The River Captain - My Family Travels

Like so many things, security is an invisible asset. When we have it, it empowers us to go boldly, to take chances that actually endanger it. But when it is threatened, or worse, gone, you realize how vulnerable you are without it, how vigorously you will work to get it back. I realized this lesson the summer after my junior year, on the Kelly Celebration Cruise.

My family is the typical nuclear family. Mom, Dad, four brothers; that dynamic changed suddenly, however, on April 16th, 2006. My incredibly strong, healthy and seemingly unstoppable father became very suddenly ill. During those first few days, we heard words like cancer and chemotherapy. My mother and brothers tried to adjust to the news and the obvious changes it would be bring. My father, on the other hand, decided to plan the perfect family vacation.

He called it the Kelly Celebration Cruise and he scheduled it for one month after the day his chemo was to end. He planned a week in a houseboat on a beautiful lake in Tennessee and talked daily about all the amazing things we would do. My brothers and I were so excited, we hardly noticed as he got weaker and more ill. Because no matter how bad he felt, he could still sit in his chair and talk about all the fun we would have.

My father never completed his treatment. As his cancer spread, he became more and more ill and on March 16th, 2007, he passed away. I felt like all the breathable air had been sucked out of the universe. I felt lost; alone and drifting through days of funeral services and visitations. Everything seemed cloudy and dreamlike and I wondered how my family would survive.

My Mom and four brothers assumed the Kelly Celebration Cruise was now cancelled. The trip would be too scary without Dad there to make sure we were safe. I disagreed. I started a campaign to convince my Mom that we could still go, that in fact, we should still go. It was my father’s dream to play Riverboat Captain with his sons as his crew. I wanted the dream to happen. So on the day before Memorial Day 2007 we headed to Tennessee in my Mom’s minivan.

The houseboat rental company did an amazing job training us how to operate the 65-foot house on floats. Mom was nervous, but my brothers and I learned quickly how to run the generator, operate the bilge and navigate shallow waters. The lake is purposely undeveloped, so it was easy to believe we were cruising down a river from 100 years ago, completely isolated. I felt like a member of a crew, working when I needed to, then playing when the work was done. Our days were filled with adventure, swimming, skiing and exploring isolated islands where we found abandoned campsites and even wild animals. In a world that had suddenly turned upside down, we found a peaceful paradise where fun and laughter came as easy as the sunset.
We rediscovered our sense of security with every completed task that week. We reconnected as a family with every finished game. And every night, as we tied up to a tree and shut off the generator, we remembered my Dad and said Thank You for the wonderful trip. We left Columbia scared that we would encounter obstacles and not know what to do; we returned with the knowledge that as a family, we can do anything. I know my Dad’s dream was not exactly what it was supposed to be, but I know in my heart that my father would be proud of his crew for finishing the task he started.


Ryan Kelly of Cayce, South Carolina won Honorable Mention for this essay.

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