Father and son off Tasiilaq, Greenland
Slan Kennedy
Father and son off Tasiilaq, Greenland
Father and son off Tasiilaq, Greenland (Slan Kennedy)
Outside Classics

On the Hilarious Dynamics of Family Travel (with Mild Nudity and Sibling Violence)

Days into a trip spent with his father and brother in Greenland, author Wells Tower was seized by a tantrum-pitching impulse and the overwhelming desire to punch himself again and again in the face

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In the Inuit village of Tasiilaq, on Greenland’s east coast, in a bar whose name, as far as I can tell, is Bar, people are enjoying themselves as though the world will end tomorrow.

There are maybe 30 folks in here, few of them women, nearly all of them catastrophically drunk. Two men who look fresh from a seal hunt are locked in a dance that is part boxer’s clinch, part jailhouse waltz. One of them falls. I can feel his skull hit the floor through the soles of my boots.

I’m on vacation with my father, Ed Tower, an ebullient man of 65 with a belly that strains his parka nearly to the point of rupture. We are not handsome men, but a pair of retirement-age ladies have apparently had enough to drink to find us appealing as potential dance partners.

A gray-haired woman approaches me unsteadily. I hold out my hand and she falls over, bashing her face on my shin. I help her up. She thanks me, lists hard to starboard, and capsizes again.

A second woman whispers something in Dad’s ear, and his eyes go wide.

“Wells,” he yells over the band, “there’s a woman in here who ate her own babies.”

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We are in this establishment at my father’s insistence. Our guidebook warned that Bar was best avoided but said nothing about an in-house cannibal. Now seems like a good time to get out, but Dad’s having another close conference with his new friend. “Oh, OK,” he says. “She is talking about the song they’re playing.”

Still, we’ve been in here long enough. A pair of Category 4 hangovers await us. But then the band lurches into an Inuit rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

“Do you dance?” the woman asks Dad.

“Why not?”

I can think of several reasons, actually. One, those men by the bar are not looking at us kindly, and, it should be noted, you can buy guns at the grocery store over here. Two, my father, survivor of an exotic strain of lymphoma, is still in delicate shape from a bone-marrow transplant a couple of years back, and I’m not eager to see him shake his fragile moneymaker on a dance floor that looks like a fourth-down blitz. Three, and most important, is the fact that, in my father’s company, trips have a tendency to spiral into disaster. The mishaps are sometimes large and sometimes inconsequential, but the specter of calamity always rides in his sidecar. Here, on our ninth day, we are both still in one piece. We fly out tomorrow. The smart thing, it seems, is to quit while we’re ahead.

I look at Dad and jerk my head toward the exit, but he just takes the woman’s hand and makes for the dance floor.

Eight and a half years ago, when the oncological bookmakers gave my father three years to live, we sat together in his hospital room and vowed that, if he survived, the two of us would take a trip each year to celebrate his outliving his expiration date by another 12 months. When we cooked up this scheme, I think we both privately thought we were merely following timeworn etiquette that calls for grand travel fantasies when someone is dying. (Think Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck to Ratso Rizzo in extremis: “When we get to Miami…”) But when Dad surprised us both by beating his rogue cells into remission, it would have been a thumb in the eye of Saint Christopher to go back on our vow.

Though we travel in celebration, the trips themselves rarely deliver much ecstasy. Our first, to New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island, nearly killed me. This was 1999, and we picked Great Barrier because my father, a professor of economics and a man who likes value, had a friend with a jungle cabin we could hole up in for free. The “cabin” was a dank shack built of fence posts; its only furniture, a mattress unfit for a hyena, lay in shadow in a corner. To steel myself for what would be an uncomfortably intimate evening with Dad, I drank about two bottles of wine, vomited against a banana tree, and passed out beside him. When dawn broke, the evil scent in the place had intensified. Rising groggily to a sitting position, I noticed the mattress was covered in what looked like a hail of Milk Duds but were in fact emissions from the dead and bloated jungle rat we had used for a pillow the previous night. I’m not overstating things when I tell you my heart started beating wrong that morning. When I got back to the States, a cardiologist diagnosed me with a sudden-onset heart murmur, brought about by dehydration and shock. If I keel over prematurely of an aortic aneurysm, you’ll know why.

