Essay Nonfiction

Water Signs

Father and Daughter and Water

Dad nearly drowned in the mouth of the river at Fort Bragg, California, but that was before I was born. He spent the rest of the summer in the hospital, but that didn’t stop him from loving the ocean and water. You can’t trust it, he said, you can’t help but love it either.

Dad was in a coma for most of one month. When he came out he had to learn to talk again. He was just a boy. Somehow he still knew how to swim.

When I was six years old and he was twenty-eight, Dad took us sea-kayaking. If I remember correctly he was trying to impress a woman who wasn’t my mother. We both almost drown or got pulled out to sea and I was very, very scared. Now, maybe my memory doesn’t serve me right… maybe I did have fun. But the waves, they were so large and I was so little, how could I have? I just remember being frightened. I think the girlfriend was too.

We are both water signs, Dad and I. We are non-confrontational people — almost pushovers but stubborn as hell. We are mysterious creatures of the Scorpio zodiac, we are quiet and some people mistake us for dumb. We both cry at the drop of a hat. Dad did receive some level of brain damage during his drowning accident. I spent my whole life sticking up for him, defending him. Though at some points I’ll admit I plain gave up. My dad’s not dumb, but he is different — that’s what I finally settled on. It took me a hell of a long time to accept that.

My dad’s not dumb, but he is different — that’s what I finally settled on.

I was one year old plus some change at the time my mother left us (I’m not looking for pity, those are just the facts). Dad took to doing the dishes by hand, very slowly, with hot soapy water, but this wasn’t so strange because Dad did the dishes before my mother left too. I think he just liked being in the water.

I crawled around on the sticky linoleum floor, gummy from the juice of peach from a can. I remember looking up at my father doing my mother’s job. He was in his work clothes and it was after dark. I saw a flash of myself in the kitchen sink before she left. I could almost see her standing there washing my body — a dishwater blond with no face, just legs and high heels like those moms in the old cartoons. Comfort just for the fact that they were there. Dish doers and diaper changers and dinner makers and ice tray fillers. Something we just did not have. The essential tool, missing.

Ten years later I had a birthday party at the beach. I invited my entire sixth grade class, and to my shock, everybody showed up. Dad embarrassed me by bannering long streams of white toilet paper from the driftwood totem poles on South Beach in Crescent City, a marker of where the party was. A store-bought stream of purple tissue paper had not been considered.

A couple of the mothers who dropped off their daughters looked warily around for signs of my mother. They found none. I just wanted them to go away. I did not even want them to stay because their judgement and misunderstanding was palpable. Luckily, they left, not quite knowing what to think. These are the ones who returned first for their daughters.

Dad warmed wienies on driftwood sticks over the campfire and we all ran around like we were still kids, which we were — but barely. My peers brought gifts, tons of gifts, each one of them. My dad actually bought me that expensive black and white Adidas jacket I had wanted so much. The ocean lapped at the whole scene, father and daughter, fire and friends. The sun went down while we were still out running and playing up and down the beach. And even though I didn’t have a mother, life was perfect.

I had been so excited about my fancy mom-wrapped gifts but I was so busy running and playing that I didn’t notice when the tide came in and took my birthday booty — piece by piece in the setting sun. It was all gobbled up by the great inhale-exhale of the Pacific Ocean. And there was no getting any of it back.

I was so busy running and playing that I didn’t notice when the tide came in and took my birthday booty — piece by piece in the setting sun.

When Dad “was a boy” (as he often said), that same beach was at least 20 feet under water. The tsunami of 1964 picked up dive bars and fish n’ chip shacks and set them back down, upside down and facing the wrong way, right on top of Highway 101 South.

True story. Eleven people died. You can’t trust the ocean, my dad said, you can’t help but love it either.

We are water people, Dad and I. We are fluid people, divided by rocks and matter, moved by the moon, unpredictable, barely contained, non-confrontational, and we cry at the drop of a hat. We are water signs, Dad and I.

Terah Van Dusen

By Terah Van Dusen

Terah Van Dusen is a poet, essayist, and Postmaster for the United States Postal Service. She lives in Elmira, Oregon (outside of Eugene) and is inspired by hard truths, rock concerts, seafood, sex, intimacy, letter writing, and reading memoirs.

One reply on “Water Signs”

I’d like to recreate that moment on the beach into a short film. I want to see what your dad was doing while the water scraped your presents away. And I want to see the beauty of watching them drift away. But the whole scene makes me cringe too!

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