Community of sailors opens arms to couple

Illness: A retired husband and wife drop anchor in Annapolis upon learning that he suffers from advanced cancer.

December 07, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

In a sailboat at Annapolis' City Dock, Nancy and Roger Langsdale are fighting mortality.

They fight his tumors and the acute pain of stage-four cancer with chemotherapy and morphine, steamed milk and intravenous fluids.

But here, hundreds of miles from any city they have called home, the Langsdales are fighting alongside friends. Strangers have offered to do anything they can - helping to maintain the couple's 44-foot ketch Star Baby, dropping off food, finding places for visiting relatives to stay.

"We feel we have family here at this dock in Annapolis," said Roger, 57, who came here for the October boat show and discovered he had cancer when he became too sick to leave. "We couldn't imagine being in a better place."

The Langsdales have been welcomed into the close-knit community of those who spend the winter aboard their boats in the heart of downtown Annapolis. Here, they have found friends and support in a journey that has been longer, emotionally, than any ocean voyage.

"They had what they figured as their dream life left - they were planning all these things they were going to do on the boat, and in a couple weeks it has gone down the drain," said Rick Kaufmann, who lives in the powerboat docked behind them and who once sailed with Roger in Chicago. "They are just wonderful, wonderful, hopeful people."

The Langsdales have never lived in Maryland, and they didn't come here to be near family. But it was here, on what was to be a short stop for the United States Sailboat Show while on their way back to Florida, that Roger learned the pain in his side was something much worse than a kidney stone. It is here that Nancy is making funeral arrangements while Roger is holding onto the hope of each new day.

Sailing brought the couple together a decade ago when both were in their 40s and living in Chicago. Roger, a Pittsburgh native, was an experienced sailor and an assistant regional inspector general for the U.S. Department of Labor. Nancy, originally from Plymouth, Mich., was an information technology manager living year-round on her sailboat - something Roger said had always been his "fantasy."

"Roger was everything I dreamed of," said Nancy, 51, tears welling up in her eyes even as she laughs. She strokes Roger's back, hand and leg as they talk. "My first impression was `This is my man.' This is the man I was going to marry ... from the first time I heard his voice."

Nancy had never been married. Roger was divorced and had two children. They soon moved in together aboard her sailboat, got married and moved to Philadelphia when Roger got a promotion.

On Dec. 4, 1999, they retired and left Philadelphia, setting sail for a life of cruising - going wherever they wanted on Star Baby but always remaining at home.

"Nancy and I had hopes and dreams of being able to cruise around the world - no place in particular, no set schedule," Roger said.

They sailed down the coast to Fort Lauderdale, where they spent the next year and a half outfitting their boat for their coming journeys.

This summer they sailed north again, leaving their boat in the Patapsco River as they took an "intermission" from their retirement to spend six weeks in a cabin in Michigan.

It was there in September that Roger started feeling sharp pains in his side. He went to a doctor, who diagnosed a kidney stone. When the pain didn't go away, the doctor said it was an infection and sent Roger home with antibiotics.

The Langsdales flew back to Maryland to get their boat in time for the October boat show. But Roger continued to get worse.

He was admitted to Anne Arundel Medical Center, where he had an operation to clear a blockage in his kidney. But soon they discovered that the real problem was with his colon. On Nov. 4, during an operation, doctors discovered that Roger had advanced cancer.

"The cancer had spread so rapidly and aggressively that they didn't do anything," Nancy said. "They said, `Get your affairs in order, hug and kiss and say your goodbyes.'"

They returned to Star Baby, where virtual strangers began asking what they could do to help.

Neighbors at the dock have dropped off food - like the loaf of bread sailor Henry Young brought by yesterday morning. Local sailors have offered to crew their boat and have helped Nancy do the maintenance work she never had to do alone.

After the sailboat and powerboat shows ended, the city's harbormaster made space for the couple at City Dock so they can be within walking distance of shops and restaurants. A Naval Academy chaplain gave them a pass so they can drive onto the grounds to attend Sunday Mass.

The Annapolis Marriott Waterfront Hotel opened a room to them last month when Roger was having trouble moving, even though the hotel was booked. Chez Amis Bed and Breakfast has provided discounted rates or helped find other rooms in town for the steady stream of friends and relatives coming to visit.

"We have never felt this amount of caring support and generosity by strangers," Roger said.

Meanwhile, old friends have provided everything from the use of a car and a home in Davidsonville to a new custom-built bed for the boat's main cabin.

Others have offered emotional support. Linda Mowatt, the harbor administrator, lost her husband to cancer 20 years ago and has remarried. She has advised Nancy to do what may be the hardest job for a wife: to plan the funeral now, instead of waiting until she is grieving.

"Someone helped me, and I wanted to help her," Mowatt said.

Aboard Star Baby, the Langsdales make the most of each day. Roger, who spent the week of Thanksgiving in the hospital, talks about going to Michigan for Christmas if he is well enough to travel, but he said he would be happy to spend the holiday among new friends here.

"I don't feel while I'm sitting here talking to you that I am not going to make it through," he said with a wide, wistful smile. "I haven't given up on the chemo. I haven't given up on miracles."

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