The Reach of a Father’s Love

Friends of ours lost their only child several years ago, the victim of a relentless disease.  He left behind a grieving wife, two young children, and a sparkling future.

In the years since, our friends have doted on their grandchildren, taking great delight in watching them grow from infants to toddlers, and onward to adolescence.  They’ve invested time with them, knowing they can never make up for the loss of a father, but determined to keep his memory alive.

A while after their son’s death, I wrote a piece to commemorate his life and the legacy he left behind.  I post it here now, adapted somewhat, to mark the advent of another Fathers’ Day

The little boy is eight-years-old, and loves to visit his grandparents at the family cottage.  For him, every day is an adventure, a surprise, a delight, as he wanders the woods, swims in the lake, and fishes the waters in the old, wooden skiff.

For the older folks, these activities hearken to an earlier time with another fair-haired lad, and they treasure the memories, even as they create new ones.

A while back, the little boy was in the musty basement of the cottage with his grandpa, when he made a great discovery.  “Grampy, what’s this?” he cried, pointing to a bright-yellow model boat.

Sitting astride its pedestal on top of an old workbench, the craft was almost three feet long—a racing boat, bred for speed, its tall sails still unfurled.  Three small passengers huddled in the cockpit, as if awaiting the starting gun for an impending race.

sailboat5

“Oh, that?” his grandpa replied.  “That’s a boat your daddy built a long time ago.  He used to race her on the lake with his remote control.”  He lifted a dusty metal box down from an overhead shelf.  Two toggle switches protruded from the top, and a long antenna jiggled slightly as he set it down.  “This is how you make the boat go where you want it to.”

“Can I make it go, Grampy?”

“Mmm, I don’t think so, l’il guy.  I don’t think she works anymore.”  Together they lifted the cowling off the boat, behind the drivers, and peered at the mysteries of the small motor inside.

“It smells funny,” the little boy said.

“That’s oil you smell,” his grandpa replied.  “Your daddy always made sure he kept her cleaned and oiled.  He really liked this boat.”

“What’s her name?”

“Your daddy called her The Yellow Flash.  Here’s her name on the back, just the way he painted it.”

“Can I make her go, Grampy?” the little boy asked again.

The old man shook his head.  “The batteries are probably dead,” he said, “and look at these wires.  They’re corroded at the junction plates.  The sails are pretty ratty, too.”

“Well, can we fix her?” the little boy said.

His grandpa stared at him for a few moments, a faraway look in his eye.  “Y’know,” he said finally, “maybe we can.  Shall we give it a try?”

sailboat

Over the next couple of weeks, the two of them dismantled the boat in order to clean every part, separating the batteries and wires that would need replacing.  They opened the remote box and cleaned it out as best they could, removed the sails for a gentle cleaning.  On his next trip to the city, the old man took the hull and box to a hobby-shop, where the owner walked him through the steps needed to restore the boat to operation.

On the little boy’s next visit to the cottage, they began the rebuilding process.  As they soldered new wires in place, the little boy was fascinated.  His grandpa let him set the new batteries in their proper slots, showing him how to ensure the contacts were touching.  He watched as the little boy lovingly polished the hull, restoring it to its original gleaming glory.

Together, they replaced the sails, and tested the remote box, working the toggles to control the boat’s tiny propeller and rudder while it still sat on its dry-dock pedestal.

“She works, Grampy!  She works!”

“I think she does, l’il guy.  Shall we put her in the water?”

And so they did.  Carrying her gingerly down the slope to the dock, they lowered her carefully into the lake.  From a silent vantage point on the rocks, I watched them—a grandfather and his son’s son, with his son’s boat, launching their labour of love.

“Which one is the driver?” the little boy asked, pointing to the three small figures in the cockpit.

“Well, this one is you,” his grandpa said, indicating the figure in the middle.  “You’re the skipper.”

“Okay,” said the little boy.  “Then this one on the right will be you, and this can be my daddy over here.”

The old man had to look away for a moment to collect himself.

“What if the waves tip her over?” the little boy asked, suddenly apprehensive.

“Well, it’s pretty calm right now, l’il guy.  I think she’ll be okay.”

“But what if she goes way out there and we can’t bring her back?”

