I am all of three years old. The red-and-white-striped bathing suit clings to my tiny body, and I cling to my dad, my arms and legs wrapped around his bare-chested, slight-but-athletic frame that speaks to an obsession with distance running, me looking a bit like a blond, candy-cane-colored marmoset grasping onto its mother. My father, his hair browner and fuller than I ever remember, stands waist-deep in my grandparents’ swimming pool, a benevolent, all-powerful force in a pair of barely-there athletic shorts: red, with a skinny white stripe down the side. His eyes are skewed toward the camera, and his face, so full of color and health, bears the beginnings of a smile as he cradles me in his arms, holding me up out of the water so that just my feet are submerged. My own face is visible only in profile, one-half pressed against my dad’s shoulder, my expression obscured by an oversized pair of black-rimmed goggles that look like something from a superhero costume. It is only upon looking closely that I notice the distinctly-downturned corner of my mouth, the tiniest of details that reveal this not to be the image of a father splashing playfully with his daughter in the water but one consoling his terrified child.
I put the photo on my desk a few years back, not long after I became a parent. At the time, my relationship with my dad seemed irretrievably frayed, leaving both of us dumbfounded. How could two people at once so connected feel so far apart? Neither of us was capable of saying the right words, doing the right thing, or admitting that the source of our anger and fear was not some perceived slight but the thing so very clear right in front of us that we couldn’t bring ourselves to concede. He would assure me, after increasingly rare visits and phone calls devolved into screaming matches, that things would be ok between us. Because, he would say, how could they not be? “If you’re ever a parent, you’ll understand,” I can still hear him telling me in the deep baritone that reverberated through my childhood home as he sang into his tiled shower the lyrics from a 1960s musical: Try to remember the kind of September/ When life was slow and oh, so mellow/ Try to remember the kind of September/ When grass was green and grain so yellow. Meantime, I’d fill his inbox with a litany of tips on everything from diets to the importance of sitting less and the power of meditation, trying to hold on to some measure of control. I’m sure that most of these went unopened.
Looking at the picture now, I see my daughter - the same chubby cheeks, little upturned nose and pouty mouth - grasping onto her grandfather in that swimming pool in a way that she will never be able. Instead, she sat in my father’s lap at seven months old in the hospital room with the sage green wall. “Please leave blinds open” was scrawled in his wife’s handwriting on a sheet of paper taped to the window looking out onto the parking lot, an unintended poem. He was so frail by then that I worried that his body might collapse under her weight and turn into the dust we sprinkled not very long after into a stream near his boyhood home in Baltimore, the water cool on our feet in late April as my son splashed with delight, too young, mostly, to realize what was happening, and the grey-and-white particles sank to the rocky bottom or headed out toward the Chesapeake in tiny balsam boxes of the sort they sell at the craft store I’d dragged my reluctant dad to as a kid. “Ripple in still water,” I’d scribbled on one of them in purple Sharpie in the back of our rented minivan as his wife and I sifted spoonfuls from the plastic bag she’d carried in one of his old duffel bags on the plane, whispering its contents to the TSA agent on duty as she placed the bag on the x-ray conveyor belt. I couldn’t bring myself to go back there to see his body after it happened early one Thursday morning, an hour or so after he called us to ask our permission in a voice clearer than it had been in weeks because he’d removed the oxygen mask that had started to blister the skin around his mouth and nose. So I surprised myself in my silent wish that some of this dust would adhere permanently to each of our bodies.
I think about how tickled my dad would be by how closely his two-year-old granddaughter and I resemble one another at this age, down to her chubby cheeks and springy ringlets, by a quiet spunkiness that is not familiar, by how she asks for the same bedtime song he sang me as a child. (“Armadillo,” she’ll say, filling in the words of the old Jerry Jeff Walker tune when I pause, having no clue what they mean.) How he would have delighted in his four-year-old grandson’s ability to differentiate bird species, in the chalk-drawn animals that cover our driveway and in the way he plots to tear down the petrochemical plants he sees spewing smoke along the river.
“How did you handle your dad’s death?” I asked him in those surreal final days, not long after we’d clinked imaginary champagne flutes in that hospital whose halls were tinted with the scent of urine, acknowledging for the first time the inevitable. “I don’t remember,” he said. “But I did. And you will too.”
“Dad is gone,” I still find myself remembering when I wake up many mornings, combing my foggy memory of my night’s dreams to see if I can find some fleeting glimpse of him there, usually to be disappointed. His number is still saved among the “favorites” on my phone and I have occasionally pressed it accidentally, hanging up quickly before anything happens as if to preserve the fantasy that he might actually be reachable. I find myself searching for ghosts.
As I see other men of roughly my father’s age, the age he would have been, tickling children my kids’ ages until they collapse, tossing them balls, reading to them, I think about how unlucky all of us are that he isn’t around to experience these little repositories of his DNA, and they him. How they will never get to know his charms and flaws the way I knew them, the way I knew those of my own grandparents. I think about all the milestones he won’t be around for, all the things he feared about their future that he would have worked to make right, and also the impromptu lectures that would have at once threatened to put them to sleep and made them feel like the most special kids on the planet. I think about the way he would have turned the crank on the brown wooden easel that now sits collecting spider webs in a corner of the new old house he never got to see, ready to paint a canvas, the way he learned by watching my grandfather. I think about all these things that he - that we - will miss. And then, I think how lucky we were to have had him at all.
I think how, as he lay dying in that hospital bed, as I held his stiff hand in mine, our arms swaying slowly back and forth as though we had all the time in the world, we were once again a little girl and her daddy, diving together into the abyss.
Emilie Bahr is an outdoor evangelist, an anxious mother of young kids, and an urban planner based in New Orleans. These days, her writing mostly fills the pages of marbled dollar store notebooks, but her work has appeared in publications ranging from Next City and Planning magazines to offbeat venues like RV Life. Emilie's first (and so far only) book, Urban Revolutions: A woman’s guide to two-wheeled transportation, was released by Microcosm Publishing in 2016.