I finish the last chapter, the last page, and close the book. Tears pool in my eyes, cling to the bottom lids until those behind them push them over and out. The contact lens in my right eye swims, fighting against the current, trying to maintain its position.
It’s a dog book. And we all know how dog stories end.
I gaze toward the lake, looking for Jim. He thinks I’m crazy to read books like this. But I like a good cry. I like how you start crying about one thing and end up crying about something else. You never know what will surface. Memories. Fears. It’s always a good cleanse. The lake is calm, though there is a stiff breeze, according to the flags at the state park entrance not too far away. My kayak, nearby, beckons.
I slip my paddling vest on and pull my boat down the grassy knoll to the lake’s edge. I can hear the cries of my dog, tethered to the shade shelter of the campsite. Of course, he wants to go with me. But he can’t. He will not stay in the kayak. He’ll jump out, wanting to swim. And the park rangers would eventually make their way to me.
At the lake’s edge, I look back now to our campsite. There is my dog – perfectly framed beneath the shade shelter, front paws prancing, ears perked to maximum, willing me to take him with. Another surge of tears squeeze from my eyes, the words about the love between a dog and its owner so fresh in my mind.
“Stay,” I say. I can easily relate to the dog owner in the story, for he, too, had to make tough decisions about when it was best to leave his dog behind, even if the dog did not understand.
Next to the shelter is the truck and camper. My camper. I purchased it with a portion of the money my dad left me upon his death.
I step from the bank to my boat, happy, for some reason, to not have to put a foot in the lake, happy to maintain my balance and sit down, totally dry, ready to paddle.
Pull, pull, pull, pull. Right, left, right, left. The image of my dog, pleading with me to go, stays in my mind. I pray that he will stay put, that he won’t find a way to weasel out of his collar, to break free and run along the shoreline of the lake until he catches up with me.
The tears stream. I hate to leave him, especially upon reading that last chapter, knowing how much he loves me and wants to be with me. Knowing that, as always, with every being we love, today could be the last day, the last opportunity to experience something like this together.
Here I am paddling across a lake. Lakes. I love them. It is no surprise that I jumped in my kayak after getting all emotional after finishing the dog book. Going to the lake was a big part of my childhood. It was our family’s thing. My dad bought the boat, cared for the boat, got it ready each weekend, and made sure we had a most excellent, and safe, time every time that we went out.
Jim’s orange kayak gleams in the sunlight, a ways ahead and on the opposite shore. Jim. I need to get to him. I paddle. Hard. Tears pour from my eyes. Was it the dog in the story? His owner? My dog and what he means to me? The fact that I left him behind, without even giving him a chance to stay in my kayak? Was it the lake? The image of my camper and the memory of my father? Could it be the upcoming trip to Kauai for the memorial service?
I paddle fast, as fast as the tears that now roll off my cheeks, down my neck, and into my paddle vest, across the middle of the lake to the man I love. Jim. Lake. Dog. Water. Childhood. My dad. This is a big mountain lake and it’s early June. The water is cold. If I have a mishap, I probably won’t survive before I get to land.
I smile at my naughtiness and think of a conversation I had with my dad a couple years back. I told him I was going camping for an entire week in Utah and that I’d be staying in my tent.
“God damnit, Bubbie,” he’d said. “You can’t stay in a tent by yourself. For a week? Whose kid are you, anyway?”
“Now, as I paddle across the lake, I think, “I’m your kid, God damnit.” My silent tears turn to outright sobbing, my breaths short and loud.
No one hears. Just me.
I’m your kid. That was the answer. I’m not just some tent-camping, lake-paddling crazy hippie. I’m a teacher, 25 years at it. And a mother. A damn good one. An author, a consultant. A lover of the outdoors, of books and photography. Someone who’s taught 700 kids to read. I’m brave and independent and smart and loving and pragmatic. I’m your kid.
And so are my siblings. They’re your kids, too. My sister, Roxy, amazes us all with her beauty, composure, and acumen. The children she has raised, Andy, Christie, and Brady—your grandkids—are adults of whom to admire and be proud. And then there are your great grandkids, Dad. I know you’d be proud of them and love them, just as you loved us.
And Ryan—my brother, your son—what a man he is. He’s intelligent, hard-working, funny as hell (remind you of anyone, dad?), and loving. Loving, dad, just like you were.
Yes, we’re your kids.
And let’s not forget your four young adult grandchildren—Eli, Erik, Addy, and Amy. They are all busy figuring out who they are, where they came from and where they want to go in life. What it is they’re meant to do. And now that I think about it, there have been days when we’ve looked at them and thought, “Whose kid are you, anyway?” They’re ours. But they’re individuals. And we love them for that.
