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 swiftly 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. I didn’t want to go but I loved my Dad. He and Mom adopted my brother and me late in life and he went out of his way to make life normal, now that Mom had cancer.
So I went with him, like most teenagers, secretly hoping that invisibility was an option but it was not to be. It was Fall, 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.
Had I been acting less like a teenager I would have noticed the stillness of the water before us, our 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, 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.
Now, a lifetime later, I am the only family member remaining. As I leave to run an errand 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 his home is the same, but for the ghosts that remain.
But I have changed, as I realize that his wishing to watch closely and guide, was not based on control. 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 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.
It was his simply wanting me to know joy, while he spent more time with me, even as time ticked its final moments for his first great love.
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.
I look at him and say, “do you remember those paddle boats?” and he hugs me and we laugh. From the trees the chirps of birds erupt into music, the steady staccato of their sound ticking down the hours of one more precious evening with Dad.