Friday, June 15, 2007

In the Deep End on Father's Day

He was there at the end of the diving board. He would tread water for an hour, waiting and watching while I practiced my dives. For years this was our Sunday afternoon ritual and delight. I was four-years old when we began, and on those summer Sunday afternoons I believed that if he was there at the end of the board I could do anything.

My father would wait in the deep water, off to one side. He would look around and give me the sign that it was OK to dive and I would stroll to the end of the board, tugging my stretchy lavender swimsuit, and bounce before I dove in.

I would rise to the surface sputtering, and look for his face. He would hesitate a moment to let me right myself, and I would cough and beam. He would grab the back of my suit and give me a push toward the side. “Swim to the ladder,” he would say, and he would stay at the end of the diving board waiting for my next dive.

I remember the feeling as I paddled to the ladder. The world was perfect: I was diving in the deep end of the pool; there was no pain in the world. There was no need or want in my life. I was a perfect, grinning, sunburned, water-logged four-year-old, in love with the world, herself and her daddy.

He died when I was 18. In the intervening years life happened to me and to my father. By the time I was 13, he was traveling a lot, and when we did spend the occasional weekend together we did not speak of personal things. As a teen-ager I felt awkward with my father so I would interview him about his job. He would tell me stories about work, grateful to have something comfortable to talk about. I know a lot about industrial engineering. It filled our time.

On a July evening, when he was 56 years old, my father had a stroke and died. It’s been years and I still wrestle with those two men--the daddy who waited in the deep water and the father who left suddenly, without a word, when I was 18. Somewhere inside of me there is a four-year-old still wearing her lavender bathing suit. She is at the end of the diving board, leaning forward trying to hear someone say, “You are so special.” The hunger for those words is so deep.

In romance we get some of that need met, but after a while no one wants to admire us every day. But when a four-year-old is anxious and needs repetition we search on. Another way to meet that need is with an affair. After all, clandestine romance is all about intensity of feeling and intensity of attention. Having an affair is a way that a four-year-old can twirl in a 40 year-old body and hear again, “You are the only one.” But satisfying the need that way begins to cost too much, and that kind of romance causes one to twirl faster and faster for fewer and fewer of those precious affirmations. And other people along this dervish path get hurt.

So what is the gift from a father who left when we were both too young? For a long time I resented the missing memories: no father-daughter chats, no drives to college, no adult conversations. But I have this other thing--a picture in my head and in my heart of my father at the end of the board. It’s a spiritual gift from the man who loved me but who left without talking. Today I believe in a God who looks around my life and says, “Hold on a minute. We don’t want anyone to get hurt”. Then, “Okay, go for it.”

Today there is a God at the end of my daily diving board who says, “Okay now, catch your breath. I’m here.”

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