Dad Takes a Dive

An improbably perfect moment of grace for an irascible 52-year-old

| September/October 2002


My father, his belly protruding over his drooping swim trunks, was climbing up the steep, south-facing trail toward the diving rock. A cigarette dangled from his mouth; a faint cloud of smoke followed him. The paunchy figure moved swiftly, taking an occasional pull from the beer in his hand.

My father had grown a salt-and-pepper beard for his first river trip. He had come, with my encouragement, for a different kind of vacation. The first day on the river, I recommended that he wear sunscreen; he balked. When I suggested drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration, he laughed and took a sip of his beer. After years of silence, we had only recently begun a conversation of sorts.

When the tidal wave of the '60s reached our family's doorstep, my father was never quite sure what struck. Or why the door of his house was so wide open, the young inhabitants so willing to ride that wave. By the age of 32 my mother and he had spawned a brood of six, three boys and three girls. Given his own difficult childhood, he was ill equipped to deal with the fruit of his loins. Fashioning himself another Frank Sinatra-a hard-drinking, hardworking, occasionally big-spending tough guy-he was vaguely disappointed with what he had wrought. A nostalgic romantic stuck in suburbia, he would have liked to have been a member of Frank's Rat Pack.

When he learned that Sinatra thought most of '60s rock music lyrics garbage, he was in total agreement. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll had replaced wine, women, and song. The end was near.

His own downward slide was glacial, as steady as it was unnoticed. During periods of stability, he was our distant god, our moody protector and provider. One stepped lightly and waited for blessings. He left the heavy lifting to my mother. She eventually stopped partying with him and turned toward her children and her small circle of friends for comfort. Valium and a sense of humor didn't hurt either. For years afterward, my father could never understand why she had 'chosen' her brood over him, an attitude as revelatory as it was bewildering. My parents ultimately divorced, to the relief of everyone except my father.

The solo effort of raising children, though, wore my mother out early in the game. For that, my father was not forgiven; he was not invited to her funeral.

Years later, he sought help. He was diagnosed as suffering from depression, a verdict he accepted with a sigh of relief. He quibbled, however, with the notion of alcoholism. He liked the descriptive 'drinking problem' better. So much for his demons.

Now my father was climbing up the trail toward the perch above the river. The small would-be jumpers waiting on the diving rock parted when my father arrived. He spoke briefly to the group, then handed his hat and empty beer can to the nearest body. He stepped forward.

His hands were at his side; his toes nibbled at the edge of the rocky platform; the cigarette dangled from his mouth. He stared straight ahead. I could see his sunburned chest rise and sink; he was like a great albatross, all belly and bluff. He took one last drag off his cigarette and flicked the butt into the river below-something Sinatra would have done. He bent his knees and leaped out from the cliff into the air.

My stomach turned.

Everyone on the rocky perch and in the boats below gasped. He seemed to float across the warm and perfectly blue summer sky. His arms spread outward like great wings. He arched his back slightly; the great belly hung low. His toes pointed together in intimate harmony. As he gazed into the sweet blue beyond, he held his head erect. He wore neither a smile nor a scowl on his face. He was, I suspect, as content and whole as he ever would be. Guilt, despair, disappointment-the fogs and tides of his life-faded behind him.

For a fleeting instant, I didn't recognize the figure imprinted on the blue sky. I blinked. Above me a strange, younger man floated, his dreams of escape and adventure as fresh and unblemished as the summer morning. Everything was ahead of him, waiting to be tasted and tested.

At the apex of his leap, my father was absolutely beautiful, a word I never would have thought described him. An improbable, overweight 52-year-old act of grace, inseparable from the sky and the rock walls and the river below. I found myself drawing a deep breath.

As he neared the surface of the river, his pointed hands sliced open the green surface of the pool. His head and body followed, leaving a small splash of water and a whooshing sound behind. The perfect swan dive.

When he popped into view, everyone on the perch screamed and hooted. He grinned and waved in my direction; I smiled back. A multitude of grievances evaporated that morning, at least temporarily.

That evening at camp he drank too much, out of excitement as much as habit. He left his dinner on a rock, he stubbed his toe. I plied him with water, then walked him to his bedroll and tucked him in. In the dark he began rehashing old stories, rehearsing old grudges, attempting to explain, as much to himself as to me, how things went wrong. Then he cried.

For the second time that day, that odd flash of disconnection occurred. Who was this stranger lying here before me? Certainly not my father. This unrecognized epiphany departed as quickly as it arrived. It would take more time.

For years afterward, whenever I passed the diving rock, I would pull my boat into the eddy and look up at the sky. In the air, suspended in time above the river, was the diver. The image had glued itself permanently in my memory. In my mind the dive became a gesture, my father's attempt to retrieve something he had lost. A dive, after all, is nothing more than a controlled fall.

A former boatman and an eternally challenged Catholic, Vince Welch is co-author of The Doing of the Thing: The Brief Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his English wife and two born-again pagan children.

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