Dad Takes a Dive

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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