I don’t know who exactly is reading these newsletters, but I’m going to assume for a moment you don’t know much about me. And even if you do know me, you might not know what my life looks like right now. Let me give you a peek through the window into my world.
I wake up early at Pápá’s house. He is my grandpa, but I never call him that; Pápá is the most common name for grandfather in the Cajun culture (It’s pronounced sort of like Paw-paw but with less “aw” and more “ah”). I pseudo-live here now. I sleep in the guest room and run the nonprofit out of the office, but I try to make it appear like I’m just visiting. I don’t want to talk too much about my Pápá, because I don’t want to disclose information about his life to other people without his consent. But he does have dementia, and even though he doesn’t acknowledge it, needs help with daily life. Mámá died a little over a year ago and life has been a lonely, quiet, and confusing existence for Pápá since then.
I’ve been living a half hour away from my grandparents the last two years and used to visit them every Sunday when Mámá was alive. It was a sunny time; I had never lived so close to my grandparents before, and over the course of those two years, got to know them better – and they got to know me better, too. They got to know me as an adult and not just a grandchild they only see during holidays or special events. I got to know them as people, a couple with an entire life’s history behind them – dreams, joy, sorrow, struggle, success. And just when I had gotten to know them, Mámá got sick.
I was rowing down the Mississippi River with about 2,000 miles still ahead of me when I got the news. I was camped on a tiny island no wider than 50 yards. After I hung up the phone I sat in the sand and sounds came out of me that sounded like animal sounds. Nobody heard my cries but the birds and the river. Over the next several days, I debated over what to do. Mámá’s cancer diagnosis was grim, but the doctor had predicted some months to say goodbye. A few days later, I was drifting down the river, not rowing, just thinking, and decided to get off the river and come home. I called my mom on the water, my canoe slowly rotating languidly in the current. The conversation was brief. I told her where I would get off the water and approximately when. As soon as I hung up the phone, a bald eagle took off with a screech from a low branch in a tree no more than thirty feet away from me on the west bank. It flew directly over me and I saw it angle its head to the side and gaze down at me through one depthless eye. My body vibrated with an energy and I knew I had just made a correct decision.
I came home and Mámá was so glad to see me. I knew she was afraid that if I stayed on the river, she might die without seeing me – and I was afraid of that, too. Over the next few months, Mámá lived in home hospice care while my mom, close family, and I visited frequently – especially my mom, who has a heart so big I don’t know how it is contained in such a small woman. Eventually, the school semester started up again. My favorite class – Death and Dying, a sociology class. I went to college and learned, and came to my grandparent’s house and applied. Mámá became weaker and weaker, and I spent more and more time there with my family. Eventually, I was sleeping on the floor next to Mámá’s hospice bed with my mom nearby on the couch. We woke up every two hours to administer pain medication and change her diaper. Then one morning, she just passed away without so much as a sigh.
She did not want to go. She did not want to leave Pápá, because she took care of him. She took care of him more than we knew. But now we know, and living here now with Pápá, I miss her more than ever. Sometimes I’ll be with Pápá and I’ll get a knot in my throat thinking about how much I wish she were still here. But I’ll tell you, sometimes I’ll be on my knees cleaning his toilet and I’ll feel something that feels like a hug without the touch. I’ll sense a feeling of gratitude coming not from me but for me. I am alone, but suddenly I am not alone. And I know Mámá has come by to say thank you.
We don’t know what to do with Pápá, but I am here for now. Four days a week I spend all day with him. We eat meals together, go to the store, cook and clean, take drives, have coffee, look at photo albums, tell stories from the past, watch TV in the evening. Occasionally there’s a wake or funeral to go to for one of his friends. I go with him and pray over embalmed bodies of people I never knew. I recite the rosary with the congregation in half English and half French and stare at the pasty face of the body in the casket. I can’t help but imagine Pápá there, and even though it is soul-draining to be with him all day, I know that later I will treasure these days when it is time for him to be with Mámá again.
The three days a week I’m not with Pápá, I’m with my flight students, teaching people how to fly small airplanes. An equally draining task, but in a different way. Here I still have someone under my care in a way, but on occasion they accidentally try to kill us and I have to stop them. They also, like Pápá, have their moments of frustrated confusion, but it’s because they’re learning a new skill, instead of losing skills.
I fly thousands of feet above the coastal wetlands of south Louisiana, teaching steep turns, stalls. I look south to the ocean and see an entire journey before me, a route around the world full of new things: new lessons, new people and lands, the vast sea and unforgettable, unexplainable experiences. My life before me.
I look north, to Pápá’s house, and I see an old man with the opposite.
Live now, before your path is behind you. Love hard, before those people you love die. Be kind, because we’re all here to help each other.
P.S.: Thank You
Last Saturday, I opened the expedition to donors and I want to say thank you to everyone who has participated in opening week! A lot of y’all bought merchandise, and I am receiving word from friends that their stuff is starting to come in the mail – so if you haven’t gotten yours yet, you should soon. I have a request, if anyone wants to send me pictures of them (or their dog) in the merchandise, I would love to have those pictures on my swag shop instead of the stock models – let’s make this fun! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org with pictures – I’m excited to see y’all in your sweet EME swag!
If you haven’t bought merch yet and would like to, you can go to: https://ellenmagellanswag.com/categoria-producto/merch/
I also have customizable boat stickers for sale, I know they are probably out of most people’s price range but if you know anyone who would be interested, please pass the word! It’s a neat thing to have people put their own images on my boat, and I would like to see what kind of things people put – and they would essentially buy a piece of my boat!
For more information on personal boat stickers: https://ellenmagellanswag.com/elementor-190/
One of the reasons I have merchandise and personal stickers for sale is because I didn’t feel right about accepting straight-up donations without offering anything in return. But I did put a straight-up donation button on my website (https://donorbox.org/ellen-magellan-expeditions) and am blown away by all the people who donated here. They didn’t want anything in return, they were just donations straight from the heart – those donations, no matter the amount, are proof that humans want to help each other. Thank you for believing and wanting nothing in return but to watch this unfold and cheer me on.
Everyone, I can’t say thank you enough! I have been incredibly stressed and busy with a lot of other things besides this (as you can see by the above newsletter) but I still make time every day to work on the expedition (usually after Pápá goes to bed). The to-do list never ends, but every day I get a little further. It’s starting to pay off, and I’m so glad to have y’all along for the ride. This year is going to go by fast and we’ll be on the ocean before I know it!
Thank you again – I am filled with gratitude, inspiration, and determination. See you next Saturday! Till then, love each other, and call an elderly person in your life. It will make their day.