The very last secret in my father’s life came on slowly: teasing our family with that first shocking glimpse, leaving its clues scattered, then hiding so quietly we all forgot its existence. I thought it gone, anyway, but I was a child and hadn’t yet learned what pernicious meant.
Glimmers of that secret’s essential nature had started showing itself, first making its presence known to me when I was a young girl playing in a hospital courtyard, circling around and around a splashing central fountain, alone, waiting.
I still remember that sterile-feeling courtyard: how uniform the mottled red and pink bricks were, how sandwiched between them the thick, white grout that had solidified in mid-ooze like a cement Oreo center. How white the graveled ground was that crunched beneath my feet, gravel that crunched louder the few times I managed to jump really high. How lifeless that entire outdoor enclosure felt without one shade of living green, even with the fountain’s liquid song tumbling near by, even with the sliding glass doors on one side, closed, but showing my parents’ shapes beyond.
Jump, crunch, jump, crunch.
My new Mary Jane shoes pinched my feet. They weren’t the shiny patent leather kind I’d always wanted, so I wasn’t inclined to like them even if they hadn’t pinched. I thought about taking one shoe off and seeing if it would float in the fountain, but I remembered just in time not to be curious today.
Jump, ouch, jump, ouch.
I decided to sit down on the park-like bench and take both of those ugly, pinchey shoes off, watching my toes wiggle through too-long white tights, the last few inches that had crowded my shoes dangling at the end of my toes. I leaned my head back against the splintery bench boards, my listless gaze taking in the pale blue of a Texas morning sky, the rectangular view framed by the brick edges of this one-storey place where my father lay inside, on a bed that moved up and down. I wanted to get on that bed and make it move too, but my father was taking up all the room and I wasn’t allowed to visit in his room anyway, the hospital rules stating I was too young to stand inside.
So I waited while the fountain sang to me, while my mother sat by my father’s bed, while questions, edges of secrets, nibbled on my mind. Shadows of questions really, as the answers were too big for me to fathom.
Questions like why is Dad just lying there pale and why does Mom look so sad and what does a heart attack mean anyway?
Shivers of apprehension passed through me without my understanding why as I gazed up at birds flying high, flying by, not noticing me at all…as if I weren’t even there. I think some of that apprehension decided not to pass through after all, feeling as I still do those little grey shivers of doubt-toward-life that took up residence in my five-year-old self that day.
My father slowly got better.
His heart disease slunk back in its corner, its shadows kept at bay by grace and the stabilizing extraction of foxglove known as digitalis.
My parents had always walked, but now they started a new hobby, sailing on weekends at White Rock Lake, until my father got a promotion that moved us to Georgia the year I turned 7, years so far away they now seem misty to my mind’s eye.
Sailing became a much bigger part of our lives in Georgia; sailing and the lake were the new passions my parents lived for most weekends. Among new friends, they gathered their boats and raced around marked courses like madmen, all depending on the wind, some shouting and cursing with glee, some focused with sharp drive and intent, all skippering their scows and sloops toward an ever hopeful first.
These folks called this frenzy (or not, all depending on the wind) their favorite form of relaxation, although there was a reason for the favored refrain among them: Well, we ARE all just drinkers with a sailing problem….
But too much drinking was not the secret to my father’s problem.
This passion for racing structured our family’s seasons, usually scheduled our vacations and hijacked most weekends, with races, regattas, water, sailing, more sailing, swimming, fleet meetings, dinners and dances…
Parties, cocktails. Kids running wild everywhere.
Laughter. Good God, these folks could laugh, all political persuasions partying together, bound by their love for the water and the thrill of the race, loud shouts and choruses flaring up here and there, on docks and decks each summer Saturday night, well past the midnight curfew some paid no attention to.
I thought lake sailors were the happiest people on earth as a child, I knew I was a happy child when among them. The stress of my grownups’ lives vanished, the secret grey shivers about life fled, the nightmare of our family dinner table was temporarily forgotten.
At the lake was a different life, surrounded by people who loved water and sail, the sounds of slapping halyards, who pinned rudders and raised sails for a lark not a race, or who raced with a vengeance, charting courses, plotting starting line-ups and complex trajectories for their best potential finish.
I loved it all.
It was the finish my father missed, that early October day in 1971 that started with such promise, four years after our family had settled into the green Georgia hills and began calling them home.
That day, his secret came blasting into our lives, shape-shifting from heart disease to fatal heart attack, having morphed from vague thoughts of life’s ending number into the very specific point of age 54 and 229 days. It all happened in a split second that day; my father was racing toward ‘E’ mark, I believe.
That day, I had skipped the lake as it was my 11th birthday party and I wanted to go to Six Flags and ride roller coasters, eat cotton candy and have fun all day with my friends.
That day, my teen-aged sister was crewing for Dad, both of them excited as this weekend was our fleet’s big regatta of the year, with sailors from all over coming to race on our lake too. My sister’s lake friends were on their sailboats with their Dads, all vying for trophies and future bragging rights of first, second, third boat across the line, start and finish.
My mother and her friends, my brother (one of them anyway) and his friends, they were there that day too, likely all gathered at the shoreline as usual, watching the races with binoculars, warm drinks in thermoses, mugs and flasks being passed around to ward off the October chill…