Monday, July 7, 2014

Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky

They showed up on the lake one night, visible in the morning, silent in the mist, their shapes nothing at all like what we'd seen before on this small body of water.  A few miles away was a large and swift flowing river, bringing with it goods from afar.  But this little lake was what we, as children, knew.  The water had seen canoes, and the occasional raft kids made out of a sheet of plywood and inner tubes, but these little paddle wheel boats were something new.

Dad of course, wants to go for a ride on one, there at that park at the end of our block where he ran three miles every day after work.

My Dad was different than my friends Dads, not his sense of humor or his honor, but he was considerably older, he and Mom adopting us when their friends were grandparents. On the plus side, they were considerably mellower about things (such as myself walking into the house carrying the bumper of the car with "Dad I had a little accident"), the marriage strong and stable.
They delighted in parenthood, having lost their only child 15 years prior to our adoption, unable to conceive another. Mom quit her LEO job to be a full time Mom. Dad worked hard all week, then would sing the opening lines to"Barnacle Bill the Sailor" outside my bedroom door in both Pirate and Falsetto, tapping on the door while my friends playing inside, all squealed with laughter.

All of my friends liked coming over to our house.  They knew my Mom was sick and we played quietly in my room, or outside. I sensed some of them viewed our place, not just as a place to play, but a place that was safe. You think because the TV shows of the time showed every family, perfect, that it was so, but I am sure it was not, one just didn't talk about it.  So I'm sure, that though it was unspoken some of my friends home lives weren't as blessed as ours.  My parents didn't just keep us from burning the house down, they were engaged listeners, in case someone other than my brother or I needed an ear.

But Dad was also more strict, no makeup, no dating until I was 16, no Daisy Duke shorts (though he let me put glass packs on my car). And he had that infinite sense of not really giving a rip about "what the neighbor's think". If he wanted to go paddle boat in motorcycle goggles with his daughter while the neighbors were golfing at the country club so be it.
My "grand-dog" in his doggles at Brigid Jr.'s

So that day, I  went with him, like most soon to be teenagers, secretly hoping that invisibility was an option but it was not to be. It was an Indian Summer, wood smoke from burning leaves drifts out over the little man- made lake in the city park, as people took advantage of the day to be out on the bike paths and walking trails. To make matters worse, he was waving at EVERYONE  including other kids my age (invisibility now!) I pretended to be looking up at the birds in the trees, hoping the kids wouldn't notice me, but they did, and pointed (forget invisibility, let's go for obliterating lightning bolt).  The ride couldn't end soon enough for me, and we headed back a little earlier than planned.

Had I been acting less of a teenager I would have noticed the stillness of the water before us, little legs propelling us forward as if in flight. I would have noticed how people reacted to my father, the love and respect he got even as he gave it out.  I would have noticed  how he looked with an owners eye upon the water passing behind us like spent memory, the peace of the water ahead, at the simple of joy of muscle and motion powering past those things that weighed us down, disappearing in the joy of a simple evening with his child, like smoke on the water. 
We were both quiet on the walk home, me because I wanted to be anywhere else, Dad for reasons I didn't understand quite yet. When we got back to the house, Mom was in bed, tired from another round of treatment, tears on her face.  I'd not seen her cry before and I don't think she expected me to, our arriving home early.  The tears, encompassed more than pity or pain but rather that inarticulate recognition and despair of that cancer that blazed onto her inescapable earth, its fire, her ashes. I closed the door as he sat down next to her, the whisper of my bare feet on the floor, the only sound I could make

Years passed, the paddle boats disappeared as quietly as they came, with no mention of their passing.
I was going for a job and further college, out of state.  Dad suggested going with me on the two day drive to find housing and do the interview.  I was really hoping to just go by myself, I wasn't a teen any longer, but he really wanted to, so we went.  On the drive, there was an 8 track tape playing songs of the big band era.  Dad liked to make up lyrics (somehow I don't think the lyrics to that one song were "Tangerine, my little Sex Machine").

 He listened to my Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, covering his ears with his hands just as our dog used to, just to make me smile. He showed me this little ma and pa restaurant that had the best "Depression Stew" with its own loaf of bread. We  made really really bad puns as we crossed two state borders as he taught me to appreciate really good coffee.
That was our last long road trip with just the two of us. Dad remarried, happily so, and I was soon off on the other side of the world a lot of the time, giving Dad my weekly call, glossing over anything that might actually worry him.

No, pretty quiet, I tore a fingernail (on the yoke after someone starting shooting at my plane).

I'm eating well (I don't care if it's everyone's favorite street vendor, it's still a big insect on a stick).

Yes, I have enough money in my wallet for an emergency tank of gas (or bullets, beer or ransom).
Now, our outings are simply taken on the couch, playing a board game, reading the Bible, perhaps going for a drive which always results in him getting a Frosty at Wendy's on the way home.  He'll sit in his favorite chair while I do the chores that need to be done, that Big Bro used to do. Giving his car a wash, the sun glinting off that little lake there at the end of the road, I realize that little has changed, but for me. Dad is the same man he was when I was a teen and so embarrassed to hang out with him, just as this home is the same, but for the ghosts that remains.

But I have changed, as I realize that his wishing to watch closely and guide, was not based on being an overbearing parent.  Rather, it was his realizing that I was still light in the burden of the years, not yet possessing the weight of the wisdom that keeps one surefooted on an inescapable path. It was his simply wanting to keep me safe while he spent more time with me, even as time ticked its final moments for his first great love.
Now, he watches me through the window, from that old recliner that has faded, there where the light fell strongest. I wonder, does he see a grown woman, a few laugh lines there beneath the long red pony tail and ball cap? Or does he still see a little auburn haired girl growing into adulthood at the speed of sound?  Does he recall all of those moments that haunt the winter of our memory, or just those golden days unmarred by rain or thunder? Or has he simply surrendered it all over to simply this moment, now, these remaining days that are left?

He yawns and his eyes close, there in the summer sun, one last exhalation that empties his body of waking or worrying. The neighborhood lay in that soft hazy light that makes the houses look like old photos, faded scraps of color that scatter lightly on the earth, lighter than dust, with which one hard rain would wash forever from our sight and memory, were we not to gather them up to protect them.
As I enter the house and he wakes, I ask him if he wants to go for a drive.  He does, but we don't go our usual route.  We drive on down to the lake where the paddle boats were docked long ago, walking carefully, he with his cane, down to a bench where we can see the water. 

All those years ago, I was embarrassed.  I realized that my Dad was just trying to get me out and experience the world, to see the joy there was in it, as cancer set up shop in our household, not to leave.  His actions were not about control but rather pushing me past the mundane and the limiting, if only briefly, out of that shelter we make for ourselves in times of self-doubt or danger, hiding underneath it as if it's some armor we don without knowing the full extent of what it's protecting us from.
As we sit, I say "do you remember the paddle boats" and he laughs, so heartily "Oh, you were SO embarrassed to be seen by the other kids". We both laugh til we can't any more, giving each other a hug, not caring who sees. As we walk to the car, I launch into the first verse of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, in a high falsetto and he joins in with a deep bass, as off key as I am, our voices little changed by the years with that sound we laughingly refer to as "All Volume!  No tone!"

Who's that knocking at my door
Cried the Fair Young Maiden.
Oh, it's only me from over the sea said Barnacle Bill the Sailorrrrrr.

From the trees the chirps of birds erupt into music, the steady staccato of their sound ticking down the hours of one late summer evening. Out on the lake there is no movement, but beyond where our eyes can see, on the river, the lights of the pilot vessels glint from afar like setting stars, guiding someone safety to home.