Humpback Whale

humpback whale

The tips of his long fingers dragged slowly forward, his elbow rising up and forward – painfully slowly – like a humpback whale cresting in the ocean it hovered slowly above the water before crashing down to complete an elegant and un-hurried stroke. Slim and impossibly young hands gripped the concrete lip of the pool and his grey head and hawkish eyes turned to begin another lap. At once plodding and swift.

After his many deliberate laps he turned the pool back over to his squirming granddaughter. While she splashed he did his thoughtful rounds –  checking chemicals, skimming bugs and leaves, removing the hilarious faux ducks, and when she wasn’t looking – he slipped a gigantic inflatable plastic snake into the deep end.

She was trolling the slope into the deep end in large blue goggles. When she popped up to come face to face with the snake she shrieked until over her own screaming she heard him chuckling in his poolside chair.

He could be serene, seperate, reserved, even shy – but his love of laughter and good joke always won out. That was his way into my heart.

That and his red 2-seater Mercedes. A playful and frivolous choice for a tenacious field corporal who had served with distinction in two wars. Friends who knew him in the day described an angry alchoholic, but I only knew a man who never missed Saturday mass or his AA meeting – the man who sang nonsense songs on the way to the hardware store to buy me Hubba Bubba.

He was unapologetically unassuming in a family of big personailites, big voices and bigger vices. He was quiet and unflappable, even when I launched myself out of his big jacuzzi tub and landed naked and sopping wet in this lap. He held me there, in his worn red leather chair, until my teeth started chattering and Grandmother chased me back into the bathroom.

As I grew up, we became pranksters together – tag team story tellers who came in from walks in the woods with wild tales of a tame fox (Sally) who spoke to us. We would leave the backyard through a small gate that led into the forest preserve, walking in a single file until we reached a perfectly straight line of trees and a small pond. Then we’d get just lost enough on the way home to give us time to concoct our whopper stories about Sally and her kits.

When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, we sat together on the wooden swing near the pool and didn’t say anything – just back and forth and back and forth. It was so noisy in the house – grandma going on and on about surgeries and hospitals, trying to will the cancer away with the her formable presence and flinty will.

When he was gone, all the joy and heart of the family was too. None of us, except maybe my mom, knew the extent to which he was holding us all together. He was a man who had come back from darkness and despair and held in himself a certain tenacious hopefulness. Without it, some of us sank into the lesser selves that he had been somehow, miraculously, holding at bay.

When they went to dig his grave, they uncovered an enormous boulder. For some reason, we all though that was funny. Even in death, he had one last prank to pull.

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