Father’s Day is a day I really miss my dad. He died on November 29, 2009, just a few days after I wrote the following, which was posted on my old blog at Xanga. Today, I woke up thinking about my father, his love for all things wild, his love for me and for my children. So Daddy, wherever you are, this is for you.
My Dad, the Sea Hares, and Me
My father was a man of many passions. He was a minister for 65 years; he loved his God. He loved Lionel trains and always had elaborate train layouts wherever he and my mother lived. And he loved nature. It was he who every year loaded up our car with every bit of camping gear known to humankind and set off across the country to show his four children the world. It is he who gifted me with wanderlust and wonderlust, that compunction to answer questions like, “I wonder what’s over there/down that road/under that rock/what that is?
My father, who had a series of strokes last year, now spends his days in a wheelchair, sleeping. When he is awake, he rarely recognizes my sisters or mother when they visit him. Would he recognize me if I were there? He probably would not. He is in Indianapolis; I am in Los Angeles. I feel guilty, not being there, not trying to reach the father that once was, the man who loved to hike and camp and run Lionel trains in the basement on Saturday evenings.
When I miss my dad I head outdoors. The smell of mountain air or the salt breeze off the ocean is like a massage for my psyche, caressing my raw emotions, easing the tension, restoring a sense of balance.
This time, we headed south, to the beaches of Orange County and a state park called Crystal Cove. A picnic on the beach and a hike back through the chaparral, I hoped, would soothe my anxiety about my dad and quiet other demons pulling me six directions at once.
Crystal Cove’s ocean front sits high atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific. At high tide, the sea licks hungrily at the sheer rock face, devouring the beach in its entirety in places. I feel like that sometimes, like my responsibilities—both real and imagined—are eroding my emotional base and threatening to wash me away.
At low tide, however, the water blanketing the beaches recedes, revealing the hidden wonders of Crystal Cove: the tide pools.
The first pool is littered with shells in a palette of colors Monet and Van Gogh would envy. Here we encounter tiny opaleye perch, darting in and out of clumps of pink coralline algae. These are the first fish I’ve seen in tidepools. Clumps of tiny diadumes cling to the rock edge. These tiny anemones live in colonies, unlike their larger green sea anemone cousins, which are solitary.
I spot the largest, most magnificent green anemone I’ve ever seen in a tide pool. This exquisite creature is nearly the breadth of my hand, Its tentacles sway easily in the water, hypnotizing me. I watch, entranced, until I hear Scott calling to me excitedly. He has found something we’ve not seen in tide pools before.
Sea slugs! California black sea hares, to be more specific. They are beautiful. They’re not black at all, but more of an aubergine. In fact, that’s what they look like: small aubergines—eggplants—with spots on them. The first ones we see are small, only a couple inches long. But further down the beach we find sea hares that are seven or eight inches long. They move slowly through the pools, unrushed, unhurried, munching on algae, skirting anemones, flowing gently over black turban snails as if they weren’t even there.
We come across two kelp snails, their shells wearing a sunset as brilliant as any the sky has ever boasted. One shell is empty; I examine it carefully before returning it to the water. It will make a fine home for a hermit crab. The second snail is very much alive, it’s flame orange foot clearly peeking from beneath its sunset shell.
But it is the sea hares that keep calling to me. I am transfixed by their grace as they silently slide through the crystalline waters.
I think of my father, sitting in his wheelchair in the nursing home in Indianapolis, sleeping. How he would have loved exploring these tide pools, these beaches, with his family. Because of him my summers were filled with adventure as he drove us all over the country visiting our National Parks, the mountains, the deserts, the sea. When my mom lost her sight a decade or so ago, he became an avid armchair traveler, watching the nature videos I would bring him from my travels, reading brochures and magazines about distant places, both familiar and unknown, that he would never again lay eyes on, or see for the first time. I grieved then for my dad. I grieve more now.
Last week, my dad suddenly stopped using his right arm. He continues to have TIAs, or mini-strokes. There is nothing that can be done for him at this point. The man who was my father is gone.
But as I sit at the edge of the tide pool watching the sea hares, blocking my mind to all that is around me save the water and its explosion of life, I hope that somewhere in the recesses of my father’s mind, he is still there, hiking up a mountain trail, singing one of his silly hiking songs, content that his family is hiking right there beside him.
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My father died November 29, 2009, just a few days after I wrote this piece. I feel him often, beside me, as I splash in the tide pools, or walk in the mountains or desert. And when I feel him there, walking beside me, I thank him for instilling in me my deep reverence for nature, my appreciation for bears and hawks and wolves, and also for sea slugs and turban snails and anemones. I thank him for gifting me with wanderlust, and wonderlust, and the realization that a night spent sleeping under the stars high atop a mountain is a sacred experience. My dad was an amazing preacher, but his best lessons didn’t come from the pulpit. They came from those trips into places wild–the mountains, the desert, the sea.