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.
“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?”
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.”
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.