“She’ll come back,” his grandpa said.  “She’ll come back.”

sailboat3

As they perched on the dock, legs dangling over the water, the old man gave the boat a push away from shore.  The little boy, the remote box between his knees, began to steer her—hesitantly at first, with fitful starts and stops, over-correcting erratically.  But in moments he was sure, and the boat skimmed atop the surface, speeding and curving gracefully, immediately responsive to his commands.

I watched the boat for awhile, then turned my attention to the old man and the boy.  Their faces were split with grins, happily alight, as they raced The Yellow Flash to and fro along the shoreline.

“Take a turn, Grampy,” the little boy yelled, handing the remote box to his grandpa.  And he squealed with delight when the old man almost capsized her, righting her just in time.

“Grampy?” the little boy said after a while.

“Mmm?” his grandpa replied, seeming lost in reverie.

“I love my daddy’s boat!”

“I love her, too,” the old man said, leaning in close to his grandson.  “And I love you, l’il guy, very much.”

I left them on the dock, locked in silent communion.  And it may only have been my imagination, but when I stole a glance back, I could swear I saw a third person there—ephemeral but real, lovingly watching them both.

At once apart from, yet a part of, the old man and the boy.

And I marveled at the reach of a father’s love.

father-son-and-grandfather-fishing

Paulie

A friend of mine from our teenage years died recently, after a long, slow decline, taken from us before his time.  For more than fifty years, Paulie and I celebrated our friendship in the company of our wives, themselves close friends since high school, and our children.

We journeyed through many stages of life together—boyhood teammates and opponents in the sports we loved to play; young men starting out, full of hope and sure of success; new fathers, surprised at how quickly we got to that point; fellow-travellers far and wide, our growing families in tow; and eventually grandfathers, proud all over again of a new generation.  Through it all, we played our games and remained steadfast friends.

Our boyhoods were spent in the suburbs, where every community had its own park, and we spent hours there after school and on weekends.  We were from different neighbourhoods, but connected on those playing fields during the endless summers and wondrous winters, eager warriors on the ball-diamonds and hockey-rinks.  Especially the hockey-rinks.

In every park there was an outdoor ice pad or two, where neighbourhood fathers (and a few intrepid mothers) would stand every night, alone in the dark, flooding water on the rinks to provide fresh ice for the following day.  I’m not sure we thanked them enough back then, but we sure benefited from their dedication.

By the time we’d arrive at the rink, skates dangling from the hockey sticks propped on our shoulders, fresh snow had often fallen.  So the first kid to get there would take one of the shovels propped in the surrounding snowbanks, and start clearing the ice.  As more of us arrived, we’d take turns until the ice was cleaned off.  And then we’d lace up and the game would begin.

Paulie and I were habitués of those parks.

As adults, our careers took us in different directions, and to different cities.  But we talked frequently by phone—mostly about business, our families, and, of course, sports.  Especially hockey.  We never talked about dying and the hereafter, and what it might hold, not even near the end.  We weren’t afraid of it, I don’t think;  it was just too abstract to be contemplated.

But now it’s happened.  My friend has gone.

But where?  Where is he now, I wonder?  Or, more precisely, where is the essence of who he was?  His soul, some might call it.  In my sorrow, I’ve concocted a scenario that consoles me, regardless that it may sound far-fetched to others.  Paulie would understand.

There’s a celestial park somewhere, complete with a neighbourhood ice pad.  It’s covered with the whitest snow any of us has ever seen, and my friend is the first one there.  He’s grabbed a shovel, and he’s busy scraping the ice.

Sooner or later, I like to imagine, I’ll be joining him.  He knows that, so he’s not troubled.  And when that day arrives, when he sees me coming, he’ll stop for a minute, lean on his shovel, and shout in my direction.

“’Bout time ya got here!  Where ya been?”

I’ll shrug and wave a greeting, my wide smile letting him know how happy I am to see him again.

“Grab a shovel,” he’ll yell, as I stuff cold feet into my skates.  “This is hard work!”

But it won’t be, not really.  It will be joyous work—legs pumping, hearts pounding, breath forming around our heads, skate-blades cutting their cold, choppy sound in the ice.  Just like always…just like always.

In no time at all, the snow will be cleared, the ice will be ready.  And when it is, I choose to believe, we’ll toss a puck out on the ice, take up our sticks yet one more time, and play our game together, the game we always loved.  The way we loved each other.

Paulie and I2

Teammates again, friends forever.