We asked the bartender if he knew someone who might let us tag along on a seal hunt. “My father-in-law,” he said. “He’s old, been a hunter all his life.” “How old?” I asked. “I don’t ask,” he said. “I am very afraid of him.”

Our next odyssey, a cruise through the Galápagos Islands in 2001, nearly killed my father. He spent most of the trip suffering through a case of tropical-force Montezuma’s revenge. The entire boat shook with his illness, a sound that resembled a tuba quintet tuning up belowdecks. And I still feel guilty about what happened when he was finally well enough to go ashore. Remember the 2001 marine iguana die-offs in the Galápagos? The press blamed 200,000 gallons of petroleum spilled from a busted tanker, but I submit that one Ed Tower introduced a quantity of noxious material to the local ecology when, while skinny-dipping in a cave, he misplaced a pair of microbially “hot” Hanes briefs and some sandals you could have used for fish bait.

Other timeless moments include our 2003 trip to Istanbul, where, against my advice, Dad drank a platter of beef grease and practically went blind for 48 hours. And last year’s trip through France’s Loire Valley, where, out of thrift, we often shared a bed but Dad wouldn’t hear of sleeping in—please, for the love of God—his underwear at least.

Though Dad is officially cancer-free now, he beat back a second bout two years ago and is still settling into a new immune system, thanks to the bone-marrow transplant. So for our 2007 trip, in late May and early June, we plotted an itinerary through the comparatively sterile subarctic: five days in Iceland—my older brother, Dan, would join us for that leg—and five in southeast Greenland. We also chose our destinations with a certain irony in mind. Iceland, though recovering, remains a case study of ecological disaster, a nation whose people felled nearly all of its trees centuries ago and whose topsoil, thanks to overgrazing, blows ceaselessly into the sea. To the northwest lies Greenland, whose famously decaying ice sheets make it another marquee destination on the eco-disaster trail. Some estimates predict that once the global warming teeter-totter tips, Greenland’s ice, which covers an area more than three times the size of Texas, could melt entirely within the next millennium, if not sooner, which would boost sea levels some 23 feet and drown the world’s present coastlines.

As agents of human bungling par excellence, we thought it fitting to take a tour of these monuments to humanity’s special gift for fucking things up.

The campground at Heimaey, in Iceland
The campground at Heimaey, in Iceland (Sian Kennedy)

It usually takes me at least a week of traveling with Ed Tower before I’m seized by the tantrum-pitching impulse and can barely resist the urge to punch myself again and again in the face. This time it happened in the parking lot at Baltimore/Washington International Airport as Dad, Dan, and I readied our gear. Although my father had a brand-new rolling suitcase, he was bringing along his ancient, monstrous blue duffel, which smelled strongly of sour milk.

“We could just leave this old bag,” I said.

Over the years, Dad’s work has carried him to all sorts of far-flung places—China, Malaysia, Croatia, Sudan. This particular duffel, he recalled, served him well years ago: “When I was in Khartoum, I was glad to have an extra bag to bring back swords and camel-hair rugs for my friends.”

I got one of those swords. I was nine at the time, and thrilled to have it, until I noticed the dismaying odor. The leather grip, my father told me cheerily, had been cured in human urine. Strike a single en garde with the thing and all day you’d go around smelling like a Port Authority toilet. The rugs, purchased at something like 40 cents per, looked pretty good but turned out to be infested with a fanged Saharan flea and dyed with an unstable pigment. Every recipient got to celebrate my father’s trip to Africa with a full fumigation and a costly visit from the floor refinishers.

Dad stood there with a faraway look in his eyes, visions of further souvenir bargains still dancing in his head.

“I’m taking it,” he said, then galumphed off for the terminal.

Just after 6 A.M., we touched down at Keflavík, in southwestern Iceland, where the morning was crisp under a sky like a sheet of pressed lint.

