Most of the year he was absentee. Working, paying bills, sleeping away his own battles with narcolespy. I was afraid of him when he sneezed. I’m still wary of people who sneeze loudly.
In the summers he became part of my world again. My most cherished childhood memories are from the time we spent at the family beach house not far from Big Sur. This is when Mom checked out, romance novel and beach umbrella in hand, and Dad stepped in.
Mostly I was on my own, set free to play on the beach all day. I body surfed until my feet were completely numb, then rolled in the sand to warm up. I lived in my swim suit and slept in a bed full of sand. I didn’t care. If I could walk down the beach in the morning to get a newspaper and maybe a doughnut with my dad, I didn’t care how much sand was in my hair or how pink and peeling my nose was. When he came down the stairs with my sister and me to build dribble castles in the wet sand it made my year.
My dad was outspoken and opinionated, traits my mom now faults me with. He also had a totally goofy side, but it took something special to bring it out. And even though he seemed infinitely strong, he was afraid of a lot of things. Heights, whitewater, loosing financial stability, death. It’s not much of a wonder I do the things I do, in spite or to spite the man who raised me.
He taught me to be so independent that I have to stop my self sometimes and gather my friends back around me after I have let myself drift away, occupied by my own distractions. Because I forget, sometimes, that I need people in my life. Because, like him, being alone is so easily satisfying and gives you all the time you want to day dream and explore.
It’s so hard to know our parents as the people they are outside of us. To know what they were like before we came along, and who they become in their journey afterward.
I learned an entirely different side of my dad when I was 17 and he was diagnosed with cancer. Over the next 11 years of his battle with cancer everything about him softened, some things in a tender way and some things in a sad way.
We got to know each other all over again when I dropped out of college to see what I was worth as an athlete. He wasn’t too impressed with my choice, but he was extremely proud of my efforts.
The two of us spent six weeks together in the fall of 1994 at the family beach house. We had a deal; as long as I cooked dinner every night and hung around in the evenings I could spend my entire day training. We had a hand full of intimate conversations, some about his impending death, but mostly we were just around each other seeing what each others lives looked like. I didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back I realize that in our own ways we were each preparing for the biggest events in our lives so far.
The closer he came to death the more I learned about him and the more I realized I didn’t know, or hadn’t known. He revealed things about himself just months before dying that shed a whole new light on him. It took me too long to realize I had so many more questions for him about the parts of his life I never knew. But that’s okay. He knew, and others around him at those times in his life knew.
In just a few days, the 10th anniversary of his death will pass. There’s nothing particularly significant about 10 years for me. It’s a long time. It makes me realize that after he passed away I stopped setting time framed goals. I guess, in a way, I didn’t want to have to think about how long it would take to stop missing him. I didn’t want to have to measure ‘what career I would have in 5 years’ against ‘will I still think of him every day in 5 years.’ So I mostly stopped measuring and counting all together.
Now I recall the bits that I want, when I want to and I do my best to follow my parent’s advice: do what makes you happy.
I spent today kayaking the Kings River, gloriously cresting over whitewater waves under a baking summer sun, ingloriously having my head dragged across a shallow cobble bar upside down in my boat. I loved it all. Dad would probably have been terrified to hear about it and even more so to see it, but somewhere under his fears and practicalities he would be thrilled to see me so happy.