Paul Joseph Boyer

26 July 1942 – 16 March 2017

 

 

Tracks in the Sand

One long-ago February, when winter’s white enveloped the north, one of our daughters came with her family to visit us in Florida.  The favourite activity for our grandson and granddaughter (the third of the clan being still an infant, unable to express her opinion) was going to the ocean, to the beach.

Our usual routines were fairly standard.  We’d park and unpack the car, each of us carrying the beach necessities according to our age and abilities.  We’d trudge the access path, through the dunes adorned with sea oats, pass through the rickety snow fence, and pick a spot that suited us all.

In short order, the umbrellas would be unfurled, the chairs unfolded, the blankets spread, and the toys strewn across the sand.  Peace would reign for Nana and Grandpa, watching the sleeping baby while her parents and older siblings hit the water.

beach-sand-grass-sunshine_tn2

On one such occasion, a small incident occurred which didn’t have much significance at the time.  In retrospect, however, it has become quite meaningful for me.

My daughter, my wife, and I embarked on a walk along the beach after the kids had finished splashing in the ocean.  Their dad stayed with them, helping build grand castles in the sand.

We decided to hike through the dunes on the way out, and come back along the shoreline.  I led off, sinking ankle-deep into the soft sand, feet clad in sandals to protect from the heat and the sandspurs.  After a few minutes, we came upon tracks in the sand, apparently made by some small creature, perhaps a mole.

What made the discovery unusual was that they suddenly stopped in a small depression in the sand, as if the mole had simply vanished.  The tracks ended without a trace.

My daughter suggested what might have happened.  The mole, she reckoned, had been taken by a predator, likely one of the falcons that frequent the area.  Indeed, on closer inspection, we could detect brush-marks in the sand, caused by the beating of a bird’s powerful wings.

We wended our way slowly, backtracking along the poor victim’s trail.  It occurred to me that, a scant few yards before the depression in the sand, the mole would have had no inkling it was about to die.  It was alive until it wasn’t.

Apparently, though, it knew it was under attack, for we found another, earlier depression in the sand where the bird had struck unsuccessfully.  The mole had jumped sideways, scurried under the protection of some sea-oats, then emerged again to flee along the sand.

Our backtracking ended when the trail curled away from the beach, into dense, long grasses, whence the mole had come.  We soon forgot about it as we continued our stroll, eventually heading back along the water’s edge to our grandchildren.

A few days later, I chanced to hear someone on the radio airily proclaiming that, if we all discovered the world was to end tomorrow, telephone lines everywhere would be jammed by people calling home to say all those things they had forgotten to say while there was still time.  Social media sites on the internet would crash from the traffic.  It made me think again of the mole whose tracks we had seen in the sand.

When it left its burrow for that final time, did it have its life in order?  Had it said all those things that matter to those who matter?  Or were there things it had left undone that should have been looked to sooner?

And I thought of myself.  Does my journey through life leave tracks in the sand for some other eye to see?  Am I subject to a mortal strike from some hidden foe?  And if, or when, it happens, am I prepared and at peace with those who care about me?

When I got right down to it, I didn’t see much difference between that mole and me.  Except one.  I’m still making tracks in the sand.  I still have time to ready myself for whatever is to come, and to be at peace with all who matter.

Such are the thoughts that arose as a result of a stroll along a sunny beach in Florida.

Mothers’ Day Again

Another Mothers’ Day has passed, the sixth since my own mother passed away.  The living mothers in my family number nineteen in all: my wife, two daughters, three sisters, two sisters-in-law, ten nieces, and one grand-niece.  All were recognized and honoured by their children, many on social media, and it was lovely to witness.

But I still miss being able to pay homage to my own mother each year—to hear her voice, see her smile, smell her perfume; and mostly, to feel her arms around me.  We knew each other for sixty-seven years, with nary a breach in the trust and love we shared, and my world is emptier without her.

On her ninetieth birthday, four years before she died, I wrote this poem to convey what she had meant to me for so long.  I likened her to a tree that sheltered me until I dared to strike out on my own, and even thereafter.

At the time, I thought I had written it for her; but now, I suspect, I wrote it for me.

 

Mum April 04

My Tree

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her boughs across my yard,

Festooned with leaves providing shade, standing tall and proud, on guard.

