Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise.
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
-Lewis Carroll

In my dream we are in a boat upon a lake, neither of us speaking, my grandfather and I. We are fishing on a foggy summer morning, like we did for a brief period a very long time ago. He looks the same: baseball cap on his head, dark, squinty eyes, ruddy skin, double chin, pot belly, but sickly, just beginning to show the signs of the disease that would kill him. He stares out across the water, silent, holding his fishing pole. He does not look at me.

“I was there the day you died,” I offer. “Good Friday, 1980. I came over and mowed the lawn and cleaned up the yard. Then I sat by your bed awhile. You moaned and spoke gibberish. I went home and that night, we got the call you were dead.”

He continues to stare off in the distance. I do not understand what he is waiting for. Do the dead wait for the fish to bite? I realize my own fishing pole is slack in my hands. Did I bait the hook before casting? I remember he taught me to bait the hook with cheese. I could not stand to impale the worm, watching it twist and turn to escape the barb stuck through its body.

“You were kind of a jerk,” I say as gently as I can. “You were mean sometimes. Always calling me Bub. Never letting me play pool on your table because you said I would destroy the felt. You were kind of a jerk.”

I see he does not respond to my criticism. We had just started going fishing when he got sick. We were never close, and I feared him, but when we were out on the water, he changed. Between us there became an unspoken bond. But for the life of me, I cannot remember what we talked about on those cold mornings out on the lake.

Now the fog swirls around us, and I hear voices. “Please,” I call. “Help us. My grandfather is sick.” The voices continue their murmuring. They sound a little like Gregorian chant, like monks in the distance saying their Liturgy of the Hours.

“I stayed behind in the chapel after your visitation and before they took you to church. They accidentally rammed your casket into the door frame when they wheeled you out.” He is unaffected by my words, and I realize he does not care. I continue anyway. “Christopher is dead, lost at sea. Sean is dead, a delayed victim of the Vietnam War. Do you know where they are? I cried for you at the funeral. I think my father thought I was weak. Sixteen years old, and I cried for you, as much as for the end of innocence as for you. We had only begun to talk, like this, on the water.”

The sun begins to burn away the fog. I see the far shore. There is a lone person standing there and I cannot tell if it is a man or woman, but the person waves at us. My grandfather starts slowly reeling in his line. The sun grows hotter and more intense.

“You never told me how hard it is,” I say. “You never told me how hard it is to live.” But as I say the words, I realize he did tell me, every day, while the cancer ate through his prostate, his intestinal track, his colon, his bones, while he writhed in pain on that Good Friday when Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, while struggling to come to terms with the fact that after working all his life, raising ten children, and coming to retirement, he died.

“Do you remember the garden?” I am overwhelmed by the scent of tomato vines ripening in the sun. The furrows he plowed with the push tiller, the tepee of string bean vines, strawberries with the earth shrouded in plastic and the green shoots of the plant sticking through. I used to hide behind trees and the woodpile and watch him work. I believed he could not see me, that I was invisible—games of a child. He could see me. He was ignoring me.

The fog is gone. We are in a boat beneath a sunny sky, my grandfather and I. A solitary tear runs down his cheek. He is not a man to cry. Crying was for sissies. Yet, the tear is there, tracking gently down his cheek. Regrets. He regrets something.

In the distance, the man on the beach—I’ve decided he is a man—has gone away. The sand is unbelievably white.

“I need to tell you that everything is gone, everything is changed,” I tell him. “The garden is gone, the house is gone—sold to the first offer that came along—grandma is gone, I do not speak to anyone in the family anymore. We are like the sound of thunder in the distance. We are heat with no lightening. Everything is gone. Everything you worked for—gone. What do I do now, now that life is so hard? I wish you would tell me.”

He is far away, sitting right next to me in the boat, receding in the distance. The light shifts to winter and declines away in the sky. Twilight time.

“I am dreaming you alive again,” I tell him. He is shadowy and indistinct in the dusky glow. “I wish I could dream you all alive again: mom, grandma, you, Christopher, Sean, the life we had, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, family reunions, Notre Dame football games, Christmas, and trailer trips—the trailer is gone, too. Where are your travel journals, the ones you kept in a drawer in the trailer where you wrote what we did on those trips?” I realize he is fading with the day. “Sometimes, I no longer believe that world existed,” I tell him. “I am trying to hold fast to the memory, but I do not remember what you told me in the boat on those mornings on the lake. I wish I did.”

He is gone now, and I am alone in the boat in the darkness on a lake of my childhood.

“Did you tell me that life would be hard? Did you tell me you believed in me? Did you tell me I would get through? I am asking what you told me because I am losing the memory piece by piece.”

It is too late. He has vanished. Even his essence has evaporated into the darkness. Far off, a bird screeches in the night. The water is alive with fish, swarming around the boat. Everything is blue, quiet, like glass. Far in the distance, a lighthouse, guiding me to shore, and across the water, I hear the voices again, lingering in the golden gleam. And in this dream life I am alone on the water beneath a million stars, waiting for what comes next.

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