The day the whales didn't come out to play

A miserable family outing in Clayoquot Sound, a lesson learned, and how the loss of a child is like an unfinished work of art.

“Shoot,” I muttered. We were only halfway into our whale-watching excursion and I had to pee. The Zodiac carrying our tour group had just tucked into a small bay off Clayoquot Sound and we were bobbing and drifting in calmer waters. The twin 200-horsepower Mercs powering our craft had been grumbling, and I was sure that if they could speak, they would say they were thankful for this respite.

We were glad for the break. We had been taking a pounding during the past hour, riding up and down the sides of two- to three-metre waves that towered over us and whipped foam in our faces. This was more than just a slap in the face; it was a reminder of both the power within the ocean and our place in nature.

Whales had been sighted nearby en route from their winter breeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Today was a rare sunny day in March last year, and the prospect of seeing some of the estimated 20,000 migrating grey whales that pass by the west coast of Vancouver Island had overtaken our senses. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to think about the waves and weather conditions and the suitability of our transportation.

I sheepishly asked our guide about the possibility of beaching our craft on a nearby island for a quick bathroom break. He stuck his bearded face around the windshield of the wheelhouse and firmly stated: “No way; we are heading back out to look for whales.”

I turned around to face my wet family, huddled together on two exposed rows in front of the wheelhouse, staring back at me. The other 12 passengers in our group were high and dry, seated in two rows running down the middle of the boat behind the wheelhouse. Our daughter, Olivia, aged 10, smiled and asked: “Dad, isn’t this fun?” She was the only one in our family still somewhat dry, and that was because she had managed to avoid the stinging sea spray by nestling into the coat of her big brother, Nigel.

Our short family vacation was a much-needed break from our routines and the events of the past eight months that had sent our family of four into a tailspin. Laura and I had been trading shifts and driving daily to and from the North Shore to B.C. Children’s Hospital.

It was on July 27, 2011, that we were told that our beautiful boy, Nigel Frederick Moore, had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. That day, like many others in Nigel’s subsequent 13-month battle with cancer, was a brutal one, and when we were summoned to a meeting with a team of doctors, nurses, and administrators, we knew it was not going to be good news.

When we entered the room to receive Nigel’s official diagnosis, there was an uneasy feeling in the air and a big box of Kleenex was placed strategically within our reach. We were seated and introduced to the others in attendance, exchanged a few pleasantries, and tried to put on a brave front.

The lead oncologist bluntly presented Nigel’s diagnosis and his future prospects and ended by promising to do everything in her power to save his life. We had suspected his condition was serious but never expected it to be life-threatening. We desperately wanted to believe our son would get better. Later that day, when we had to relay this diagnosis to Nigel, he cried like a baby while Laura hugged and tried to console him. I sat across the room crestfallen, too numb to speak and too dumb to know what to say.

Every doctor we had seen in the previous four months, the GPs and pediatricians, could not determine what Nigel was suffering from, what was causing his pain. We thought that his discomfort was due to an injury suffered while playing rugby or sliding into second base in one of his baseball games. Like many 15-year-old boys, Nigel was not a font of information about how he felt. He seemed depressed and was lacking in energy.

We even took him to see a child psychologist, who, after an hour spent conversing with Nigel, stated: “Your son seems to be stressed-out, but I’m not sure why.” It was not until Laura got fed up with all the misinformation and his degenerating condition that she drove Nigel to the emergency room at Children’s. A subsequent MRI revealed a tumour the size of a grapefruit sitting right next to his spine. He was admitted on July 22, 2011, and our ordeal was just beginning.

His cancer has a poor survival rate. We were told that if he survived a year, he’d have a 50-percent chance of living for another five years.

His disease was like a plot in an old cowboy movie. An odious bunch of bad guys (rogue cells) moves into town. These bad apples ensconce themselves in the town’s saloon and drink heavily while fighting and terrorizing the townspeople (healthy cells). Eventually, the sheriff (chemotherapy), along with his deputy (radiation), would show up and drive the bad guys out of town. The bad guys would then sneak back into town and encamp at another saloon (organ), where they would continue to spread more evil (tumours). In the movies, inevitably, the good guys would prevail and drive out the bad guys. These simplistic plots are passé, though, and these days the bad cells are winning far too many of the life-and-death battles.

