It had been a long night filled with people crowding our house and talking all at once. My mother alternated between crying and wailing, giving me a headache. The television blared the local station, flashing scenes from the Rockford Files with the occasional news update interrupting the program. Everyone jumped when the kitchen phone rang and hushed to hear who was calling. The cacophony returned when it was determined to be someone wanting to know if there was any new information. There wasn’t.
Outside, the storm raged. Branches blew from the trees into the pool, the patio chairs were on their sides and the umbrella was gone, but no one noticed except me. I sat alone in my father’s home office, looking out at our huge backyard overshadowed by a hill. Lights from the house illuminated the ripples on the dark water; a sharp contrast to the mild evenings of the past week.
We’d had a barbecue dinner poolside just the night before and I’d been a brat. I missed our little home in Alameda and refused to take any joy in our big, beautiful new Moraga house. Daddy talked about the plans for the yard and asked my opinion. I just shrugged.
He had laughed, walked over and ruffled my hair and kissed the top of my head. “Ach, come along, Lil’ Bit. You’ll be off to college in a few months and will miss this,” he’d said in his lilting Irish brogue.
“I’ll miss Alameda. This will never be home. I hate this place.” I pulled away from his touch.
“Well, I’m sorry for that. I want to give you and your sister the best. I hope you’ll change your mind. I’m off to the boat. We have an early start in the morning. I’ll see you tomorrow night. I love you.”
I swiveled from the view of the backyard to my father’s desk. I touched the neat stack of invoices in his tray and ran my finger over his signature. I breathed in his scent. Old Spice mixed with the aged leather of the chair and the lingering scent of sweet tobacco from his cold wooden pipe. One of the ever-present electrical wire endcaps caught my eye and I turned it about in my hand. It struck me that this tiny yellow plastic piece, most likely pulled from his pants pocket after work on a job site the day before, was one of the last things my father would touch.
I sat there for a long while, looking through his ledgers and the various pieces of a successful small business. He had taught me the basics of his bookkeeping and I assisted him in filing so I knew which jobs were still in process and which were complete. I cracked open a book on the current National Electrical Code and was immediately overwhelmed but read on, needing to focus my mind on anything other than the situation at hand.
Just after midnight the Coast Guard called off the search for the night as the storm continued to build. There had only been radio silence since the May Day call and no sightings of the vessel after hours of extensive rescue boat and helicopter sweeps. The search would resume in the morning, when the winds were expected to diminish. Our friends and family were holding out hope and were planning private search parties to aid the professional effort.
Slowly the house emptied but for a handful who would stand by the phone and look after my mother. Someone had finally given her a tranquilizer and she was blessedly quiet, passed out on the couch. My little sister had a friend over and they had long ago fallen asleep in her room, remnants of a craft project strewn across her floor. No one took much notice of me as I didn’t contribute to the conversations of speculation.
I took myself off to bed and lay in the dark listening to the rain beating against the windows. I thought about the 24 foot sailboat that held my father and his best friend that morning. This was their second year participating in the double-handed race and they had studied the tide chart and weather prediction to develop a strategy.
Small Craft Warnings and drizzle greeted the fleet at the 0800 start; nothing that would keep experienced San Francisco Bay sailors from racing offshore, around the Farallon Islands and back under the Golden Gate.
By early afternoon, the forecast was upgraded to Gale Warning and the small boats in the fleet were in trouble, attempting to fight the strong northerly windset to return to the shelter of the Bay. The rain became blinding sheets with steady winds clocked at 53 knots and gusts in the 70s. Waves were easily taller than the boat was long and it would be impossible to steer. The storm would become captain of the vessel and the crew were at the mercy of Mother Nature and Father Neptune.
I’ve always been an eternal optimist, seeing the glass as half full and the light at the end of the tunnel. I learned this from my father and, like him, I was also a realist with a strong connection to the sea. No matter how much I wanted to believe that he would make it through the storm, I knew in my heart and soul that he was gone.
And I hadn’t told him I loved him.
A briny scent woke me from a dream of tumbling in black waves. A shadow broke the faint porch light illuminating my window and my water bed gently rippled. I felt him there with me and sat up.
At the foot of my bed was my father. Foulies drenched, seaweed tangled about his shoulders, salt water droplets glistening on his jet black hair. He looked at me with devastating sorrow.
“I love you, Daddy.”
He smiled, green eyes sparkling with tears.
Gone is the Sailor … Home to the Sea.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.
John Benson May 9, 1942 – April 10, 1982
Written May 2020 for To Live & Write in Alameda’s monthly “Alameda Shorts” challenge with the theme of “Shadow.”
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