Dad, everyone here today knows you weren’t the conventional father. But one thing you were, for sure, was loving.
My sister, Roxy; my brother, Ryan; me. We’ve all turned out pretty good. We work hard, make a good living, and support our families. We’re good parents. We’re making a difference in this world. We’re loving people. We’re your kids, dad.
I keep paddling. I’m halfway to Jim. Memories of my childhood flood my mind.
I remember when we lived in California and I was, maybe, four, and wanted to leave home. Perhaps it had something to do with you always saying, “Go play on the freeway.” Either way, I was ready to go. You helped me pack my suitcase. You sent me down the street. And, not surprisingly, you stood behind the tree and watched me and were there waiting for me when I got scared, a few houses down the block, and turned around and ran home, crying.
I was your kid.
I remember you singing me to sleep at night. Irene, Good Night, Irene. I don’t know if this is the only song you ever sung to me or if it’s the only one I have memories of, but the words and your voice are clear, poignant. Irene, good night, Irene. Irene, good night. Good night, Irene, good night, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams. Then a long pause, and the anticipation for what was coming next. Your big, deep baritone. Stop your rambling, stop your gambling, stop staying out late at night…
I had no idea what the song was about. In fact, I remember thinking that “Irene” must be a fancy way of saying, “I dream.” It didn’t matter. What mattered was that you’d tuck me in and sing to me and get pleasure from it.
I was your kid.
Some of my fondest memories are the times we had boating at Boysen Lake in Wyoming. Despite what must have been a hard week of work as the police chief and the hours you put into our farm and remodeling that old farm house into a suitable home for a family of five, you were always ready for a weekend day of boating. I remember you and mom throwing us kids overboard, saying you will swim, you will waterski, no matter what the water temperature was. I remember you circling the boat countless times, bringing the rope by again and again, teaching your kids—and your kids’ friends—how to waterski. You were so patient. I remember double skiing with you, one day in particular. Your back hurt, and you yelled to me that you had to let go. I sensed it was the last time we’d ever do that together. I imprinted the image of you, there, alongside me, on the other side of the wake, your golden hair blowing, the blond fuzzy hair on your tan arms sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine. I was probably 14, you 44.
I was your kid. And you were my dad.
I recall a time when you and Ryan and I went crappie fishing. This was before we had a boat. I guess you must have heard that the crappie were really biting off the Boysen cliffs because this was not something that we did on a regular basis. In fact, I don’t think we’d done it before and I’m not sure we ever did it again. We pulled up to the cliffs in our white, four-door truck and the three of us went to the tailgate. You fixed my pole and Ryan’s—for we were too young and inexperienced to do it ourselves—and then we were off, running to the cliff’s edge and dropping our lines over. Almost immediately, as soon as our lines hit the water, we got bites. Not really knowing what we were doing, we reeled in and up came a crappie on the end of each of our lines. We were back to the tailgate in a matter of minutes. You were incredulous, you with your pole in hand, your pole that wasn’t yet rigged up and ready to use. You set it aside, took the fish off our lines, and prepared our poles for the next go-around. We were off, again, and back, again, before you had a chance to get your own pole ready. “God damnit,” we heard you mutter under your breath as, once more, you set your pole aside to work on ours. The evening of fishing continued in this way until Ryan and I had caught 30 crappies, you never made it to the cliffs with your pole, and darkness swallowed us up.
We were your kids.
I finally reach Jim. He is tucked into his kayak, tucked into the shore, tinkering with his fishing line. My sobbing has subsided, my cheeks tight with dried tears.
“Oh my gosh, I finished the book, had an emotional breakdown, and had a great urge to paddle across the lake.”
“I told you not to read those dog books,” he responded.
“Oh, no, it’s a good thing. It got me thinking about my dad. I’ve come up with all sorts of good memories. I sobbed and sobbed while I paddled. I don’t think I’ve cried really hard for him yet. I must have needed to.”
Jim wasn’t sure what to do with me. “Well, have fun fishing. I’m going to keep going around the lake.”
I didn’t cry anymore, but memories kept surfacing. And I knew that, as I paddled, I was writing my dad’s eulogy. His memorial service was in a month.
I recalled summer days, when I was out of school, and you’d come home from work, dad, for lunch. You in your police uniform, muscular and strong, completely sober and somber this time of day. I remember being most proud of you then. My feelings the least conflicted. You always listened to Paul Harvey while you ate. And I sat there at the table with you. Just listening. And watching you. No talking at all. Maybe a few words were said during the commercials. After The Rest of the Story, you were gone, back to work.
