The rocks outside my father’s cabin held small worlds in their tide pools. On the sides of the pools, the inland landscape was rendered in miniature; faint green and brown algae grew in patterns of pastures, dotted with tiny snails like hay bales.
As children, my sister and I were captivated by the worlds they contained, secrets hidden at high tide and revealed when the river retreated. We would squat over the tide pools, pick the snails from the dry rocks, and drop them back in. Freshwater shrimp darted through the seaweed that grew from the crevices, the air brined with ancestry.
When he was a child himself, this small town, this seaway, was our father’s whole world. As an adult, it was the place he returned to every summer, to recharge with the sea’s energy, and to relax in the embrace of the green coastal landscape. His cabin was nestled on rocky land facing the St. Lawrence River, a wall of pines climbing the ridge behind it. Beyond that was the town with the commanding stone church’s silver painted dome and four bell towers rising above the surrounding farmland.
Our father, who knew the secrets the landscape kept: the cave at the end of the lane that once refrigerated the perishables, the car that went off the wharf with its passengers still inside. Our father, who had jumped off the wharf to try to save the passengers, who many years later leapt off again to rescue the doll I dropped while watching the ferry arrive.
Our father brought us into his world every summer, shared these secrets with us, just as he taught us to fish from the wharf, to clean smelt on the rocks, tossing heads and guts to the gulls.
Our father led us over the rocks every day to bathe in the sea, cold as it was, as he had done as a child with his own siblings. When they came to visit, they went out together and had contests to see who could stay in the longest. It was always my father, swimming out in the deep water with long, sure strokes.
Each day, my sister and I ran across the rocks down the shore to our uncles’ and aunts’ cabins, hardening the soles of our feet. We climbed the rocks to their backdoors and walked into small rooms filled with light and smoke and laughter, warmed with the joys of summer and gathering from far away.
As teenagers, we no longer wanted to brave the cold water the way he would, and we stopped swimming. Our father stubbornly continued to make his way to the water alone, even as he lost sensation in his feet from diabetes, even as he began to lose his balance. To retain this small pleasure, this small pride, he rented a cement mixer and paved an uneven path from the steps to the shore.
When he could no longer cross the rocks, he sat in his chair behind the large window, glancing every now and then from his Sudoku to the sea. It was our turn to lead our children to the water, to teach them to notice the salt and breeze on their faces, the rough stone under their feet, and the chill of the water around their ankles.
Time was removing our father from this world
What is he now?
When dementia became a veil through which he viewed the world, our father could no longer visit the cabin. His mind came and went like the tides.
After he passed, we took his ashes back, packed in a plastic box. For nearly two years during the pandemic, the box, like my father, sat eternally patient in my parents’ living room. Finally, reunited, we returned him home to the sea.
We took him out on the rocks and released him for one final swim, but the ashes blew back over us in the salty, wet wind. A dusting collected on a wet spot on my jacket, right over my heart. When I tried to wipe it off, it soaked in deeper, an indelible mark.
We realized the waves wouldn’t reach us at mid-tide, and we watched as the ashes clung to the rocks and settled at the bottom of a tide pool.
Where is he now?
Surely, the tide returned for him that night
but maybe, a trace remains nestled in a crevice, keeping company with the seaweed and the snails, and with the echoes of his daughters, noticing how a small pool can contain a whole world.