I want to say, “Yes, of course you do” but I don’t. I just listen. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to be her father.
There’s a rock jetty at Fort Macon, not far from where I grew up. It juts out into the water, right off the beach, about three hundred feet. The rocks are huge, overbearing, unique. The water has smoothed away the surface of the larger stones closest to the waves. But if you climb through, which you can’t help but want to do when you approach the jetty, you’ll see that the rocks towards the center are not smooth. The textures are raised, bumpy, sharp. You can’t quite tell which stones will be safer than the others, you simply have to climb through to find out. In between the large and small rocks are crevices, holes with swirling water underneath. The waves climb in through the spaces, the seaweed makes them slippery and dangerous.
This is my father’s favorite fishing spot. I think of it when I see him at his weakest. It always reminds me that he is not.
He’s standing three hundred feet into the ocean, balanced, pole in one hand, net in another. Sometimes you see him teeter a little, when the line pulls, and my heart jumps a little thinking this might be the time he falls in. But instead he begins a kind of magical dance, and hops from one rock to another, following the line as his catch pulls him. He is graceful and patient. If there is ever any doubt about his strength, it lies here. The strength, not the doubt. Even with the waves breaking around him, the slippery rocks underneath, his catch pulling further out, it’s impossible to believe he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.
He is the person I admire the most in this world.
Earlier this week he called me, I didn’t answer. Once, twice, three times. I was busy having a cup of coffee, chatting with a friend. When she excused herself for a moment, I returned the call. His voice was shaking, even his breathing was angry. The background noise of the coffee shop wasn’t enough to drown out the hurt in the air around me.
He had come home for lunch and my niece had skipped school. She is in charge of her seven year old sister, and didn’t get her to school either. She was packing her clothing, claiming that her mother was coming to pick them up to do laundry. My father suspected something different. Their mother disappears for a few days at a time with the girls; he was at the end of his rope. When my sister showed up, tempers flared, words were exchanged, one thing led to another. He was calling the Sheriff, my mother left work to come home and join in on the argument, my other sister in California was on the home phone, everyone was screaming, and three police cars had just pulled into the driveway. I would be lying if I said that I don’t know how a simple issue could escalate into such a dramatic and complicated one. Three hundred miles away, my heart jumped from the exchange.
He turned sixty last October. He is balancing his role as a father to my headstrong seventeen year old niece, with parenting his now adult, almost forty year old daughter. I imagine, but don’t know for sure: that it’s difficult to distinguish one voice from the other, when the tone of the argument is the same. My sister is relentless. Angry. Dangerous. Insane. Oblivious to the damage she causes. Look at me, love me, care for me. He hops from drama to drama with her, hoping a tug of the line will finally pull just hard enough to save her. The waves in my sister’s life present themselves in his, the same way her darkness does in mine. It’s impossible to not imagine drowning. My niece slides through the crevices into the swirling pools of her mother’s errors. What is it for my father to balance in this spot, I wonder…. to make a choice between a teenager who has a chance at a normal life and the adult child standing in her way? Ultimately you must love one more than the other.
I let him finish our conversation without offering my opinion, and instead let the image of him on the rock jetty remind me he knows what he’s doing…