Ever since I was a little girl, my family would take an annual vacation to the California coast where relatives owned a beach house.
One of my favorite all-time memories happened during one of those trips, not long after Mike and I got together. We were out in the ocean boogie boarding.
I was riding high on the crest of a great wave, screaming my head off. I looked to my right and there was Mike, riding the same wave, his eyes squeezed shut and a huge grin on his face.
To my left I saw my dad on his own board, zipping along expertly, laughing and loving every moment of it.
No One Boogie Boards Forever
Packing up from one of our annual beach trips years later, I noticed dad left his boogie board on the patio.
Oh no, I thought. Dad can’t forget this! I grabbed the board and ran up to the car. “Hey Dad! You almost forgot your boogie board!”
“Leave it,” he said.
“But . . . it’s the nice one,” I said. “Not the el cheapo one from Albertson’s.”
“I said leave it. I don’t want it anymore.”
Dad slammed the trunk closed and walked away from me.
And just like that, my dad was old.
Boxing, Football, Scuba Diving — You Name It, Dad Did It
A lifetime athlete, dad played football in high school and got a scholarship to play college ball. The coach wanted him to bulk up, though, and dad dutifully choked down steak and milkshakes at every meal for weeks!
He boxed and won a Golden Gloves award in his weight division. He did ROTC and joined the Army after graduation. He served a tour in Viet Nam. He was a certified ocean scuba diver and and would return from each dive with a gift for me — a conch shell with its little occupant still inside, a Japanese glass ball from a long-ago abandoned fishing net.
In our garages we always had a punching bag and a speed bag mounted to the ceiling. I found the sound of dad hitting the speed bag — “kuh-chi-chi-chi, kuh-chi-chi-chi” — strangely comforting.
Dad also jogged regularly to keep in shape, usually wearing plastic wrap around his midriff to keep his belly in check. I remember wanting so bad for him to like me — a gawky brainy wholly unathletic nerd — that I took up running. Sometimes we’d jog together around whatever military base we were stationed on at the time, my skinny little legs pumping double-time to keep up.
But somewhere in his youth dad had taken up smoking, and although it didn’t seem to affect his athletic abilities when he was younger, it eventually caught up with him.
A Devastating Diagnosis
In his 60s, dad was diagnosed with emphysema — COPD they call it. He had quit smoking by then but the damage was done.
Dad’s breathing became labored and he easily winded. Suddenly simple household chores required multiple rests. He eventually got an oxygen machine. But without the air to sustain his muscles, dad’s athletic activities stopped.
“Leave it,” dad had said. And so, on that sunny California morning, I carried the boogie board back down the stairs to the patio. Not sure what to do with it, I leaned it up against the wall with the rest of the beach paraphernalia that belonged to the house. That way, I thought, it’ll be here next year when we return and Dad can use it then!
I suppose we were all in denial about his health. But honestly, that day at the beach when dad retired his boogie board was undeniable. Dad could no longer swim, and oh how he loved the ocean.
I brushed my tears aside and got in the car. I didn’t want dad to see me crying, for him, for me. For all of humanity, really, and our fragility. For the inevitable decline of the human body and mind — even if you take great care of them.
I wanted dad to be young and athletic and healthy forever. Because if he wasn’t, who would he be without his greatest asset?
Who would I be without a strong father?
It took me a long time to finally face the truth. It was time for me to grow up. To become the strong one. A responsibility I didn’t feel equipped to handle — physically let alone emotionally.
But every child eventually must.
Life is punctuated by joys and losses. And no one escapes that, not even the strongest man I know.