My father painted the entire exterior of our two-story house by himself one summer. From inside the house, it was disconcerting to have his head suddenly appear at an upstairs window, as if the laws of physics had changed for a season.
“Come! Quick!” he yelled one afternoon scrambling down the ladder with a wet brush in hand.
Stormy was barking, plunging about in the unmown grass. The dog had discovered an enormous turtle, her shell 18 inches across, making her way from the woods, edging our yard, down to the marsh. As we gathered around, Dad leaned over her with the brush and in two deft strokes, painted a large white X on her back. “There!” he said, “If we see her again, we’ll recognize her.” The turtle blinked, unfazed, then resumed her slow lurching journey down to the marsh, utterly unaware of her new identity.
This is the season years ago that my identity changed too, from young mother with a living father to young mother whose father had died alone in the night in his Florida condominium. Upon hearing the news, I immediately thought of the last time we’d talked—checking in to see if it was a good place to leave a relationship for eternity. I was lucky. It was.
My father died somewhat young, although it was many years after he left to start a new life, and our feelings about him were mixed. He exemplified the Mad Men lifestyle of the sixties—hard drinking, hard smoking, hard-partying, and I was afraid of his often-violent, volatile discipline.
Yet he also was first to help stranded motorists, remodeled a farmhouse kitchen for his dying mother-in-law, had the resourcefulness to build a house from a barn, crafted heirloom doll furniture for my sisters, made replicas of antiques for our mother because she loved them, and was for a time, the administrative director of a children’s hospital.
Here’s what I’ve learned about that paradox. You get to choose how you remember someone. You get to choose where on the continuum of someone’s character to place your attention. It’s all your experience, but what memory serves you?
So, the issue for his daughters, ambivalent and 970 miles away, was how to say goodbye. He had wanted his ashes spread in the Chesapeake, but that’s illegal. If anyone knows.
To honor his wishes, we had them sent up from Bradenton, and my sisters and I gathered in Virginia Beach. Our plan was to charter a yacht with a sympathetic captain, order wine and appetizers from a caterer, and cast off at sunset on a course for the mouth of the bay. The weather was perfect, and we powered out and out until we were so far from land the shore was another country.
As we drifted over solid ground, each of us shared a story about Dad that the others might not know. For me, it was the day Dad told me I had to memorize the 23rd Psalm. I was eight. We sat on the back porch steps in the afternoon sun, and he recited the words over and over. “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” It is, to this day, the only Psalm I know by heart. Had something happened? Was I being given tools, armament to cope with his leaving a year later? I’ll never know.
After my sisters shared their memories, we sang the Navy hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save, and gently poured his ashes overboard where the last storm of him swirled in a cloudy vortex, then sank with the sun into the sea. To mark the spot, we dropped white carnation blossoms on the waves.
Each of us found a place to be alone with our thoughts as we powered back in. I was proud of us. Grateful. Despite our ambivalence, we had created a beautiful, loving, genuine, and respectful ceremony. I imagined he was pleased, but as we skimmed over the bay and night’s curtain fell, I felt suddenly overwhelmed with loss. It was the only time I have cried for my father. I was once told that you cannot love someone you fear, but that person can still be important to you, and now he was gone.
In truth, the tears weren’t for him but for the finality. All you know for certain that you will ever have with another person–is what you already have, but until they die, there’s an imperceptible hope that something more is possible. So, that evening my identity changed again, this time to someone newly aware of another dimension of grief. I cried not for him but for potential-him, the man who had run out of time.
My sister found me and asked what I was thinking, and I told her. It was hard to hear each other in the wind. She put her arms around me, and as we stood together, flying towards shore, another memory surfaced.
My father sits in the stern of a wooden rowboat, a capable brown-haired, blue-eyed man in his thirties, with his youngest daughter, who is six, by his side. It is dusk, and we have been exploring secret creeks and hidden coves, drifting in the song of the whippoorwills. Honeysuckle, seaweed and saltwater scent the air. As the dying light coalesces, he restarts the outboard, pulls the tiller towards him, and spins us towards home. We accelerate into the night, and the stern sinks as the bow rises. Then the boat planes, and we skim toward lights that candle the horizon as if stars have fallen from heaven. In memory, once again, the laws of physics have changed for a season.
I can’t hear my father speak unless I turn my head sideways. The rush of air whips his words into the night. I’m unprepared, therefore, when he puts my hand on the tiller, scooting over on the seat to let me steer. Stunned to be guiding the boat by myself, I see the entrance to our cove and, in the distance, our pier. I keep the bow aimed precisely, my whole being locked on our landmark, as if we might fly off the edge of the world should I fail.
He nods at the channel markers, where their lights rock in the current, leans down against the wind, and speaks directly into my ear. “Keep green to starboard going out of the cove, but red on your right going in.” I squeeze my eyes shut to memorize these instructions, then over-correct the tiller, and the boat swings wide. I look up at him, panicked at my mistake, but he redirects our course with a smile.
He has not left us yet. He has not taught me the 23rd Psalm. He has no idea these are the words I’ll remember when I’m grown and a mother, long after I’m the age he is now. He cups my face, so I’ll understand him and repeats himself calmly.
“You’ll never be lost on the river, even someday when you’re on your own. Just remember green to starboard going out, red-right-returning to find your way home.”
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.