25 May, 2008

A Life Amphibious

My father was born with gills and webbed feet, the son of a mermaid and a merchant marine. The earliest photograph of him I have seen was a grade school portrait, which suggests those features — the gills, at least — atrophied as he got older, for they were nowhere to be seen by then. For the entirety of his life, though, as with any creature born of the sea, my father would remain drawn to water and all things aquatic. At eighteen, he enlisted in the United States Navy, where whatever vestigial toe-webbing remained would have been perceived as an asset. He dove freely into untested waters, canoed down rolling river rapids, fished with nets. He collected seashells and coral. He kept tropical fish. I remember the way he'd whisper to them while sprinkling in their food, inviting them to dinner by invoking their secret names: to him they were not angelfish, gourami, or tetra but Streamer-Tail, Little Bubble-Maker, Prism-Darter. They were his piscine friends, exiles from the same kingdom, and they kept him company in his home on dry land.

Of course he owned vessels — a fifteen-foot aluminum canoe, an inflatable raft, a small sailboat. These were the only way my mother and I could accompany him on his watery communions. Creatures of terra firma is what she and I were — awed by the shadowy ubiquity of water in the world, shaky on deck, barely submersible. My father was our fearless captain, ready to brave the storms and show us landlubbers there was little to fear from the murky depths. When he would change tack to head into a squall, or paddle us towards the rocks, we had to wonder whether he hadn't momentarily forgotten our handicap. But always he brought us through, dampened by the spray, most likely, but quite alive. Being with him in the presence of water meant knowing fervency for life; his enthusiasm was contagious.

We towed the sailboat with us one year, on a family vacation to the Florida Keys, when I was a boy. Our first night at the coast, my mother and I slept in the van. Displaying uncharacteristic childlike eagerness, my father spent the night in a sleeping bag on deck, docked in the marina a few hundred feet away. Mosquitoes, of course, left him unmolested. It was blood they craved, not the clear salinity of what his veins pumped. As the sun rose from the center of the Atlantic, Mum and I stumbled salty-eyed into the morning. We found my father already unmoored, gliding aimlessly around the marina on a steady wind he'd been loath to let pass unavailed. He waved to us. There was no telling how long he'd been out. He had to have woken at least an hour before dawn, in order to have time to erect the mast and secure the rigging. Out on the blue, his sails were brimming, his smile gleamed.

The day was long and humid, and by late afternoon had given way to the slate horizon of an impending storm. Since that morning we'd been skirting the coastline. Because we had no radio, no compass, no map — indeed, no navigational equipment of any sort (what kind of an adventure would it have been, otherwise?) — we dropped anchor off a tiny, sandy island with a sliver of clear beach large enough to pitch our tent and light a cookfire. We ate thin vegetable soup with crackers and nibbled on roasted peanuts. The soup scalded my tongue as I sipped too eagerly from a battered tin cup. When the rain came, at first with uncertainty, we retreated but left the tent flaps open so we could watch the clouds tumble and the far-off waves clash. I fell asleep to the popping of fat drops on the canvas and the thick air of our gradually smoldering fire. I dreamt of wild seas.

In the small hours, the three of us awoke startled. The tide was coming in. It lapped inches from the front of the tent. Already the remains of the fire had been swallowed; now, ever hungry, the water was reaching for us. Pattering rain kept on as we hurriedly pulled stakes and carried our shelter several feet back, to the tree line. As the beach gradually disappeared, we looked on, unsure if the high ground we'd claimed would be high enough to avoid a late night escape back to our boat. I fell back asleep eventually, as did Mum, but Papa was vigilant. His silhouette at the front of the tent reassured me when I woke again, later, to the sound of his whispered supplications to the waves.

The scene at dawn was much different. By that time the tide had gone out so far that it had stranded the boat, dry and resting pitifully at an angle, on its keel. Seaweed draped the line to the shore, imparting a look of abandonment, like a ghost ship in spite of its cheerful blue hull. Not knowing when the waters would again rise, my father set to work righting her, the way people attend to a beached whale. Now pushing, now rocking, now patting her belly, he coaxed the boat back into her element.

Packed in and hungry, we set course for the mainland beyond our horizon. Arcane sailor knowledge or natant instinct guided my father at the tiller as he steered us toward the marina from which we'd put out. The wind that morning was robust and consistent. I stood aft of the small cabin, catching briny air in my nostrils. In my ears was nothing but that whooshing roar. Then Papa said something indistinct and my mother laughed. I turned, hoping to hear. They were smiling — such wide, open smiles! — and with the sun radiant on his face I watched my father draw a deep, contented breath, and surveyed his neck and jawline for the row of fishy slits I knew just had to be there.

11 May, 2008

My Mother, Dynamo

The last Mother's Day we had together before my abduction, Mum and I brunched by the fountain at Roselle Court, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Since I was a little boy, the museum has been a special place for both of us. On weekends we'd often come to see the exhibits and, during the week, there were wonderful art classes for children — pottery, figure drawing, and so on — that I was privileged enough to enjoy. Afterwards Mum would often take me for a croissant or some other kind of treat in the softly lit neoclassical courtyard that opened off the museum's main hall. The place holds fond memories for us, as a result. Upon leaving that final time, I presented her with a large potted gardenia. It was in a full bloom of tiny white blossoms and was redolent of wild honey. Because of its size, she could not take it with her just then, so it endured the better part of a day riding around in the cavernous back seat of my old car. Eventually, though, it ended up in Mum's bedroom, where it's delicate perfume could carry her into peaceful, pleasant dreams every night.

One month later, I was gone. During the nightmarish year to follow, she came to visit me twice a week in the county jail as I awaited trial. Often she would come with friends of mine who were there, I imagine, as much in support of her as of me. We all cleaved to one another — it was the only way to make it through. But mostly it was my mother whose face through that half-inch-thick safety glass both reassured and broke my sickened heart. For as long as I can remember, she has said that she's a survivor, and that time was my opportunity to witness firsthand the full reserves of her indomitable inner strength.

The gardenia I had given her, fragrant and soft with its hundreds of petals, soon shed and grew sparse with some unknown botanical illness. Strange white film had started forming on the leaves, like wax. Mum would deliver updates on its deteriorating condition: "I think it's dying." Not long after, it was moved to the glassed-in patio, where she would tend carefully to it, wiping each individual leaf clean. Even with that attention, the prognosis looked grim. It would have been nothing for her to abandon it to chance rather than dote on it the way she did.

Giving in is not generally part of her repertoire. The gardenia was finally able to be moved back indoors, able once again to cense her to sleep, in due course. She brought it back.

With me as well, her resolve has yet to flag, even these seven years later. Still she makes the hour-long drive every week to see me, still we talk often on the phone, still she finds within herself energy enough to actively crusade for justice in the face of such obstacles as would drive most to discouragement. She is like a force of nature. From her own resilience I get so much of my own — not in some sociobiological sense of inheritance, but that I am emboldened by knowledge of her strength. And, for whatever it's worth, I wear for her my bravest face so she may take heart in the reciprocity of endurance.

We abide balanced upon one another's resolute love, and on the tenacious hope that, someday soon, I too will be brought back from my sorry condition, able on days like this to honor her the way she so rightly deserves. And, of course, to give her flowers.

Danke für Alles, Mutti. Ich liebe Dich