“Oh, the joy of it,” Dad said. “Off to a new adventure with my sons.” He grinned a little nervously, giving us a shoulder squeeze.

Troubled as our trips may be, my brother’s coming along, Dad knew, compounded the risk of disaster. At 36, Dan’s a year and a half my senior. He’s a dark-jawed lawyer with a lumberjack’s build, and we have the sort of relationship that would make Cain and Abel move to a better neighborhood. Our parents divorced when we were in grade school, and I have no doubt that the strain of our hostilities helped provoke the split. Over the years, we have attacked each other with, among other things, fists, feet, teeth, rocks, bats, knives, bottles, a can opener, a cedar tree, a stick of butter, and a car, and we can still go from amiable to fratricidal in about three seconds.

But things went rather smoothly that morning. It was a full five minutes before we were at each other’s throats.

We rented a car. Dan was keen to drive to Reykjavík, the capital, 40 minutes out of the way, to hunt up some breakfast. Dad and I were not. We had an itinerary: first the Vatnajökull, or Water Glacier, Europe’s biggest, five hours to the east; then we’d double back to the black-sand beach at Vík; then tent out in the town of Thorlákshöfn for the night; then catch a morning ferry to camp on Heimaey, one of the Vestmannaeyjar, or Westman Islands, off the southern coast. We’d hit Reykjavík in three days.

“That’s great,” Dan snapped. “It’s pretty clear you guys aren’t going to listen to a goddamned thing I say.”

“Oh, go to hell,” I said, my fists tensing.

“Ah, family vacation,” our father said. “It’s too bad we don’t have any brownies to fling at one another.”

Dad was alluding here to a fabled unbrotherly skirmish. Long ago, while in a canoe in the middle of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, I napalmed, with hot brownie batter, the chest of a shirtless Dan, who was circling my craft in a rage in a motorboat. I later broke my forearm on the paddle he was wielding. I could feel the old fracture twinge forebodingly as we drove out of Keflavík in the early-morning drizzle.

Troubled as our trips may be, my brother’s coming along, Dad knew, compounded the risk of disaster. At 36, Dan’s a year and a half my senior. He’s a dark-jawed lawyer with a lumberjack’s build, and we have the sort of relationship that would make Cain and Abel move to a better neighborhood.

The airport receded as I steered our rental onto the Ring Road, the two-lane highway that traces the country’s perimeter. Iceland’s population is a mere 302,000, spread out over a landmass a little bigger than Indiana. We were more or less alone on the narrow highway, which carried us through the desolate magnificence of the coast. To the south, undulant fields of hardened lava, flocked in mosses of a tender, watery green, sloped down to the sea. A dark palisade of mountains towered to the north, brightened here and there by silver bursts of glacial melt cascading from the peaks. Pale boulders of sheep browsed the lowlands.

“My God,” said my father, gazing at the moonscape flashing past the window.

“Amazing,” I said.

Dan, still fuming, was less taken. “How often do you think people kill themselves out here?” he wondered as he thumbed our travel guide. “I don’t understand why people don’t just start screwing like rabbits and build this place up. I mean, there’s supposed to be some hotties here. They won Miss World three times. You could probably do pretty well hitting on chicks here. You’ve already got a great pickup line: ‘I’m from America. We’ve got these things called trees and grass. It’s killer.’ ”

My father leaned forward from the back seat. “Dan,” he said in a tone of quiet concern. “How can we cheer you up? Is there anything we can do for you, my son?”

“I told you what you could do,” Dan said darkly. “Go to Reykjavík.”

A plot was taking shape against my brother, a scheme to keep him breakfastless and miserable. Dad and I were the obvious conspirators, but the nation of Iceland, where rocks and sheep had so far outnumbered breakfast buffets by about a million to zero, was not to be trusted, either. Oppressed by forces beyond his control, Dan borrowed a page from the playbooks of Gandhi and M. L. King Jr. and began a program of passive resistance in hopes of scuttling group morale beyond all reckoning.

For our first 24 hours in-country, he hung out in the car.

The protest officially got underway about an hour into the trip, shortly after Dan announced that he had to take a leak.

