I’ve been thinking about passing ships on a deeper level. I’ve been thinking about how the concept could apply to other areas of my life. I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that I’m looking for the deeper meaning in something, and I hope you never think that I’m reaching to find meaning where there is none. I choose each idea carefully, and this particular stuck with me and resonated long after I’d heard it.

To me, passing ships in the night can symbolize two people on an opposite trajectory. While one person has just lost someone they love, another person might know they’re going to lose someone, but it hasn’t happened yet. One person has just lost someone they care about, and while there is a sadness that comes with losing someone and the pain of dealing with their absence, you can take some solace in knowing that it’s over, that you’ve made it through. The pain starts to subside, even if it takes a while, and you know you’ll make it out alive. Everyone heals at different rates, but the pain after losing someone does fade, and your life transitions into a phase where you’re figuring out how to live live without that person.

To be the other person in this equation is another thing entirely. You haven’t experienced the loss yet, but you know that you will. You know that there’s no way you can avoid it, but you also don’t know just how devastating it will truly be, no matter how much you try and prepare for it. It’s going to hit you with all of it’s strength and leave you weak, but more than that, when you know you’re going to lose someone but haven’t yet lost them, there’s a feeling of extreme uncertainty. You don’t know if things will go quickly or slowly, and you have no idea how things will actually turn out. The end result is determined, but everything else is up in the air. You don’t know just how much of yourself will remain when it’s over.

One person is rising from the depths, while the other is sinking slowly. You’re passing ships, only able to offer a little bit of comfort, or a sympathetic ear, and that’s it. That relationship in my life was tinged with a sadness that made me constantly uneasy. I knew that it was a brief diversion before the rubber met the road, and I was going to be at my father’s side until the very end. In that relationship, we saw each other and were able to offer a little bit of advice or just listen, but neither of us could stay. We saw each other, waved, and sailed in different directions. Thanks for reading.


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