Last summer, I emailed a couple of girlfriends from my Fall ’06 Semester At Sea (SAS) voyage to plan a roadtrip to Winnsboro, SC to visit our friends, Ray and Gretchen Fifer. In his early 80s, Ray was suffering from Primary Progressive Aphasia since 2009. Over time, based on Gretchen’s emails, Ray’s condition continued to worsen. I wanted to pay them a visit because I had a feeling we were running out of time. As the summer went on, I started a new job and took on a new role with my volunteer organization that demanded more of my time. Our trip to Winnsboro fell to the wayside. This week, I received an email from Gretchen with the subject line “Bad News.” I didn’t have to read the one-line email to figure out that Ray had passed away.
The Fifers were Lifelong Learners on our Fall ’06 SAS voyage. It was their 4th voyage; Fall ’09 was their 5th and last full voyage (with some reunion voyages sprinkled in between). Gretchen’s presence on the voyage message boards was infamous.
Both Ray and Gretchen touched the lives of everyone on the SAS voyages. They gained the reputation of adoptive grandparents to all the students. They inspired us to treat each other with respect, they showed us that romance does exist (even in a marriage that was decades old), and they taught us to never stop traveling and exploring even as we get older.
I loved sitting down at meals with the Fifers who never ran out of stories to tell about each other, their family, their travels, and their friends. Ray, a talented saxophone player, told us how he wooed Gretchen with music in the early stages of their relationship. Gretchen told me that she preferred to spend their retirement funds on SAS voyages rather than on regular cruises like their friends did; she said the students kept them young.
Most of all, I loved the way they looked at each other and cared for each other. You could still see the spark they had for each other after all the years. One day on the ship, I ran into Ray on my way into the Garden Lounge, the dining room on the 6th deck. He was holding a cup of tea in one hand and a container of lemon slices in the other hand. He told me Gretchen had a cold and he wanted to bring her some tea. That brief exchange stayed with me because it was yet another example of the love that we all hope to be blessed with. I grew up thinking that true love and magical romance only exist in fairy tales, but Ray and Gretchen proved me wrong.
After I got Gretchen’s email, I was wrecked with guilt and grief. I visited Gretchen’s Facebook page (Ray didn’t have a profile, but Gretchen has 4 different Facebook profiles), and I saw the outpour of love from the SAS shipboard community. Everyone (former students, various SAS participants, ISE staff, former employees on the MV Explorer, etc.) all posted heartfelt messages and photos to commemorate Ray. It was comforting to see how much he was loved and will be remembered.
I can’t imagine the grief that Gretchen is going through, but I hope we can all be so lucky as her to have found her soulmate, to have spent a lifetime with him, and to have traveled the world together.