“That’s cool, I don’t need your help,” he said when I offered to pull over. I looked at him in the rearview. He appeared to be eating a plastic water bottle. He chewed the bottle in half and knelt on the seat. Then, rather than set foot on Iceland’s treacherous terra firma, he peed into his makeshift pissoir and pitched the contents out the window.

We soon passed a waterfall, the Seljalandsfoss, a platinum horse tail gushing from the top of a black and billiard-table green parapet. We could see tiny figures in hikers’ motley moving behind the cataract.

“Man, you can walk behind the falls!” Dad exclaimed.

I stood on the brakes.

“Come on, kiddo, let’s go,” my father said to Dan, who was sprawled in the back, ostensibly engrossed in the guidebook.

“Nah, I’ll stay here,” he said.

“Oh, come on, man,” said Dad.

“No, thanks.”

Dad and I made for the trail. The falls blew over us in a thick mist, the water electrically cold and sweet on our lips.

Walking back to the car, Dad lapsed into a coughing fit, a sound like someone blasting a blackboard with rock salt. He’d been suffering these periodic lung quakes since his last bout of chemo. It was worrisome, but he’d had his fill of doctors.

“You OK, Pops?” I asked.

“Just clearing the chest.” He took a few deep breaths and gazed back at the falling water. “God, it’s good to still have a pair of functional legs. God, it’s good to be alive.”

We trudged back to the car, where Dan was still stretched out with the guide. “What are you discovering there?” Dad asked him as I pulled back onto the road.

“Fifty-three percent of the people here believe in elves,” Dan said, adding provincial occultism to the country’s crimes, just behind lawnlessness. Then he mumbled a synopsis of a legend about a union boss who “had relations” with an elf.

“What was that?” I asked.

“You can screw an elf.”

The Abelsons’ slow boat to Tasiilaq
The Abelsons’ slow boat to Tasiilaq (Sian Kennedy)

From above, Iceland’s Vatnajökull, an ice cap bigger than Delaware, looks like a giant Rorschach butterfly, fitting for something steadily winging it from the earth. Doubly menaced by global warming above and active volcanoes beneath, the Vatnajökull has molted roughly 235 square miles since 1958.

It heaved into view as we rounded a curve. Spilling from between a pair of russet crags, the dirty tongue of ice had a roasted look about it, like a charred marshmallow, pallid innards oozing forth.

“Glorious,” said Dad. “Let’s climb the son of a bitch.”

“I’ll stay here,” said Dan.

“But don’t you want to see it before it melts?” I said.

“It isn’t melting,” he said, quoting an outdated and patently false passage from the guidebook, which claimed that the Vatnajökull was one of the few glaciers on the planet that was actually on the grow.

I gritted my teeth, Dad gave a glum shrug, and the two of us set off.

A sign hammered beside the path warned us that setting foot on the ice without an experienced guide might land you at the bottom of a crevasse. I paused.

“What should we do about this sign?”

“I intend to ignore it entirely,” said Dad.

“Spoken like a man with diminished life expectancy,” I said.

Dad began picking his way with surprising ease to a promontory atop the ice slope. He stood with his hand on his hip, looking as though he wished he had a flag to plant. I chose a path that looked less risky but twice fell to my knees.

When I’d clawed my way to Dad’s side, he was staring down at the lagoons of glacial melt at the bottom of the grade. The water was a swirled gray and blue, the color of moonstone, the oddly lovely symptom of a glacier in decline.

“A century ago, this ice went on for miles, all the way to the sea,” I said, paraphrasing a newspaper story I’d come across.

“It’s grim to think about what’ll be here a hundred years from now,” said Dad. “Trailer parks, Disney World Iceland. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the worst time to be facing one’s mortality.”

The wind poured down off the glacier, rinsing us in the cleanest, coldest air I’ve ever breathed, air you could sell by the gallon in Malibu. We stood silent for a long moment, struck dumb by the wind, the ice glowing under our boots, the bright emptiness of the world around us. No planes or distant interstates sullied the silence.

“Isn’t this religious?” my father said.

“It really is.”

