For my father.
28th April 1942 – 20th March 2014
The Father and The Boy
They walked. The German wirehair cutting their path and following mysterious scents until they led too far and he’d return as if to make sure his man and his boy weren’t lost. They tread light but steady, the man surefooted, the boy still learning and kept their eyes on the pond that flashed its mirror quietude through the damp tangle of pussy willow and dormant oaks and mindful of the tussocks that made footing uncertain. The sky was ashen and the land barren and the flora marched along steady shades of grey and brown but for the sparse slashes of red as though the poison oak wished them to avoid touching it. They did. The pond drew near and the man signaled a lowered posture to let the reeds conceal them and they knelt at the edge of the water and listened to the quacking murmur as the birds paddled about and dove for freshwater clams and algae and whatever else they could roust out of the mud. What do you see?
Ducks? The boy asked simply.
What kind of ducks?
Mallards. Wood ducks. And there’s some quail over there!
Sshhh. Good eye, I didn’t see those. What else?
Um. There’s a robin over there? The boy waited and since there was no argument he kept on. I see a brown footed towhee and some sparrows. That’s a black oak, that’s poison oak and that’s willow and those are cattail…s. He waited and when the man said nothing he continued. I hear linnets. I hear a bullfrog?
Down on the banks of the Hanky Panky, where the bullfrogs leap from bank to banky… The man would often leap into old songs if the situation called for it. Or if he thought the situation called for it. Songs that came from times that defined Americana when the country rocketed into stardom post WWII and the man was a boy and dreamed of adventuring like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Dreamed of a life out of the Saturday Evening Post with a homemade fishing pole and dog, perhaps with a bandage. Matching silly songs to life. It was very dad humor. The boy didn’t mind. In the years to come it would be one of the things that defined the man in the boy’s mind and inevitably rub off on him in a small way.
The wirehair sat patiently and panted and sniffed at the air and perked up his ears at sounds his man and boy couldn’t hear.
The boy grew anxious. They’re just sitting there. We could shoot ‘em now and then we won’t miss.
No, that’s not fair. You always wanna give them a sporting chance. Give ‘em a chance to get away.
Oh. Why? We don’t want them to get away.
It’s just fair. We have guns so we have the advantage. And it’s always good to have to earn it. Otherwise there’s no challenge.
Oh. Okay. Mom said the American Indians say a prayer for feeding them. To say thank you to the spirits for the food.
We could say a prayer if you want.
The boy pondered this. He thought he understood why they said prayers to animal spirits, but he didn’t know how to put that understanding into words. No, it’s okay. I don’t really know anything to say. The man looked at the boy for a moment, perhaps waiting to see if that was the decision the boy would stay with, or if his indecisive son would arrive upon some inspired spiritual insight. The boy just knelt at the edge of the pond and watched the ducks.
Okay, whispered the man. They raised their shotguns, the man with a 12 gauge, the boy with a 20 gauge. With that motion the wirehair crouched and prepared to retrieve the birds on the man’s command. The father and the son stood and the man hollered out to startle the birds into flight.
The boy, now a man, opened his eyes. He looked at his father the man, now so like a boy as he lay on the bed with labored breath and his silver silken hair against the pillow and able to push out only a few words between tiny naps and spells of wandering off to other planes and crossing thresholds to learn what he could about what awaited him, or perhaps to satisfy his curiosity or maybe he simply desired to say hello and goodbye to those special to him. His eyes would glaze over and the man could see his father was somewhere else, with other people and then his eyes would focus and though he was near blind they were clear and clean and his skin was soft and unwrinkled and yet he was an old man. Not unlike those Saturday Evening Post covers and the man found some comfort in that like his father found that life he’d desired in some small fashion.
The father’s eyes focussed and he moaned a small moan.
Are you in pain, dad?
He shook his head, no. He took some deep breaths. I love you, buddy.
I love you too, dad.
He took some deep breaths. You’re quite a character.
The man laughed quietly. Well, that makes two of us. He said it with a small smile.
Those were the last words he heard his father speak. In less than a day he would be gone. Quietly and in the small hours of the morning as his family slept, if only for a few minutes, he would slip out as though he didn’t wish to wake anyone. If he could do this one thing himself after years of depending on help from others to prepare his food and to get dressed, or to know which room he was in or which month or season the rest of the world moved through. He didn’t need any more help. He knew the way now. And to let his family rest would be his last physical act. His small gift.
It seemed the man had just shut his eyes when his mother said in a small voice with a little wonder and a little lost, Daniel. Daniel, I think he’s gone. I think dad just left.
The man went to his father. To the body, because though some warmth still lingered, his father was not there. Some essence remained, a subtle feeling like a pond half glimpsed through the trees, but the man looked at the body and could see only aspects of his father. Yet there he was laying down and smiling through closed eyes. Somehow he appeared twenty years younger than when the man had seen him last and the man gave a silent prayer that his father rest. To finally be free after such trials as he’d endured to come through with some kind of enlightenment and some small secret that left him with that smile and blissfuly at peace. At last.