One month after the death of his mother, 26-year-old Tom Algir arrives in the British Virgin Islands in search of his expatriated father, Ken. Through the Night and Wind is the story of Tom’s journey to find his dad… and ultimately, himself. Referencing everyone from Darwin to Dylan and everything from Hamlet to Apocalypse Now, Tom’s adventure—part travelogue, part philosophical treatise, part family history—is an exhilarating quest for understanding and acceptance.
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of 2009′s Through the Night and Wind:
My mother died last month.
I know for a fact that it was exactly one month ago: Monday, May 15th—a week after Mother’s Day. I got a phone call from my father: “Tom, it’s dad. She’s gone.”
Grace Elizabeth Algir had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer nearly two years earlier, right after I moved from Illinois to California. I had been out of college for two years, during which time I’d worked briefly at a magazine in Chicago, then gone back to grad school to get my teaching certificate. It felt like some ridiculously absurd joke that she got sick as soon as I left; for a while, I even blamed myself, but she never once made me feel guilty for leaving. “Follow your dreams,” she constantly told my brother and me as we grew up, so I did. The only problem is that my dreams took me approximately 2,078 miles away from my dying mother.
I don’t know the exact scientific name of her disease other than that it was lung cancer and it was terminal. (At first my dad didn’t tell me about the terminal part.) I’m sure the doctor told me at some point, but I was so spaced out most of the time I visited the hospital that I’d be hard pressed to remember. I didn’t really want to know then and I’m still not 100% sure I want to know now; it’s probably some kind of defense mechanism—denial, surely—that allowed me to keep her disease at arm’s length. My father and I genuinely thought she could fight it and win (I especially believed this, given that he’d neglected to tell me that she was, without question, going to die). When the diagnosis was eventually revealed, her cancer had already spread beyond cure. Her fight was to live as long as possible, which wound up being nearly 20 months.
You could tell she knew, though. During the last few months the spark that was my mother’s once indomitable spirit had been extinguished, like someone had licked his fingertips and pinched it, her smile and the gleam in her eye the lingering smoke that slowly drifted out of the room, leaving nothing but a charred wick, the shell of a vital, effervescent woman. So out went the candle, leaving us darkling. Incredibly kind and compassionate, insightful and observant, loyal and devoted—my mother was more than I can put into words, and now she’s gone.
For 28 years she taught kindergarten in my hometown of Naperville, Illinois, a now-bustling suburb about 30 miles southwest of Chicago. Grace was a fervent reader, and devoured just about anything—novels, magazines, newspapers, poems, short stories, biographies, essays, criticism… you name it, she read it. Her passion for the written word no doubt sparked my own, and toward the end, when her body was confined to a hospital bed, she wrote dozens upon dozens of letters to just about everyone she knew. I received the lion’s share of these, and they’re stashed away under my bed with one of my most prized possessions: a leather-bound of copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that she gave me the day I left for California. I haven’t been able to bring myself to reread any of the letters since she died, although in the past few weeks I’ve once or twice dug out the New Balance shoebox in which I keep them. I’ll lift up the sheet that overhangs the edge of the bed and slide the box along the carpet; I’ll even begin lifting the lid, but I don’t have the courage to open it. The gaping hole in my heart has yet to heal, and reading those letters would be like pouring salt into that wound.
In the month that followed the funeral, my father and I spoke on the phone far more frequently than we ever had before, but in truth we said very little. My girlfriend Bridget and I flew home for the funeral, of course, but my dad and I didn’t say much to each other during those few days I was home. It wasn’t that we were angry or upset with each other; we just didn’t really have anything to say (even though there were hundreds of things we should have said). Sure, we discussed sports as usual—standings, box scores, draft picks, managerial blunders—it was the first thing that we’d bonded over when my brother Jude and I were young and was still often the first topic broached. But we didn’t talk about anything; it was more like we talked around everything, artfully dancing around the subject of my mother as if we were careening through Tchaikovsky.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You want to know about the boat, right? I’m getting to it.
In the month after mom passed, my dad sold the house I grew up in and his and my mother’s cars, unloaded their mutual funds, IRAs, and anything else that had any sort of attachment or connection to her—furniture, clothing, even family photos and heirlooms—and boarded a plane at O’Hare, flew to Miami, connected in San Juan and finally Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, where he took possession of a 49-foot, six-inch long Beneteau sailboat that displaced nearly 14 tons in the water.
My father, a 55-year-old retiree and widower named Ken Algir, was now the proud owner of an ocean-going sailboat, and was determined to sail the ocean. The ocean comprised of salty, salty water.
And lo and behold, I was going to join him.