In the distant parking lot sat the car, its windows fogging up.

“Too bad Dan didn’t come out,” I said.

“It’s a shame, a real sadness,” said Dad, “but he’s really doing his best to have the non-experience of a lifetime.”

But Dan had done us a service: he’d become the living emblem of all that would go wrong on this trip. We stood at peace on the glacier’s nose and inhaled eternity.

On the beach at Vík, which our guidebook pronounced one of the ten most beautiful in the world, my father and I walked along together, stopping to cup the black sand in our palms. Then we sat at a picnic table, drinking lukewarm beers and eating beef jerky. My brother remained in the car.

Later, in the port town of Thorlákshöfn, my brother remained in the car. In the morning, we’d be catching the ferry to the island of Heimaey, so we’d fetched up at a public campsite that forever voided my grim childhood memories of car camping at franchise campgrounds whose atmosphere evoked the Okie settlements in The Grapes of Wrath. Not only was the place virtually free in the off-season (a boon in a country whose grottiest roadside rut-huts go for about $180 a night); the tent sites were also flat, soft as a Sealy Posturepedic, and offered views of the bay, which looked like poured chrome under the midnight sun.

Timeless moments include our trip to Istanbul, where Dad drank a platter of beef grease and practically went blind for 48 hours. And a trip through France’s Loire Valley, where, out of thrift, we often shared a bed but Dad wouldn’t hear of sleeping in—please, for the love of God—his underwear at least.

This was surely the sort of place that would at last tempt my brother from his roost, but just to sweeten the arrangement, we pitched his tent for him. Dad approached the car cautiously, like a priest looking down the barrel of an especially gruesome exorcism. Then he opened the door.

“Tent’s ready for you,” he said.

“I’m sleeping here,” said Dan.

My father wandered back.

“Oh son, oh son,” he said sorrowfully, “when did this trip start going so wrong?”

I thought back to my brother angrily peeing into his water bottle.

The next morning, we stood in the parking lot, preparing to board the ferry. Dan had poorly trussed his sleeping bag to Dad’s luggage, so I, having brought a duffel big enough to accommodate the Golem of Prague, reached for it.

“Get the fuck off it!” Dan barked.

At least a decade had passed since we’d really laid hands on one another, but at that instant an old madness got hold of me. I felt myself spirited back to a time when I knew no greater longing than to punch my brother squarely in the face.

“Come on, let’s do this!” I yelled inanely, shoving his chest.

“You want some, motherfucker?” he bellowed, pedaling his fists. “Come here!” Dan has four inches on me and probably a good 40 pounds. If he did his worst, I’d be flying home on a gurney with my jaw wired shut. I held my ground, though my heart, still queered from that run-in with a dead New Zealand rat, beat an off-kilter paradiddle: chup-chuppity-chup.

A knot of passersby stopped in their tracks, eyes wide and eager. Dad was watching, too. In all our years of traveling together, I’d never seen his adventurer’s ebullience break down. But Dan and I, in our barbarous idiocy, had finally defeated him.

Confronted with his grown sons preparing to beat each other bloody over how best to stow a sleeping bag, he seemed to age years in an instant. His face sagged with exasperation and grief.

“You’re embarrassing me,” he said in a quiet voice, turning away.

Shame hit me in a cold wave.

We had to jog to catch him.

Once on Heimaey, we all relaxed in a green meadow in the crater of a dormant volcano, which had lost half its cone in the last eruption, centuries ago, leaving us a heart-stopping view of the sun-gilt sea. Just up from the water, a golf links stretched off in emerald chromosome shapes.

“Goddamn, this place is beautiful,” conceded Dan, whose mood had staged a full recovery after our abortive fistfight. Our father stretched on the grass, watching the seagulls spreeing high above.

Later, Dan and I were sitting side by side on a giant, comfy hummock, staring at the water. I broke out my stash of duty-free aquavit (Scandinavia’s caraway-flavored moonshine) and offered him a drink. He knocked back a slug and made a face like a woman in labor.

“How was it?” I asked.

“Not good,” he said, shuddering. “If you want me to drink more, I’ll need to go eat some Tums.”

