There is a memory that rises often, tender companion, when I think of my dad. In the five years since he’s been gone, it remains a favorite, perhaps for its unstinting sweetness in the sprawl of so many aching moments, too many fractured dreams.
We have been swimming in the ocean on an afternoon jaunt to Vigie Beach during one of my brief trips to St. Lucia from Philadelphia to visit him. And because his body is becoming a map of surgical scars, he tires more easily than usual, gets chilled in the water well before the sun begins its bronzed goodbye.
As he stands near the surf, waiting for me to emerge, he smiles, marveling at the strong swimmer I’ve become, though I’d hardly consider myself such. It is just that the things he might know about me, the ordinary ones, like my favorite color, that butterflies make me happy, that I spent all three years of my swimming lessons in the beginner’s class, have slipped between us — lost to distance, the schism of lives in a busted home, dissolved marriage, the words that we never did say.
But now I let the small praise fill me, take a towel from the lounge chair and wrap it around his shoulders. We face the ocean, me at his back, running my hands up and down his arms to pump more warmth through the towel, while a hushed comfort settles over us.
Before we leave, we stroll along the beach, hands linked between our softened bodies, words a lazy lilt on the creep of twilight air. And I am happy, the kind of unfettered, uncomplicated happy that after all these years still stirs at the center of this memory, a pure gift of solace.
It perhaps should be no surprise then that this is how my father comes to me, as I float in the blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea, with the sky a cerulean stretch above me.
Almost five and a half years after I buried my dad — just days after arriving in St. Lucia to find him in a hospital bed withered and wearily resigned to the end — I am back home. And, much to my surprise, where I thought I would be swallowed by sorrow, bruised by every memory of fading light and letting go, I am buoyant, loose, joyful even as this rich land welcomes me back.
I grew up in St. Lucia before my parents moved with my brother and me to the U.S. And while early returns there were fun, wrapped in all the laughter and ease of being with cousins, reconnecting with aunts and uncles and grandparents, once their marriage began to unravel, home was a weighted joy. My dad moved back to St. Lucia while we remained here with my mom. And visits to him were a tangle of love and longing, with regret and the spin of every bitter, recycled story he kept forever hovering above the moments we shared.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, after surviving a heart attack and a potentially paralyzing car accident, his spiral into depression created even more of a gulf between here and there, between a thousand unspoken possibilities and the ghosts of all we wanted the other to be. The fierceness of our love for each other never wavered — and there were reprieves, like that afternoon on Vigie Beach — but it wasn’t until he lay dying that we gave up our wanting, our hurting to press ourselves into a seamless surrender, a communion with vanishing time.
I will forever be grateful that I was by his side in those final days, that I was there to read to him, cradle his face, help him brush his teeth. To watch his face grow luminous, to hear his shallowing breath.
But for all the beauty and unexpected largess of those moments, his death remained my last memory of home. And it is this that taunted as the weeks drew nearer for our family trip, this that undid me time and again, with a flood of anxiety, the erratic rush of tears.
So when I find my feet hitting the ground there with brisk and cheerful step, when I turn into every excited embrace with bright gratitude, when the sun and the sea and the taste of fresh coconuts sweep me up in a flagrant rapture, I am surprised.
On the afternoon where I drift into the deep blue waters, feel every gentle, rolling wave, like a benediction and liberation, I know my dad is with me in a way he’s never been before.
I feel his spirit close, so blithesome, so light. It’s as if he is saying, “Welcome home, darling. The home I always wanted you to know. The home that was and is a song in our hearts. Apart from all my suffering, my sickness. Apart from our brokenness and struggles. This is the land I love, the one now soothing you with its beauty, reshaping what was and what will be into something we both can hold.”
I hear him on the breeze, his voice whispering “Cocoa,” his nickname for me. I think of how we danced in the streets of Rodney Bay as we have dinner there one night. Know that if he had been here for my cousin’s wedding, which we’ve come to attend, we would have gone out after the reception and stayed out until at least 2 a.m., eating and dancing some more. I feel him as the charismatic man he was, munificent of spirit and filled with unbridled zest for life. I see him as all he was before years of illness ravaged him.
And though there will be sad, and even hard, moments to come, where absence will swing its blade, memory will lose its luster, this knowing, this sensing, this being with my dad is a blessing that feathers its healing into every sorrowing place that misses our earthly shape.