I walked beside my father along the shoreline of the beach. His cane discarded on my old childhood blanket, I steadied my dad as he navigated around pebbles, broken shells, and children wielding brightly colored buckets full of ocean treasures. Sweat beaded up along his upper lip in spite of the breeze that blew in off the water. 3 weeks prior my father had lain in a hospital bed unable to stand without the assistance of at least two nurses, forced to endure the indignity of a bed pan. That day we walked along the shoreline arm in arm, looking to any passerby like a typical father daughter duo enjoying the final days of summer.
My earliest memory of my father is of us dancing. Music would fill my house on the weekends – show tunes, calypso, salsa and Harry Belafonte. My parents loved Harry Belafonte. In between vacuuming, mowing the lawn, raking leaves, or shoveling snow, my dad would lift me up and place me on top of his feet. His steps were sure and rhythmic – a heartbeat that punctuated the melodies of the songs. A guide for me to follow. Even after I knew the steps I would pretend I didn’t, just so he would whirl me around the living room; my feet pressed firmly on top of his. It felt like I was flying while somehow being anchored to the ground.
My father was always quick on his feet. On the soccer field he was a streak of black lightning. He could dribble a ball between an opponent’s legs before they even knew what was happening. I pretended not to notice – preferring to roll my eyes over the pages of my book whenever he asked me to play with him and my siblings. Eventually I would saunter over, huffing and puffing, complaining about how running around after a ball was stupid and boring – all the while secretly glad that he wanted me to play.
When I was 11, I fell at school while playing tag. Unfortunately a girl named Phyllis also fell while playing tag – right on top of my right leg, tearing the ligament in my knee. At least that’s what my dad said she did – a doctor never confirmed his expert diagnosis. We couldn’t afford a trip to the hospital but my dad had seen many injuries like mine on the soccer field. All I had to do was trust him. He would wrap my leg up, give me a cane and in a few weeks…well hopefully I’d make a full recovery. Bright pinpoints of light exploded behind my eyes as he wrapped my leg tight with ace bandages. I tried not to scream – I wanted to be as brave as he was in the stories he told me about his soccer playing glory days. The first week he allowed me to lay around on the couch being catered to by my mother like a little Cleopatra and indulged me by carrying up and down the stairs when I needed a change of scenery. Then he told me that I needed to exercise my leg – I needed to move around; not too much but a little every day – enough to hurt, enough to regain my strength. I bit down, gritted my teeth and endured the pain, tears gathering in the corners of my eyes to bear witness to the cruelty being forced upon me. After about a month I was able to stand without the support of the cane. Soon I was dancing around the house again – my favorite interlude between weekend chores. “You see,” my dad gloated, “You didn’t need a doctor! Your leg is as good as new.” And it was – just like MacGyver, my dad had fixed me with a roll of tape, a safety pin and sheer determination.
In the hospital my dad’s feet lay helpless on the bed. He could move them but they wouldn’t support his weight. Soft and slightly swollen, encased in hospital slipper socks, the stroke had reduced him to a child in footie pajamas. My quick footed confident father who had never been hospitalized in his life, looked up at me with fear in his eyes. Every time a nurse had to bathroom him I saw his light dim a little – I watched him shrink further inside himself. “I don’t like this,” he told me, “it’s embarrassing.” “Lean on me,” I whispered. “I’ll be your feet. We’ll get to the bathroom together.” It took what seemed like an eternity to walk the 10 feet to the bathroom, but we did it, looking somewhat like an uncoordinated three legged race team. We smiled at each other conspiratorially inside that little bathroom and I felt my dad return to me a little. It was the beginning of many small victories against hard fought battles. I was often frustrated as my dad would refuse to use the walker that the doctors provided. He would insist that he could walk just fine as he lurched down the hospital corridors at a dangerously acute angle. I would follow him with the same anxious energy I used to follow my son around with when he first started walking. Our roles had reversed – he was now the headstrong risk taking child and I was the nagging worried gray haired adult.
I watched the joy wash over my dad’s face as his toes sunk into the wet sand and the waves caressed his heels. We almost hadn’t come to the beach. He hadn’t wanted to. He had million excuses. “What’s the point?” he said sounding like the petulant teen I had once been. My childhood was spent dancing around the house and playing soccer on the beach with my dad. Physically he was always in motion. A sharp contrast to his calm and easygoing nature.
“I didn’t want to come,” he admitted looking out over the water,” because I didn’t want to be here unable to do the things I used to do. But I’m glad I came.” Looking down at our feet, I nodded, “Me too.”
His hand heavy on my shoulder, we moved slowly and confidently back towards the blanket and the abandoned cane.