If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: my father strides, back straight and face serious, to the edge of the pool. It’s a late summer day. Children of other families splash and shout, a cooling breeze chases the sun. My father is sturdy, not fat and not thin, handsome with wavy dark hair, brown eyes, a high forehead, classically sculpted nose and wide, good-humored mouth. Fun, yet in control. Always in control, so that now what seems remarkable is the happiness I recall amid the games of risk we played in the safety of that pool. As if we were not all the time living under the mandate that ruled him—to keep himself and his family as well-protected as possible from what he could not foresee but felt sure was coming.
We line up to watch, his four children aged six to eleven, clasping arms against skinny torsos in lengthening evening shadows. My father marches to the edge of the pool, grabs his nose with his left hand and the shoulder strap of an invisible gun with his right. He steps out over the water—cautiously, mindful of his bad back. At the same time, his right arm thrusts out in a strong and precise movement, fisted hand opening to signify throwing off the gun.
A vigorous kick or two brings him quickly to the surface. He swims to the side. This is the abandon ship drill, which he learned on the boat going to England for the war, and he is teaching it to his kids. “You’ll need this,” he says, with mock-seriousness that makes us grin without letting us think we can slack off, “if you are ever attacked on the sea.” So, we practice, imitating his movements, working to keep our backs as straight as his. I do everything just like him, with one exception. I sink all the way to the bottom ten feet below, loose and quiet and happy. Suspended. Effortless.
Later, when we’re playing in the shallow end, he might pretend he’s drowning and shout for me to save him. I always do.
* * *
If memory is present, here I am: Dad is singing, bass voice thrilling and resonant, songs from the thirties and forties that we kids hear so often we sing too, words memorized—By the light (not the dark but the light) of the silvery moon. Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men. Show me the way to go home.
* * *
In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.
If memory foreshadows, this chills: I run up the sidewalk along a block of small Cape Cod houses with driveways in front and sandboxes in back. I’m five years old, and have been waiting until my father, walking home from work, appears around the corner at the top of our street. He stops to watch me. I shriek my nickname for him, Daddy-me-guy! In his embrace is all my security, yet what I remember now, now that he is dead, is the bitter smell of cigarette smoke in his suit.
My father had quit his pack-a-day habit in 1954 when he was thirty and my mother was pregnant with me. By his early eighties, when even minor exertions left him gasping for air and X-rays showed calcifying lungs, his doctor didn’t believe he’d stopped smoking so young. But I recall his workday smell. Until his retirement in 1991, my father had spent his days in smoke-filled offices and meeting rooms.
The doctor biopsied the left lung and put my father on medication to slow the progression of the disease. The biopsied lung developed pneumonia, which quickly spread to the other. It was bewildering. Never had he imagined that the smoky exhalations of others less disciplined than he would sabotage his carefully ordered life.
At that time, I was close enough to him to know he was ill, but too far from him to know he feared he was dying. Or maybe I’d stopped listening.
* * *
If memory is present here I am: my father puts key to ignition and glances over at me, sitting next to him—a big girl in the front seat. Before rolling out of the garage, he snakes his broad hand over, grabs my leg just above the knee, and says, “Gripper’s gotcha!” I laugh because though his hand is strong, his touch is gentle.
* * *
If memory is image, this I see: he looks up from his book, his legs and feet draped in towels to protect him from the seaside sun, reminding me to stay in sight of the lifeguards and not swim out too far. I run off to dare the sea to overwhelm me.
Dad, who’d made it physically unscathed through the Battle of the Bulge only to break his back falling on a freshly polished dance floor in 1946, would only go ankle-deep into the surf. Perhaps this was then I first began leaving him, each plunge into the traveling waves carrying me further away. Away from his caution for his bad back. Away from the order of his suburban home, neat yard, and mid-level management job. Away from the promise of the fifties and early sixties that had already begun to shred, a process he saw and fought with ever-increasing dismay.
Toward the curling waves where I, by ten-years-old a good swimmer, tread water out beyond the breakers where I can’t touch bottom, watching the shimmer for a darker oncoming swell. My father behind me, the horizon before me, I swim madly at the biggest ones, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, free—sliding smoothly up the face and dizzily down the back. Exultant.
If I time it poorly, the wave breaks onto me and combined forces of forward momentum and downward thrust shove me to the hard, sandy bottom. The ocean’s is a capricious rhythm. Its sand-blasted saltwater stings my nose and throat and eyes. Its disorienting power causes me moments of panic when I’ve lost the surface and the bottom. And air. I develop a relaxed awareness that helps me feel where up is in that roiling world. I surface, swiping water from my eyes, ready—the ocean’s is relentless rhythm—for a new surge. Though the terror of being tossed about never diminishes, I learn to accept chaos while willing inward calm, a lesson that will serve me well forty years on when I seek to overcome inherent, gripping anxiety.
Sometimes I take a deep breath and swim out, head down and not looking, until suddenly swept up—the best option for confronting the ocean. I never know exactly when I’ll soar. Or I dive several feet below the heaving surface, suspended. Peaceful. Later in life I will dream of floating bonelessly in the deeps of a vast ocean, so still I need not breathe.
* * *
If memory is present, here I am: we’ve picnicked near Hoopes Reservoir, and are walking off lunch. Dad starts acting like a hippie—his version of a hippie—head bobbing with his long strides, arms swinging loosely from broad shoulders. I’m too young to be embarrassed by his antics, and I laugh when he says, Yeah, man, cool.