Down on the course, though it was close to midnight, a few players were still putting in the deathless arctic light.

“I’m so pissed at myself for not bringing my clubs,” Dan said. “We could’ve played all night.”

“I’ve never played golf,” I said, “but I’ve always wanted to try.”

“I’d teach you,” he offered in a big-brotherly way. “Next time I’ll bring my clubs—two sets. Next time we’ll really have some fun.”

Tasiilaq at midnight (Sian Kennedy)

My father and I found ourselves abandoned on an ice floe off Greenland shortly thereafter. It was about the size of a football field and blocked the path of the motorboat we’d booked to carry us to the mainland. Confronted with the obstruction, the boat’s operators, a pair of Inuit cousins named William and Kunuck Abelson, had ordered us onto the ice and looked to be ditching us. We stood there shivering, watching their craft move away, in reverse.

“This is a rather upsetting development,” said Dad.

Dan had headed back to the States two days earlier, at the end of our Iceland tour. (In Reykjavík, by the way, he’d at last had breakfast: coffee, doughnuts, and a horrific shrimp pastry. But only after getting hauled downtown by Iceland’s finest for egregiously breaching the speed limit.)

My father and I had then made for Greenland, which dwarfs Iceland but is far less inhabited. The world’s largest island is almost one-fourth the size of the U.S. but home to only about 57,000 people. Its massive ice sheet, estimated at 650,000 cubic miles, covers some 85 percent of the island. Findings vary, but it appears to be sloughing around 55 cubic miles into the sea every year.

We’d decided our first stop would be the island settlement of Kulusuk, an Inuit village (pop. 300) off the southeast coast. Do not believe the old chestnut that Iceland is green and Greenland is white. Kulusuk (or “Coal Suck,” as my father would not stop calling it) in late May was mostly brown. A decade and a half ago, the hotel manager told us, you could still run a dogsled this time of year, but the air was already warmer than Easter on Cape Cod, and rivulets of thaw cut deep channels in the roads. The surrounding mountains had shed their winter mantle, revealing dark structures that looked like corroded Hershey’s Kisses. The village’s hundreds of sled dogs, each staked in their own diameter of mud, howled ceaselessly, seeming to mourn the premature onset of the summer sabbatical. We asked a few locals whether the early thaw was part of a noticeable long-term warming trend, and they looked at us the way I imagine a Texas rancher would if asked whether he had ever heard of cows.

For two days, we ventured out a little, but mostly we just holed up in our room in Hotel Kulusuk, where climate change evolved in my understanding from a vague and distant crisis to a calamity of a more personal scale. I was saddened to discover that the ambient temperature in Greenland in May is no longer cold enough to (a) chill a six-pack of beer dangled out a hotel window on a bootlace, or (b) prevent my father from swanking around in the nude.

After 48 hours, Dad had tired of watching the island erode. “Well, son, I believe I’ve enjoyed about all the Coal Suck I can stand,” he said. I was in bed drinking warm beer and wearing my sleep mask as a shield against the unsetting sun and the pink vista of my father’s flesh.

“I’m with you there,” I said. So it was decided that we would catch a boat to the vastest metropolis on Greenland’s east coast, the village of Tasiilaq (pop. 1,883).

Out at sea, the ice was plentiful. The crossing was choked with pack ice and bergs calved from the Christian IV and Steenstrup glaciers, waning north of us. As we watched the Abelson cousins’ boat retreat from our floe, huge, slumping meringues of ice towered over us, their hearts glowing the otherworldly glacial blue that is somehow the equal and opposite corollary of the orange cores of live embers. The cold coming off the icebergs was a pulsing, vital thing. The wind had big teeth.

“If you fell in,” my father intoned, “I don’t imagine you’d have much time to reflect on the experience.”

“It’d be like falling into a vat of hydrochloric acid,” I said. “Glug, glug, gone.”

But the cousins didn’t leave us. Just as I began to really worry, William opened up the throttle and came hell-bent for leather straight at us. The boat hit the floe, leapt like a breaching whale, and slammed down hard. My father and I clutched each other, waiting for our perch to crack like a saltine.