When I was young, and climbed up high into my tree, carefree and fleet,

Her branches hugged me safe and close, held fast my hands, secured my feet.

As I grew braver, I would stray beyond the fence that kept me in.

But at day’s end, I’d rush back home to settle ‘neath my tree again.

Her boughs would gently bend and blow about my head, and whisper soft,

And tell me of the wide world they had seen from high aloft.

Sometimes she’d bend, tossed by storms that raged around us, blowing fierce,

Yet, ne’er a storm could match her strength, nor through her loving shelter pierce.

Then, all too quickly, I was gone to seek a new yard, far away.

Yet always I’d return to hug my tree, and feel her gentle sway.

Too big by then to climb once more her branches, high o’erhead,

I still found comfort there, among the fallen leaves my tree had shed.

 ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Past ninety years, yet still she stands, her canopy now drooping low,

Creaking, bending, in the winds that shake her branches, to and fro.

As spring and summer fast have fled, and fall has turned her leaves to gold,

My tree displays a majesty that can be neither bought, nor sold.

And I’ll remember all my days her love, like ripples in a pond,

Because I’m sheltered now by younger trees—the seeds she spawned.

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her loving boughs each day

Above my head, to nurture me, and gently send me on my way.

Life and Death

Just what is it that makes life worth living, anyway?  Is there a universal, one-size-fits-all answer, or is the answer situational, dependent upon the circumstances in which we each find ourselves?

And what might that answer be?  Is it happiness?  Good health?  Sex?  Wealth?  Perhaps the ultimate aphrodisiac, power?  Or some combination of these?

The existentialists among us might claim the answer is personal fulfilment, harmony with the world around us, inner peace.  Alone though we are, they might say, we are nevertheless connected to others, but on our own terms.

The religious among us might declare life’s significance arises from a meaningful relationship with one’s creator, in whatever form that creator might be rendered.  At this point in time, however, they seem unable to reconcile their competing visions with everyone else’s.

The afflicted and dispossessed peoples of the world might proclaim that life, being an endless procession of hunger, thirst, and terror, is not worth living at all.  And who is any of us, never having experienced their realities, to disagree?

But let us suppose, cheerfully, that everyone we know has found ample reason to live, to carry on, to survive.  In the face, sometimes, of personal tragedy, severe illness, serious setbacks of whatever ilk, they have persevered, even prospered, and gladly proclaim life to be the greatest gift of all.  They are, from all appearances, joyful, optimistic, and strong.

I recognize myself among this happy crew.  Wanting for none of the necessities of life, surrounded by family who love me, blessed with friends who are supportive and caring, I rise each day with a positive outlook, sure this blissful state will continue for years to come.  To state the obvious, life is to be lived.

So what do I make of the current debate swirling around us about a person’s right to an assisted death when the time comes?  How do I square my belief in the meaning of life with a possible wish to end that life at some point?  Are these two concepts even compatible?

For me, it comes down to a fundamental, primal instinct that life exists beyond this earthly planet we inhabit.  The vast universe in which we float is, itself, alive—a pulsating burst of energy, ever-expanding, interminably large.  And an infinitely small fragment of that energy, in whatever form it manifests itself, is what powers life in me.  It is my life-source.  Some, more religious than I, might call it a soul.

So when my time is up, as surely it will be someday, I take it as an article of faith that my spark of life will rejoin the universe from which it sprang—still alive, still burning, but in a vastly different form.

universe1

Comforted by this belief, I do not fear death’s inevitability.  I do, however, harbour apprehensions about the manner in which that death might transpire.  Having been blessed, so far, to live a life worth living, I have no wish to spend whatever number of months or years in a diminished state, waiting helplessly for my life-source to reattach itself to that whence it came.

Perhaps I shall die suddenly one fine day.  Here one moment, gone in the next instant, no assistance required.  Still alive in the universe, to be sure, but departed from this realm.  I’d be happy about that—but not too soon, of course.

Lingering on, however, past the stage where my mortal coil can function properly, holds no attraction.  So I have come to the conclusion that I should be allowed and empowered to facilitate the escape of my spark of life from my failing body, and set it once again on its eternal journey in the universe.

The true meaning of life for me, it turns out, is the power, not to end it, but to release it from a failing, earthly body—freeing it to roam, as the poet, W. B. Yeats, once wrote, “…among a cloud of stars.”