My dad, with a strategically placed slice of silver hair on an otherwise beautiful head of brown locks, sat proudly at the back of a canoe, attempting to keep his posture straight while resting his belly comfortably in his lap, in between an unfastened bright orange lifejacket. He was finally taking us on a boat trip, just as his father had done for him.
“Girls, are you ready to have a ball?!”
We looked up at him, slightly indifferent, fidgeting in our seats and trying to clip together our vests. In a whiney and helpless response,
“daaad, I think I already got my butt wet.”
He ignored this, and clumsily used the oar to push off from the dock and float the canoe deeper into the lake. As my sister and I swayed back and forth, hitting our kid-sized oars against the boat and splashing more water than we moved, my dad dutifully paddled away, pointing out birds with overly exaggerated “oohs” and “ahhs”. My sister and I smashed our fingers between the canoe’s rim and our paddle poles as we looked up into the sky.
Time passed and as it did, my dad likely started to realize that we were no longer moving. That we had remained in the same patch of brush at the side of the lake for the last 10 minutes, going around in a circle. My sister and I got tired of looking at the sky. We started to fidget again.
“Hey, are we stuck?” I asked cautiously.
My dad kept his humorous tone, “Hmm we do seem to be going nowhere.”
I tried to smile, “How do we escape?”
I wonder if, in that moment, the rest of the family felt as I did: that we were trapped on the titanic and would never make it home. The time passed slowly. I got hungry. My dad looked tired from his efforts. We sat there together, quietly, by ourselves, on the lake.
Finally, some time later, in the distance, we saw a family in a similar canoe, laughing and enjoying their time as we had not managed.
“Dad, save us!” I yelled, trying again not to let the panic come out too obviously in my voice. “Ask them for help!”
My dad looked resigned, a look he often seemed to have, exhausted by the weight of the world and all the disappointments brought along with it. But he fixed his posture again and looked intently out at the other boat, trying to sound as casual as he could,
“Excuse me, hi, we seem to be stuck. Do you know how we can get out of here?”
As it turned out, my dad needed to sit in the middle of the boat, where all the water my sister and I had accidentally splashed into it had accumulated. Sitting at the end where he was, the captain of his ship, meant the weight was set too far back and we were only able to move in circles. Since he was doing all the work, we weren’t going anywhere. He needed to man the ship from the middle, so my sister and I could coast along in the two canoe seats on either end.
I think back on this memory as some kind of metaphor for love, and for disappointment, and for what it means to be a father. He wanted this canoe trip so badly. He tried so hard to make it work. And, in the end, the only way it did was for him to sit in a puddle in the middle of the boat, helping his daughters to safety. In a lot of ways, my dad lived much of his life in this way: for us. Always in the middle. Always sacrificing himself. His happiness for the well being of the group, for our sake, to get us home in one piece, gliding along the lake in our seats, happy and relieved he had come to our rescue, again.