We did not see any whales that day in March. The only wildlife we saw was a group of sea lions perched out of the water high up on a rocky island. Taking pictures was futile, and the only shots we were able to get that day were of our feet or the sky as we lurched up and down, trying to balance in those rollers. Laura ended up getting sick over the side, and I had to take not one but two pees in my survival suit.

When we finally staggered off the Zodiac at the dock in Tofino, an annoyingly perky woman from the whale-watching company pestered us with questions about our day and spouted off about all the other excursions we would thoroughly enjoy. All we could think about was getting out of our monkey suits and getting in front of a fire. The final straw for me was when we were informed that a “research charge” of $30 had been added to our bill. I threw my urine-soaked survival suit on the pile and muttered, “Research this,” and stormed out the door. Nigel was on my heels, asking what was bothering me, and when I explained to him what had happened, we started to howl with laughter at the stupidity of the day. Lesson learned: the best place to watch whales is on land.

Unfortunately, Nigel was diagnosed with pneumonia shortly after our trip. We realize now that this day did not help his condition, but neither did all the beach walks we took that week in the stormy weather. Nigel did not want to stop us from living life and taking these kinds of excursions. He loved to travel, and we had been to Egypt, England, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the previous four years.

That summer, we did have two other memorable trips, one of them to Seattle in June to take in two Mariners games with four of his closest friends and their families. The other excursion was in August, a two-week stay in a beautiful house overlooking Qualicum Beach. At that time, though, Nigel was weakened to the point of spending most of the days watching the Olympic Games on television. He did shuffle down to the beach one day for a swim in the ocean; his stark, bony white body is now etched in my memory.

On August 25, 2012, we lost our best friend. Many who knew him thought he had tremendous potential and surely would have done great things. We will not get the pleasure of seeing how Nigel would have flourished. He was a deep thinker, a sensitive sort with an encyclopedic memory. He had only scratched the surface of life. No one, unless they have gone through it, can understand the grief that the death of your child brings.

For Nigel’s last two days, we moved into Canuck Place, a caring hospice with accommodations that allowed our family, including Nigel’s dog, Henry, to spend our final hours together. During his last night, I awoke at 3 a.m. and went down to be with him. As I sat and held his limp hand in mine, I was distressed to see him struggling to breathe and holding on to life so bravely. I asked the nurse why and she said, “He is waiting to make sure you will be okay.”

During our ordeal, the community around us rallied to our aid with much love and support. It is months later now, and I imagine that for many, their memories of Nigel have dissipated. We think of him all the time; we are a lonely family of three right now, and we miss him to the depth of our souls. Grief is hanging over us, and it can hit anytime and anywhere. It strikes when you are driving and a song he liked is played. It slams into you when you see a group of his friends walking home from school. There is not a day that goes by that we do not think of Nigel, and I know it will be that way until we meet up with him again.

I sometimes wish that it could have been me instead of Nigel, but life is not always fair. I know that I have a duty to support our family and help guide Olivia to realize her potential and make her brother, Nigel Frederick Moore, proud, wherever he may be.

Related article: Nigel Frederick Moore

Comments (26) Add New Comment
The Hemani's
Nigel is deeply missed by us all. He was a truly special young man. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.
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Amy HR
You are a beautiful writer Rex, I laughed and I cried reading about this special journey.
Thank you for sharing, I love you all so much and you are all always in my thoughts...
Amy
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Patricia
I'm so sorry for the loss of your beautiful son. I lost a son 25 months ago. There are no words.
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Wendy Beauchamp
Our family also lost a child so we feel your pain. It has been just over a year and We think about our daughter, Tessa, all the time. We also spent time at Canuck place and will never forget the night we lost her. Try to be strong and get through one day at a time. People say it gets better but I don't believe them.
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Cherie
Hi Rex,

I just wanted to say that your story really affected me. You are an amazing and talented writer. I am the mother of a Canuck Place child and stories like yours make me feel a connection to people like you who I've never even met or talked to before, but share a similar life altering and painful path with. My heart aches for your family. Sending you and your family much love.
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Linda Hoffman
Thank you for sharing this story with us all. It's wonderfully told and shows in telling detail how painful is the loss of someone close to you. I never met Nigel but I feel like I missed a lot. Love to you, Laura and Olivia.
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