Monday, May 07, 2007

Far Away, So Close

I’m back from my trip to Lake Ontario looking after my sister’s children. My sister’s neighborhood is full of tall trees that hide the sky on one side, and Lake Ontario on the other. In fact, her house is so secluded that I couldn’t get a cell phone signal unless I walked up the dirt road, past the clearing and cocked the phone towards the sky. At first it was charming. On the second take I remembered why land lines are so important, and not so much with the cell phones. It’s been years since I’ve spent more than a day there.

My concerns about watching over a teenaged girl with a cute boyfriend and a little boy who loves matches were unwarranted. Everyone behaved, laughed, they played video games, we went to a movie and it was very pleasant. My niece is painfully beautiful and smart, and my nephew is hilarious and energetic. I can’t wait to find out what kinds of adults they will be, but I do wish they’d stay young as they are now forever. I look at them and wish time could stop, for them and for me.

I also had time to visit the rest of my family and spend time with my parents, who are in their mid to late 70’s. Dad is on oxygen 24/7 now. It’s not a matter of “if” anymore, his doctors tell us. It’s all about “when”. He could go a few more years or a few more hours. As long as he doesn’t have another cardiac event, he’s stuck with us. I’m glad to report that none of this has changed my parents. They still bicker endlessly. Only now, Dad runs out of breath before he can yell too much and say things he will regret and Mom doesn’t have to meet the challenge. They would resume their disagreements where they left off, once everyone was rested. Most of the time, they forgot where they left off and started in about something new. In some bizarre way, I find their relationship endearing. I would not recognize my parents if they ever called a truce.

Back at my sister’s house, with her kids, peace was mostly a constant theme. It rained a bit, so we were often drowsy from the sound of rain on the waves coming to shore. Every morning, rain or shine, hundreds of ducks would show up outside of the house and graze on Lake Ontario. I would count as many as I could while the children got ready for school. Still in my pajamas, I’d grab a coat and drive them to the bus stop at the clearing, where the dirt meets a paved road. Afterward, I would go back to the deck and count more ducks. This isn't a great picture, but the little dots are ducks - a portion of them.

At sunset, a beaver would swim by. I tried to get her picture but she would dive below the waves and deprive me of the privilege. I called her Marlene Dietrich (“I vant to be alooooone.”)

My sister’s house is idyllic as memory. A forest is in the front yard.

And a Great Lake is in the back yard.

One night, I was on the patio reading “Hannibal Rising” by Thomas Harris. It was about 1:30 in the morning and the moon was full. Out of nowhere I suddenly heard, “Arooooo! Arr arr AROOOO-OOOO!” A pack of coyotes has settled in nearby. I was sufficiently spooked enough to go inside.

I should have paid attention to the coyotes. The “On Golden Pond” feeling was soon to end the next night. That was when I heard a duck outside making horrible noises. Ducks don't fly or swim at night, at least not where I come from. I grabbed a flashlight and went outside to investigate, but the batteries in the flashlight must have gone empty over the winter because it wouldn’t work. Quickly, I ran back inside, grabbed the keys to the Jeep, parked it next to the cliff over the water and turned on the high beams. I caught a glimpse of something very tragic. Just then, my niece and nephew came outside to see what was going on. The duck had woken them up and they were curious. I turned off the Jeep immediately, before the kids could see much. As soon as I heard my niece say, “Oh my God…” I realized they had already seen too much.

I asked the kids if they could run inside and find a better flashlight for me. Kicking off my shoes, I sort of prayed that I could see what I might need to swim towards. I walked down the stairs to the beach because I planned on diving into the 40° water to help the duck. It was going to be extremely important to know where I might be swimming, because the human body can only function properly for a few minutes in water that cold. I know this because I jumped into the icy water one February afternoon during a Polar Bear Swim back in the early 90’s, when the water was 34° under the surface ice. Timing was going to be everything.

There had been a lot of fishing going on in my hometown that week. I saw plenty of boats and fishermen on the water every morning and afternoon. “Must be another fishing derby,” my niece said. She wasn’t enthusiastic. Generally, locals never look forward to fishing derbies. People from away come to spend money and make fools of themselves. They get drunk; they make noise and generally make a mess while trying to catch the biggest fish for a cash prize. The men whistle at the teenaged girls and grab their crotches, and when they do these things, no one in town feels bad about jacking the price of food and supplies by 100% during fishing season. “Pay to play,” as the saying goes.

I thought of these fisher-people when I saw the duck in the headlights. It was tangled in someone’s discarded fishing line, struggling to stay afloat with one wing snagged and the other wing wound up and cocked in a unnatural position. Broken. The duck was being pulled by something under the waves that night, waves that were growing higher because of a coming storm.

My father saw something exactly like this once before, he told me. What happens is that a fishing line with a baited hook becomes snagged on rocks or debris and the fisherman cuts the line. A fish eats the bait on the end of that line, becomes hooked and struggles to become un-snagged. Once freed, the fish swims away with the tangled mess hooked to its’ lip until it dies or gets caught. On rare occasions, something else gets caught in the excess line and gets dragged around by the fish. This time, it was the duck caught up with a fish. I would guess it was large salmon or a rainbow trout terrorizing the duck. They can grow to be big enough and strong enough to pull fishermen along in un-tethered rowboats. Trying to help that duck was going to be nearly impossible and probably foolish – especially at night in very cold water. I was willing to try.

My nephew ran inside for something better than a flashlight for me. He came back with a strobe light. He and my niece attached it to extension cords in the basement and I kept trying to follow the noise with my ears. The night was too black to see anything, even a shadow. I could hear the duck struggling against the line, panicking.

By the time the kids brought over the strobe, the noises stopped. We waited for a half hour. My best guess is that the duck capsized in the tall waves and couldn’t right itself, or that the fish dragged it under. I waited outside for another hour, just in case. When I stopped listening and hoping, I put my shoes back on. The kids were tremendously let down. They went back to bed, quietly. No one slept very well, and the youngest asked to stay home from school the next morning. I let him.

It occurred to me that I waited to hear the duck with the same attention I gave to my father, when I watched him nap on the couch in the living room. He is attached by plastic tubes to a humming oxygen machine all of the time. I never had to watch him breathe before. Now, I feel like I have to. I worry when he hesitates, as he dreams.

Memory tells me that my father was the greatest fisherman in the world, once upon a time. We sang to the fishes from the back of his boat, and they would reward us by eating our lures. Most of the time, we released our catch. Sometimes we kept them, and Dad would have them stuffed and mounted. There were times when the fun was interrupted when we saw tourists throwing their trash into the lake. My father would troll along side the offending parties and all five and a half feet of him would rage and lecture. I have lost count of the times he would grab their refuse, and throw it back on their boats, daring whoever was on deck to challenge him. He knew what it was like to see a duck or something get caught in the garbage and feel helpless to salvage the situation. Now I understand how he felt because I could not save the duck.

I can’t save my father from his own bum heart and tired lungs, either. I really want to save him, but I can’t. I wish I could challenge his specialists to right this wrong of old age and disease, but they have done all they can. It’s too late in life to change the outcome.

Chicago seems very far away from Lake Ontario today.