Women Who Travel

After Loss, Helping My Mother-in-Law Find Joy Again on a Broadway Cruise

The lively sailing allowed us both to rediscover our passions—and proved that the show really does go on.
After Loss Helping My MotherinLaw Find Joy Again on a Broadway Cruise
Camila Gray

My mother-in-law, Eileen, is an expert cruiser. She has logged 70 years, and as many trips, on ships, beginning in 1953 with her first sail aboard the Queen Mary, when she was just 10 years old. Her family is full of cruise-thusiasts: ships have served as settings for milestone birthdays and reunions, drawing as many as 200 kin to ports of call around the world. Unsurprisingly, Eileen was also responsible for my first cruise—a five-night stint on Royal Caribbean in 1991 when I was newly-engaged to her son, Ronnie. Eileen and her husband Manuel would set sail about five times a year until the pandemic arrived, when they were temporarily moored at home in San Juan, Puerto Rico

But about a year ago, Manuel passed away, leaving Eileen completely adrift. For months we struggled with ways to comfort her. One day, Ronnie suggested: “Let’s take Mom on a cruise.” Perhaps it was time for her to travel without her longtime anchor.

At first, I wasn’t crazy about the idea. Cruising has never been my preferred mode of travel, and I was still a little leery of unmasked crowds in confined spaces. But then I noticed a posting on Instagram by one of my favorite Broadway performers, Tony Award-winner Laura Benanti: “Join me on The Broadway Cruise 2023, sailing from New York to Bermuda March 31-April 5 on the Norwegian Gem!” Her post about the inaugural sailing—which had originally been slated for October 2020, but was delayed by the pandemic—promised five nights of performances and fun courtesy of big showbiz names like Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, musical comedian Randy Rainbow, and more.

The writer, far left, in 1991, on board her first-ever cruise—a Royal Caribbean sailing around the Caribbean alongside her husband, Ronnie; her mother-in-law, Eileen; her father-in-law, Manuel; and her sister-in-law, Alexandra.

If I was going to dip my toe back into cruising, it might as well be with a Broadway cruise. Before the pandemic, I’d see a dozen shows per year, and like so many others during that time, I was forced to turn to the virtual world (think, Sondheim’s star-studded 90th-birthday tribute over Zoom) when the theaters went dark. Show tunes do have an inherently healing quality, I reasoned. Plus, I’d do it for Eileen. Not everyone could spend five days on a ship with their mother-in-law—but like her son, she’s smart, soft-hearted, open-minded, and adventurous, and we’ve always felt more like partners-in-crime rather than archetypal adversaries. 

Though not a lover of musicals, Ronnie was game, agreeing that the familiar setting and upbeat theme would be a good way to help Eileen heal. We recruited Eileen’s niece, Julie, to be her cabinmate, and before we knew it we were wiggling jazz-hands at the ship photographer as we embarked from New York. 

But at dinner that first night, Eileen became glum as she chatted about her and Manuel’s favorite cruises together. She was feeling his absence. “Everyone says cherish the memories,” she said as she picked at her fettuccine Alfredo. “I don’t want the memories. I want the man.” We changed the subject and reminisced instead about our first Broadway musicals. (Eileen’s: Damn Yankees; mine: The Magic Show; Ronnie’s: A Chorus Line; Julie’s: Cats.) Eileen wanted to turn in after dinner, but eventually we convinced her to join us for Randy Rainbow’s first show. 

Eileen had never heard of Rainbow, a YouTube-turned-stage performer beloved for his satiric reworkings of Broadway standards. But when he took the stage, draped in pink taffeta, she lit up. She smiled when he burst into “Those Were The Good Old Days,” from Damn Yankees, and chuckled at the Mary Poppins-esque “A Spoonful of Clorox,” a redress of absurd treatments for COVID-19. 

“He’s incredible!” Eileen raved as we left the theater. What was incredible, I thought, was that we, Eileen included, were able to laugh—hard.

With Eileen’s demeanor improved, I hoped for smooth sailing for the rest of the trip. But things got rocky around Cape Hatteras, off the coast of North Carolina. The ship reeled, bucked by high winds and rough waters. Performance schedules had to be shifted. Eileen never gets seasick, but Julie and I felt completely unmoored—so the mother in her stepped in to ease our discomfort. “Let’s move to the middle of the ship,” she suggested, knowing that it would feel less tumultuous at the fulcrum. “And bring the dominoes,” she said, nodding to Puerto Rico’s national pastime, which we’d often played together over the years. “It will take your mind off seasickness.” It worked, and we duked it out until dinner. Manuel never played dominoes, I remembered, and it was nice to see Eileen delight in one of the few things she enjoyed without him. 

A collective relief settled on the ship the next morning as the seas calmed and we docked in Bermuda. We spent the day ashore, exploring, before heading back to the ship for Kristin Chenoweth’s much-anticipated performance. Her moving renditions of songs like, “You Are Always On My Mind” and “The Way We Were” brought Eileen memories, and tears. She left. After the show, Julie found her in the cabin, asleep, as Randy Rainbow looped on the TV.

A beachside lunch was the highlight of our second day at port. But as much as I wished to linger ashore, I was more eager to get back for Laura Benanti’s performance—my original inspiration for booking the cruise. Up on the pool deck, she sang everything from a “My Fair Lady” medley to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” But at the end, Benanti suddenly choked up, announcing that she wouldn’t be able to perform her second show the following day due to a medical emergency. With profound apologies, she exited the stage, and disembarked before we sailed away from Bermuda. 

There were some concerned whispers about Benanti’s departure, but no one seemed to know what happened. The mystery was soon eclipsed by the many other performances we enjoyed during the two-day sail back to New York, like Alan Cumming’s cheeky anecdotes between numbers, and the actor Michael Cerveris, who caught even Ronnie’s attention with songs from his Tony Award-winning turn in Tommy. Eileen went to see Randy Rainbow’s reprise performance—alone.

On our final night, we sat at the specialty Japanese restaurant reminiscing over cruises past. Silently, I thought of how many more memories there were still to be made. 

“What was your favorite part of this cruise?” I asked Eileen, as the chef fumbled an egg. “Besides Randy Rainbow.”

“Being with all of you,” she answered. 

I know she meant it. She has been on more upscale ships in farther-flung places, but all of that placed second now: what she really wanted was our time, attention, and companionship, and perhaps the knowledge that she could continue to experience the joy of cruising, even without Manuel by her side.  

From right, the writer with her cousin, Julie; her mother-in-law, Eileen; and her husband, Ronnie, pose for a photo on board the Broadway Cruise.

The next morning, I woke early to watch as the ship glided back into New York Harbor. My phone reception, out for the entire trip, returned, and I took a peek on Instagram. Laura Benanti popped up in my feed, and I was stunned by what I saw:

“On Monday, April 3, I performed on stage for 2,000 people while having a miscarriage. I knew it was happening. It started slowly the night before. If it had been our first loss, or even our second, I likely wouldn’t have been able to go on….”

But she did go on, as show people must. As Eileen must. As all people who experience loss must.  

I realized that Eileen turns 80 this summer. Why not celebrate on the very vessel of her very first sail?

“How about the Queen Mary for your birthday?” I suggested as we disembarked. 

“I’ll bring the dominoes,” she replied.