Those were special moments to me. I could feel it then and I can feel it now as I talk about it. I was your kid.
Another “God damnit” story comes to mind. Mom put you to the task of loading up our 4-H pigs in the horse trailer and getting them down to the fairgrounds for the county fair. The pig pen was at the top of the pasture, the muddy mess of a field stretching out down a hill beneath the pen. You had to drive the truck and trailer downhill, into the mud, in order to then back the trailer up to the pigpen gate. As you wrestled the truck through that mess, we three kids bumped around in the back seat, eyed each other, broke into grins, and, as if on cue, whined, “Daaaddddy, do we have to go four-wheeling?”
“God damnit, shut up, I’ll do the driving around here,” you grumbled.
We laughed and laughed, bounced off the seat and almost out the windows, grabbing our stomachs. You were so confused. Why were we all laughing? Why hadn’t your gruff voice silenced us?
We then explained to you that the line—Daaaddddy, do we have to go four-wheeling?—and the whiny voices were straight out of some commercial that we three were familiar with. A little embarrassed, you were quick to laugh and forgive us. You always were.
I’m sure the three of us drove you crazy most of the time. But you always laughed and enjoyed us, too. We were your kids.
Funny memories. Dinner was always a good time, with lots of laughing. You were always funny. One time we were all saying our graduating class mottos. Mine was, “84 is out the door.” When we asked you yours, it was obvious you couldn’t remember, but you made one up right there on the spot: “Hell with the ticket takers; knock ‘em on their ass. We get in free ‘cause we’re the class of ’53.”
Me being 16 and pulling into my parking space at the farm in the green Ford truck. You came over and said, “You ever change the oil in that thing, Bubbie?”
“What oil?” I asked.
“God damnit, Bubbie.” You hadn’t taught me a thing about the engine. You did that day though.
You also taught us how to shoot guns. I remember shooting a shotgun at age seven and the kick knocking me on my butt.
One time Grandpa Fron was at our ranch with us. We kids turned over a hay bale and found pockets and pockets of baby mice, still pink and hairless and translucent. We begged and begged to take some home. After we were back in town, I overheard Grandpa Fron talking to mom, saying, “He could hardly say no to those kids. If I hadn’t have been there, you’d have a house full of baby mice right now.”
You let us have all kinds of animals, Dad—horses, cows, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, rabbits, mice (domestic, adult, in a cage), geese, a peacock, a mule, goats… You let us try a raccoon in the house, but that only lasted for a couple days. And we got to keep a baby pig in our basement laundry room one cold Wyoming winter. I remember the summer I had 47 pets. I was pretty lucky to be your kid.
I’m back from paddling now, under the shade shelter, laptop on lap. I need to write. It’s either the byproduct or the catalyst of such a good cry. Often both.
But, here in the outdoors, I can’t see my screen. Can’t see what I type. All I can see is my reflection. My thin hair. No gray yet. Maybe never. It’s your hair. My eyes – you’re there. Those barely visible lines from the corners of my mouth to the bottom of my jaw, the ones that define the shape of my chin. They’re yours.
I’m your kid.
Jim’s back. He sets his things down, takes his vest off. “Okay,” he says. “Now, tell me more about that emotional breakdown. Or whatever it was.”
“I already told you. I was bawling. It was the book. Then I saw my camper. Then I started thinking about my dad.”
“Tell me more.”
“I can’t. The moment’s gone. I sure do wish I could write about it. But I can’t see my laptop screen. I already tried.”
Jim goes into the camper, comes back with a pad of paper and a ball point pen. I can’t write like that—the old-fashioned way—but I appreciate how he understands my need to write.
“How about I take a nap and you sit in the camper and type?” he suggests.
The words pour out of me, as readily and cleansing as my tears did just a bit ago. Jim snores lightly on the camper bed, a few feet away. At one point he stirs and asks, “Are you sobbing over there?”
“Yes,” I reply.
A while later and he is awake for good. I decide that I’m at a good stopping point. I thank him for the idea, the support. Somehow, he always knows.
“I got a lot written,” I tell him. It feels good to maybe have a start on this eulogy. Something I can continue with.
“It’s not too long, is it?” he asks. “You know, people won’t want to hear you go on and on.”
I consider that. “It might be too long,” I confess. “But, so be it. You only die once. My dad was a storyteller and I’m sure he won’t mind at all if I take the time to tell a few stories about him.”
It’s my place, my responsibility, I think. I am, after all, his kid.