On the final day of our voyage, it happened. I was standing on the balcony scanning the horizon for birds when I thought I saw something in the water below. No, I told myself, you didn't just see that. You're just imagining it because you think you should see a shark out here. Still, just to be safe, I asked my husband to step outside and tell me I had an overactive imagination. "Is that a fin?" I said, jokingly. "Yes!" said my husband, who grew up on the ocean. "It's a shark!"
Fulfilled doesn't even come close to the way I felt. Black-tie dinners and our own personal Jaws, too.
The onboard atmosphere was completely different on the final day, as everyone started to re-enter, if only mentally, the real world. At the purser's desk there was a long line of people paying bills and asking about tour and show tickets for New York. At last, we were, if not actually somewhere, very close to somewhere, and I found myself thinking it wasn't the best feeling. I liked being nowhere more than I thought I would, and I didn't really want it (or the cocktails of the day) to come to an end.
At dinner that night (dress code: elegant casual since the Kids Zone was closed, and no one even bothered to pretend that it was worth having a formal meal with every child onboard in attendance), service suddenly came to a screeching halt and an insanely loud John Philip Sousa march blared from the dining room's loudspeakers. As we paused, forks in hand, the entire kitchen staff paraded into the room and then around it, resplendent in their chef's jackets and tall white hats. They took up positions on the staircase that connected the two floors of the restaurant, and the maitre d' asked for a round of applause, which we happily delivered. (We had just eaten some delicious chateaubriand with larded peas and gratin Dauphinoise potatoes.)
It was not unlike the final night of summer camp, or of some corporate team-building retreat, and yet we were nostalgic enough about our year in Berlin, which we had left so far behind, and our trip on the ship, which we hadn't even left yet but were somehow already missing, that we participated in these events wholeheartedly. When we got back to our stateroom, the Daily Programme was there on the bed, as always, but this time it contained a flyer about landing arrangements, and we knew our time was up.
We packed our bags and placed them out in the hallway to be carted off by the porters that night. (They would be returned to us after we disembarked in Brooklyn the next morning.) All we had remaining in our stateroom were the clothes we planned to wear the next day, a stroller, and our hand luggage.
Trying to sleep, I was restless. We had not seen our home, which also happened to be the city where I was raised, in a year, and I felt ready to arrive in a way I never had when returning by plane. There had been more than enough time on our timeless journey to consider the events of the past year as well as the future before us.
At 4:30 the next morning, I rose and snuck out onto the balcony to watch as we passed underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, just a few miles from my apartment building, over which my husband has run the New York City Marathon half a dozen times. Then I dressed silently and, leaving my sleeping family behind, took the stairs to the Deck 7 promenade. There, in the dark, the railings were once again crowded with people snapping photos and talking and drinking hot tea and coffee that had been placed outside by the ever-attentive staff. Filled with anticipation and chilled by the fog, I joined them. To my surprise, among my emotions was something slightly unsettled. Maybe it was the ghosts of all those people who had arrived at Ellis Island in decades past reminding me that arriving someplace is the beginning of new challenges, not just the end of the old ones. Maybe it was my new understanding of just how far away I'd been for the last year. There was eager laughter all around me, but I found myself unable to join in.
The ship, which had seemed so tiny out on the open water, became huge again as we passed by buildings and land masses and buoys. At 5:20 a.m., now with tug boats guiding us, we passed the Statue of Liberty. Just ahead lay the city, shrouded in mist, the sky above it cracked with the neon pink of dawn. We were due to dock within the hour. We were home again.