* * *
If memories explain how the living might ignore the dying, these instruct: I’m fourteen, liberal consciousness dawning and feminist indignation growing. I argue with my conservative, staunchly Republican father, who has only been able to manage the tumult of the sixties by retreating to the suburbs. Sometimes he uses the dinner table forum to vent his ire at permissive parents with undisciplined children, Democrats, hippies, and women’s libbers: those war protestors are un-American, women shouldn’t wear pants because they look like they have watermelons in their back pockets, and Goldwater will save the country. When I argue, sitting to his left at dinners that my mom has ready the minute he comes home from work, he refuses to engage me. He snaps his mouth shut and looks away.
Arguing with Dad is like boxing Jell-O.
I’m a teenager. I resort to one of two strategies, depending on which contentious topic—war, feminism, social justice—is at hand. If it’s war, I often match his silence out of deference to his pride in his World War II service. If it’s feminism or social justice, I goad him, knowing he won’t respond but taking perverse satisfaction in my ability to get him angry, and even though he criticizes women who argue or seem too confident.
“I don’t see why I can’t marry anyone I want. Who cares if I marry an African? It’s no different from marrying a Frenchman.”
“We had an argument today in social studies. It was me and Laurie Keene against the world. We said a woman could be president and everyone else said no.” I watch his lips grow tight and his face take on a remote look that, though I’ve deliberately caused it, I resent.
In my twenties and at last weary of my steps in our dance, I stop needling him. We talk about sports or literature or my parents’ travels. We sing in the car, his basso voice taking low harmony under my soprano. I laugh at his puns and silly jokes, knowing he drinks in my attention. Though I still challenge him when he’s contemptuous of women, I’m also happy to give him the attention he wants.
I am so different than he: divorced after six years in a marriage with a man who either derided or ignored me, I had returned to college in my late twenties hoping for a career in music. I’m living with a rock-and-roll drummer. I have no stability and no prospect of the upper middle-class life that anchored him and that he’d worked so hard to make possible for me—a life that, achingly conscious of social and economic imbalances, I’m not seeking.
And my father had done his back exercises most mornings for sixty years. He had immersed himself only in pools with sides to hang onto and bottoms to stand on. He had kept his suits dry-cleaned and his ties neatly knotted, his family provided for and his kids well-behaved, his work ethical and his actions moral, his religion faithful and his politics conservative. What was he to make of me and my comparatively disordered life?
* * *
If memory pierces, I am defenseless before this: I stand at the sink washing the dinner dishes as my father dries them, our usual arrangement on my weekend visits. It’s June 2006. I’m looking out the window at our back yard, my hands in warm, sudsy water, the kitchen still smelling of the roast we had for dinner. He’s putting pans in a cupboard to my left. Casually, he mentions a recent walk. “I thought I might be able to make the lung tissue relax, or expand. I went around the back yard, trying to breathe deeply with each step.”
“It didn’t help,” he says. “Sometimes I get breathless just getting up out of my chair and walking across the family room.”
What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?
That’s all. That’s the memory. I don’t recall if he said anything else, or if I responded. What was I thinking, beside him yet not close, when he tried to tell me he was afraid, when he tried to tell me he was dying?
Long after, my mother told me what he’d left unsaid: as the breathlessness increased, so did my father’s fear. He would jerk out of a heavy sleep, choking and gasping, frantic. His shoulders sagged, bowing protectively around his chest. Then he had a bad fall while walking his dog, and his step became slower, more cautious. Trying to make his fright and his lungs yield to what had served him so well for all his years—discipline, reason, and self-control—he felt persuaded that a regimen of walking combined with deep breathing would heal him.
If memory can exist for an experience not mine, I see him. Just like I see him striding to the edge of the pool, though I was there at the pool and I was not there—I was not there—in our back yard.
He marches along the perimeter of the space in which he’d taught his kids catch, baseball, croquet, and badminton. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the woodpile, following the stockade fence across the back and then down the side. Step and inhale, step and exhale. Past the garden where he once grew rhubarb and tomatoes, now shaded by a tall birch, down into the hollow where the fence turns toward the house, up to the back porch and then indoors. Step and inhale… His body rebels. He collapses into his recliner in the family room, coughing uncontrollably. Gasping. My mother kneels beside the jerking chair, trying to help him. Such is her belief that the strength of their partnership can overcome even this, she never thinks of calling an ambulance.
When he’d mentioned it that evening in the kitchen, he’d said so little and I asked for nothing more. I wish now I had. He might have told me how afraid he was, and I might have told him about the sea and below-chaos calm.
The end came in late June 2006. In the hospital, catheterized and on oxygen, at the mercy of doctors and tests and shots and bedpans, he wanted no visitors. Not even his children. Only my mother. Anti-anxiety and even sedating medications couldn’t calm his struggle against the relentless onslaught, in such an agony for breath he could not breathe. He thought he was sparing us the memory of this battle. Yet memory exists for this experience-not-mine and I see my father. He is choking. He is gasping. Real fear lives in his brown eyes and I am not there to help him to the shallows. He had not told me he was drowning. I had not told him how to curl himself around chosen inner quiet and allow tumult its way. And so, my father fought. As we all do. Until something like an ocean, or death, teaches us different.
* * *
If memory is talisman, this I hold in my palm: Dad waves his arms frantically and shouts for help, sinking then coming up spouting water like a surfacing whale. I rush to him. We are in no more than four feet of water and I’m a skinny eight-year-old, but in the buoyancy he is light and I am strong. I tow him, on tiptoe and giggling madly, to the shallow end. Still clinging to me and pretending to choke, he staggers, loudly grateful (“Oh, thank you! You saved me!”), water from his hair dripping down and off his nose and chin, his breath smelling faintly of coffee. And though I know it’s a game and his gasping panic is faked, I feel proud as my toes reach for the bottom and my arms bring him to safety.