But the ice held. The Abelsons hopped out, giggled at us, and then motioned for us to start heaving on the hull.

“My God,” said Dad, “we’re going to man-haul the damn thing.”

A hundred yards of crusty ice, full of disconcerting voids, stretched between us and open water. With each push, we’d stumble. Every fourth step, you’d sink to your thigh, praying you hadn’t found the trapdoor to the blue hereafter. The work drove Dad to painful coughing jags, but he wouldn’t hear of sitting on the sidelines. An hour later, we were again puttering for Tasiilaq.

It took about 45 minutes to absorb the sights of eastern Greenland’s grandest city—a concentration of concrete-and-plywood cottages clinging for dear life to hillsides so steep that if you lost your footing, you’d roll into the bay. We visited a staggeringly ample grocery store, which sold, among other things, badminton sets, sewing machines, and 18 kinds of rifle and shotgun. Next to the candy in the checkout lane were hardcore Danish nudie books. We roved the cemetery, where graves were marked with heaps of fake flowers, so violent a breach with the surrounding monochrome as to look like pigments splattered across a black-and-white photograph.

Before the afternoon was out, we were in a hotel, our vacation ebbing away. Despairing that we’d not yet found the proper life-affirming exploit to consecrate another year of cheating death, Dad said, “I wonder if we could bribe somebody to take us along on a hunt. Get the blood flowing.” Down at the harbor, we’d seen subsistence hunters hauling in the daily catch of seals, which live here in very healthy numbers.

We asked the hotel bartender if he knew of someone who might let us tag along.

“Sure,” he said. “Frederic, my father-in-law. He’s old. He’s been a hunter all his life.”

“How old?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t ask him things. I am very afraid of him.”

When the oncological bookmakers gave my father three years to live, we vowed that, if he survived, the two of us would take a trip each year to celebrate his outliving his expiration date by another 12 months.

We met Frederic at the public dock. He was a stoic man with a face like a dry creekbed. Though we shared no common language, Frederic made it clear that, for the privilege of accompanying him, he wanted a hundred bucks, a sum surely higher than the blue-book value of his skiff, a craft of equal parts caulk and old plywood. Dad cheerfully paid up.

Under clouds the color of wet concrete, we chuffed out into the icy rubble of the bay. A frigid hour had passed when my father spotted a dark form gliding out from behind a floe.

“Seal! Seal!” he cried.

“Right there!” I said hysterically, fluttering my hands at the aged hunter, who glanced briefly in the direction we were pointing, then went back to scanning the opposite end of the bay. When our seal revealed itself, it had transformed into somebody’s skiff.

“Good thing we don’t have guns,” Dad observed.

Minutes later, Frederic suddenly went rapt. Fifty yards away, the dark avocado shape of a young seal’s head registered above the surface of the water. Frederic squeezed off a shot. I won’t go any further into the ensuing hamfisted debacle—possibly brought on by my father’s proximity to the event—except to say that, before it was over, Dad winced and turned away, I let out a little shriek, and another hunter went home with our bantam quarry.

We’d clearly misguessed our appetite for bloodletting. There was nothing life-affirming about it. Ten minutes later, Dad spotted a gigantic seal turning idle laps in a lagoon between floes, and we felt only relief when it easily escaped Frederic’s fusillade.

We needed a drink.

Which brings us back to the bar. It’s the last night of our trip, and thankfully no shots ring out when my father and the friendly lady start to dance. The band is out of tune, Dad’s boots leave muddy prints across the parquet floor, and the woman in his arms is so sozzled that her legs, like a colt’s on a frozen pond, periodically scramble for purchase. He dips her, and has to strain to bring her upright, but he does so without incident, and the guys at the bar clap and smile. The smoggy air in here is like atomized creosote, and I’m worried for his lungs, but when the band rolls into a warped rendition of “Proud Mary,” I’m happy to see him go another round.

Before the song ends, a motherly, bespectacled lady walks over and, apparently out of pity, offers me her palm.

“Dance?” she asks.

“Why not?”