18 March 2013

... and then your dad dies, and it's ok because he's horribly ill. But it actually sucks!

The last post I wrote was about my grandmother, who outlived her son. The other day, I looked out our kitchen window and saw Jay splitting wood for kindling. It made me think of this photo of my dad, who passed away in 2001. In almost every photo taken of my father, there is a cigarette. It was one of his things. This picture was taken in my parents' yard on the banks of the Waackaack Creek. Fortunately for us all, Jay loves to split wood but doesn't smoke.
Dad - smoking and splitting wood

When my father was dying, he made it very clear that he wanted no fanfare. We honored those wishes - there was no fancy box, no viewing, no obituary, no service. He was cremated and we brought home his ashes. He stayed in the den with his watch and his Buck knife...until recently. My mother mentioned that the creek was still unusually high after hurricane Sandy. She thought this would make it easy to put John in the place he loved most - his creek.

On a cold, sunny day in January, accompanied by my Mom, Jackie, Michael, and Jay, I did the honors (maybe because I happened to have rubber boots; I don't remember any discussion). It was seamless and undramatic and beautiful. It also felt like exactly the right time. I sigh now remembering it.

Growing up on this body of water provided us with endless entertainment. Jackie and I caught tadpoles, frogs, and turtles. Once we had a little wildlife "circus" in the screen house. I'm pretty sure we had a fashion show too. We may have charged a nickel to see it all.

We dug up clay on the banks of the creek and made ashtrays. There were always sunfish to catch and catfish, and bass, and perch, and pickerel. When baby ducks hatched in springtime, we'd see them swimming behind their mother and then one would disappear - snapping turtles! I remember my father waking me up very early one morning before school. We walked out to the giant holly tree at the end of our driveway and there was a snapper laying eggs. They looked like ping pong balls. I will never forget that. The reeds are still filled with red-winged blackbirds. Herons and egrets and geese visit frequently. There are also plenty of muskrats despite my father's best attempts to trap as many as possible. He used to sell the skins to a guy named Johnny who owned a flower shop. I'm not sure where they went from there, but I do have an image of inside-out muskrat skins on stretchers hanging across the back of our shed. There are black snakes too.

In the summer of 1979, everything in the creek died - we had a fish kill, the grasses turned brown, and the creek was as empty of life as a swimming pool. Everything was gone, turtles and fish had what looked like burn marks on them. My dad freaked. He was interviewed by several local papers; this picture of him is classic. At first we thought it may have to do with Fourth of July fireworks upstream. The DEP visited, the local Environmental Commission looked around, but nobody seemed to know what happened. I was living in Newport, RI, at the time but drove down at some point. My father and some neighbors, mostly young people, began to rake up dead fish and pull out rotting vegetation. We bought a bubbler and put it in dad's truck, caught a few fish in other places, brought them home and released them. Later we found out that this was illegal. Apparently it was ok to catch fish and kill them and bring them home, but transporting live fish was against the law! We were "illegally restocking", so we just stopped talking about it. Eventually, the creek came back to life, a great example of nature's resilience. (All of the links above go to articles about this event.)

March 30 would be my dad's 83rd birthday; he died in early April. He was, like all of us, a unique individual. He was also a spectacular dancer. When he and my mother were young, they could clear the floor doing what she calls the "lindy" or jitterbug (silly video here). 

When I think about my father today, I feel sad that he was so sick and we couldn't do more to ease his suffering, and that sucks. I sometimes feel selfishly sad that I can't share books with him anymore or ask him questions about gardening. That sucks too. But I don't feel mournful in general. He had a full life and we never seem to run out of stories to share and the creek isn't going anywhere except to the Bay. That's ok.