A Daughter Says Goodbye to Her Father
The way they somersaulted over one another, it was hard to tell where one otter ended and the next began. The movement of one affected the motion of all the others. All families are like this: intertwined.
I sat on the bank of the Sunriver. Downstream the water escaped from under whatever it is that grows on the surface of slow flowing rivers. Not a river really, more like a stream, the Sunriver moved grudgingly away from its mucky covering. On the other side was the open meadow where the coyotes hunted for ground squirrels and mice. At night you could hear their lonely yips calling to one another. Cutting through the meadow was the Sunriver’s bolder cousin, the fast moving Deschutes.
I looked down at my lap and found a paper wrapped sandwich from Subway. I couldn’t remember having had breakfast that morning. I wasn’t sure what I’d eaten the night before. My stomach gave an accusing rumble. I reached down and unwrapped my lunch. Turkey and cheddar, with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. But before I could bring it to my mouth, I was distracted by a motion on the other side of the river. River otters. A mother and one, two…. three pups, splashing and wrestling at the water’s edge. I set the sandwich down again and watched. The sleek bodies, three smaller, one larger, weaving in and around one another, so beautiful it made my heart ache. One pup crawled out onto the bank, then reconsidered and scooted back toward the water. Closer, closer, splash!
I had been four the year he saved me from drowning in the pool at the base of the waterfall. Of course, I wouldn’t have drowned. I knew that and he knew that. It was my mother that wasn’t convinced. I had been watching my older sister who sat on the edge of the bank, her shorts rolled up as far as they could go while her legs dangled in the water. She scooted closer to the edge. I scooted closer to the edge. “Joseph, watch Anita!” my mother said. Deena inched further. I inched further. “Joseph!” my mother said, her voice pitching higher. “Watch Anita!” Once more my sister moved closer, and as expected, I ended up in the pool. “Joseph!” my mother shrieked.
I felt my toes touch bottom and turned around. He was sliding down the hill on the seat of his pants, as if on a sledding saucer. In an instant he was there. Before I’d even had a chance to react to the water temperature, his hand was on my arm. As he reached down for me, his glasses fell out of his shirt pocket. His other hand snatched them up and glasses and daughter were both pulled from the dark watery depths.
It was a story that got more dramatic and heroic with every telling. But for the few seconds I was in the water, I hadn’t even been close to fearing for my life. Still, it was good to know my dad would always be there in my time of need. It was a given.
But that morning he had left me.
My father’s departure had been gradual, a quiet fading over a period of weeks and then months. He bore it all with patient acceptance. All the while we knew that time was slipping through our fingers, like cupped water.
In the evenings, I set the baby in his lap and he would read her the “get well” cards, stacked high on the living room coffee table. As he pointed at the pictures, she looked up into his face, mouthing the words that he said to her: bird, butterfly, flower.
I planned a memory making outing with his grandson, sending the two of them off to see Toy Story. But they returned too quickly. The theater had been too dim and the sound system too loud. I hoped my son would remember that when the noise and the darkness had frightened him, his grandfather had kept him safe.
The little pup was back in the water now, rolling and splashing with her mother and siblings. The way they somersaulted over one another, it was hard to tell where one otter ended and the next began. The movement of one affected the motion of all the others. All families are like this: intertwined. Our connections to one another transcend both space and time. I felt my father had sent these otters to remind me.
I knew then, as we both had always known, that I wasn’t going to drown. I would scramble out of this pool and sit upon the sunny bank.
Maybe, even, eat a sandwich.
-Anita Sheridan Price is a writer in Seattle, Washington