June 22, 2017 by The Citron Review
by KG Waite
We wore shorts and tee shirts with bathing suits beneath. Tennis shoes with no socks. Our scrawny legs were covered in bug bites, scabbed over and oozing. I was eight, my sisters ten and eleven. Our supplies were a six-pack of Coke, fruit, at the insistence of our mother, and peanut butter and jelly on graham crackers, quickly wilting in the humidity.
Dad pulled a giant bag from the neat overhead garage shelves, inside of which was an inflatable dinghy, rubbery and grey. Stretched out upon the concrete driveway, it resembled an abandoned elephant skin. We girls used a foot pump to fill the boat with air, pulling in a new sister from the rotation whenever one of us grew tired or bored.
When our ship was finally full, we grabbed its yellow vinyl cords and hauled it through the back yard and down the steep stairs toward our wooden dock. Dad watched us secure our life jackets then steadied the dinghy as we boarded, handing one of us a walkie-talkie—a Realistic with two channels and a red call button.
Dad shoved us off. Gave us his trademark nod and squinted into the summer sun, watching us glide downriver. He saluted us with his can of Busch beer. We raised our Cokes in response. Standing on the dock, my father grew smaller and smaller. And then he disappeared entirely.
We removed our life jackets as soon as our father was out of sight. I’m sure he knew that we would. And I’m certain, as well, he took pride in his daughters’ independent streaks.
“You all right?” Dad’s voice came through the walkie-talkie.
Of course we were, cradled between either bank of the river with nowhere to go but forward. I dragged a lazy hand alongside the boat, peering into the muddy water at minnows and tendrils of green seaweed. I basked in my freedom, relishing the break from daily chores, envisioning myself one day completely on my own.
The walkie-talkie squawked and wheezed. Dad’s voice broke up, coming to us only in static bursts until we could no longer communicate.
That first journey down the Cuyahoga River was full of uncertainty. And that was the fun of it, the not knowing. Even if we did go off course, eventually the river would rejoin itself and we’d find ourselves back on track. The Cuyahoga gave me a taste of my future independence. In giving me the Cuyahoga, Dad gave me the permission––and the courage––to leave.
* * *
It took me years to understand that nearly every evening, my father left his wife and children. The comedic spirit I had attributed to my father’s personality was actually a light buzz, one that would deepen over the years, often turning Dad into a sullen man, who left behind a shell of himself as he lay in his recliner, arguing with newscasters, sending us to the freezer for ice cubes, incessantly teasing his dog.
By my late teens, all I wanted was to leave home, a desire born of natural teenage disdain compounded by my father’s withdrawal into stormy silences none of us could––or cared to––break. I learned caution. I learned to count the number of drinks Dad had consumed. I learned to get out of his way as he staggered toward the bathroom, a hand clasped to his mouth. And when my father nearly cut his leg off with a chainsaw, I learned that alcohol thins the blood.
After I finished college and my father entered detox, I left home, heading two thousand miles away, telling myself I’d never return. But the river called. Ohio called. Family bonds silently tugged. I wondered about the father I’d never really known. Despite the difficulties in my family, I needed to be home.
For his entire adult life, my father struggled with alcohol. I’m not certain he was ever able to completely give it up. But later in his life, Dad gave us his sober self. He was funny and insightful. He was a sensitive, caring grandfather. He was the father who introduced me to the Cuyahoga.
* * *
We pulled our ship to shore, the three of us dragging it onto the beach, our shoes filled with river water. Dad waited for us, leaning against a tree, arms crossed, grinning. Home again, we spread the boat on the driveway, kneeling on it as we kneaded out the air. I was tired and hungry. I was independent and confident and capable.
* * *
In January 2016, I learned my father had lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. I discovered he’d been secretly preparing for years: making funeral arrangements, leaving notes to my mother about the finances, giving possessions to friends. About this time, my family and I learned that Dad had also struggled with OCD, taking medication to control its symptoms.
For so many years I was angry at my father for his drinking. In many ways, I found him weak. Over and over, I’d asked myself why he couldn’t just stop. Now, staring at the prescription in my hand, maybe I had the answer. I believe this medicine allowed him to stop drinking, or at least rely upon it less: with his thoughts under control, Dad no longer needed alcohol to escape them. Finally, I understood my father.
One month later, he died.
* * *
As I think back on that trip down the Cuyahoga. I realize now it wasn’t really a preface to my leaving, a preparation for the first tentative steps I would take from home. No, the trip was a prelude to the departure of my father––his way of preparing his family for the time we truly would be independent and alone, missing the strong father who’d been there all along.
KG Waite writes from Ohio where she’s researching the second owner of her 1908 house. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Wild Culture, The Fourth River: Tributaries, and is forthcoming in The Hopper.