After we were almost grown, after he was almost retired from his life at the phone company where he spent decades in a commuter train traveling to a cubicle to support his family – after every brick of our house settled into the mortar and everything was finally paid off, my father bought a boat.
He kept that boat outside his bedroom window, on our front lawn so he could peek out the window and look at it any time day or night, and in the day he circled it like a beautiful woman, putting his hands on the fiberglass, the shiny engine, the wheel, the anchor.
Even though we lived a few hours from the beach, that boat was the wind in my father’s dream-mast, even though it wasn’t sailboat, it was an exhale – a judge that settled a very long war waging inside him – whether or not he sacrificed enough for his family.
The boat said to him yes, yes, – you can be happy.
And my father loved the ocean. He had a fishing hat, fishing gear, boat shoes, button down shirts from Sears with small fish on the fabric. He had dreams of using the night sky to navigate – to become one with the sea and the stars and the night.
He fit inside that boat the way a man fits inside a dream, his whole self the helm of what he was finally allowing himself to be.
But my mother saw the boat as a mistress in a red dress. She saw tiny hooks that barely held the breasts of that mistress in the fabric, she saw the rudder as taking my father in one direction – away from her.
She said the boat was too expensive, and like everything my father loved that had nothing to do with her – the musical instruments, the wood he planed and painted and curved to make a bar in our basement – she would find a way to have it and taken away from him, so there was only her.
Within one season, he sold the boat.
And this is the lifelong love paradigm I witnessed between my parents that lasted until my father died. When my mother was in the same hospital, and my mother knew in some part of her childlike brain he was dying and she was angry.
She saw death as a mistress too, a beautiful woman with a Johnny Mathis record under her arm – inviting my father to dance.
On Valentine’s Day my mother delivered the card she made for him and she told him to get out of bed, that she needed him and to stop making excuses for not being there for her.
He said he couldn’t get out of bed, that he’d never get out of bed again.
And she tore that card into pieces, and construction paper rained on the man who had given her everything.
My mother’s final act of cruelty was because she knew death was just outside the door, like the brand- new boat that hadn’t yet touched salt water or had the privilege of algae attached to the hull.
Death’s skin was young and brown and dewy.
Still, my father cried with his whole dying body to leave our mother when she needed him, to not receive love from her in his final weeks after a lifetime of devotion;
And the reason I’m writing this story is because as children we are often taught love is a threat to love, but that’s not the way of love at all.
In her poem To Have Without Holding, Maxine Kumin reminds us “to have and not to hold – to love with minimized malice, hunger and anger moment by moment balanced.”
Death walked across the room toward my father in wide welcoming hips. She said come to me, old man. She handed him a fishing hat and took him to his boat, out to the open sea. Somewhere between continents and worlds and lives I know she redefined love for him, for all of us.
We want to have without clutching and grabbing and saying mine – to allow love to spin us out on the dance floor to lead us to every other thing we will love – our children, the moon, writing our stories, acting in a play, visiting another country. Don’t we all want the people we love to be happy in this way?
Someone once said to me you cannot have too many people love your child, but doesn’t that apply to all of us? First, we have to let go and trust this is the way.
I am certain, there is no other path to love.