A Man and His Ocean

[** Winner of Midlife Collage Writing Contest Monday, January 23,2012!]

He picks up his umbrella and his face winces as his hand struggles to turn the knob. The door always sticks after the rain. “Your umbrella is open.”“It’s fine.” I look closely as he ignores me and realize the snap strap is broken. He’s walking with an unravelled black umbrella, using it like a cane.

Out in the open, the sun glistens on the wet autumn leaves above, and we begin our walk to the corner. Just as he passes under a large maple tree, he reaches up and grabs one, two, then three yellow leaves. Then stuffs them into his pocket.

“You like the color yellow?” I ask.“Yeah. Yeah.” He says, looking ahead to the stop light that is still red. “Don’t touch the button.” He’s referring to the one that speeds up the changing light for pedestrians. “Okay.”

He takes a leaf from his pocket and uses it to push the button. Then he tosses the leaf away once the light changes. We cross and begin our stroll along the water. The sidewalk is empty save a few early morning joggers and the occasional person walking his or her dog. The sun beams warmth on my face, but the wind off the water makes me pull my zipper up. I look over to my father-in-law and see his scarf has flipped open. I move to wrap it back around his neck, and he retreats at first, then allows me to adjust it.  

“I didn’t mean to startle you, Papa. It’s a little colder than I thought.”

“No. No. It’s fine. I like to walk.”

I came here thinking I’d just drop off groceries and run, but something inside me beckoned me to stay. I don’t usually stay. I usually run.

“My brother was captain of his basketball team. No one bothered me because my brother protected me. He…” I look off toward the water and notice a barge in the distance. I’ve heard this story a zillion times. Sigh.

A person walking a grey and white shaggy dog approaches us, and Papa moves far onto the grass. I nod to the woman as she passes holding tightly to the leash. Papa returns to the sidewalk.

“My father was a great doctor. He loved his patients. He got sick with typhoid from…[Papa chokes up and I turn to see him wiping his eyes] From. From his patients. That’s how he died. He died from Typhoid. His patients loved…” Another story I’ve heard a buzillion times.

We walk on and Papa stops when we reach an opening in the walkway. A small grassy area provides a view of the water before the street turns residential. Several park benches circle a flag pole. The benches are empty.

“There’s always someone sitting here.” Papa points to the benches. “Not today.” He then reaches up and retrieves one, two, three bags from under the “Dispose Your Doggy Dung” sign. This is new.

“Papa. That’s enough. Don’t take any more bags.” We don’t have a dog.

“Oh. Oh. Okay.” He stuffs the bags in his pocket. They now keep company with at least two yellow leaves.

We walk a little further and I realize that the sidewalk narrows and we can no longer walk side by side. A nervous feeling seeps inside me when I cannot see him in front of me. I turn several times to gage the distance between us and then decide enough heartburn for one day. “Let’s go back.”

“Oh. Oh. Okay.” We turn and begin to walk back toward the water.

“There’s always someone sitting here.” Papa points to the benches we just passed. Sigh. You told me that a second ago.

“Not today.” I say flippantly. Sorry. It gets old.

“Amma sings every morning.” Amma is Papa’s wife. My mother-in-law.

“What does she sing?” I feel bad for being sarcastic.

“She sings the same song every day. It means God loves you like a mother and a father.”

“Oh.” That’s a new story. “Give me your umbrella.” I take it even though he resists a little. “Let me fix it.” I take the rubber bands around the top and slip them down so that the umbrella looks closed. Better than before anyway.

Papa looks at the bag dispenser. Then the benches.

“Do you want to sit?” I ask, hoping he doesn’t reach for more bags. I hate reprimanding him.

“No. No. Let’s walk. Amma must be waiting.”

We turn to walk back toward the traffic light in the distance, and Papa moves to the railing next to the water. A very narrow row of concrete blocks lines his path. I think he’s avoiding the growing number of people on the sidewalk. There are several more now. I continue walking parallel to him, separated by more than just the perfectly trimmed row of grass. He occasionally stops and looks out to the water. Like he’s looking into the past. Where he prefers to live.

“My mother told me not to leave when I left India.” Papa’s lips press together tightly, and his eyes are wet again. “She died when we were living in Kentucky.” Sigh.

“Amma likes to sing. Especially in the morning.” He’s smiling again.

“You like it when Amma sings?” I ask, knowing the answer.

“Yes. Yes. I like it very much. She always sings…” Another story for my file.

We walk on, and I walk slightly ahead. I’m ready to run, but the traffic light remains about two hundred feet away. I should walk him back to his front door. That’s the right thing to do.

“My brother was the basketball captain…” Don’t tell me. No one bothered you because he protected you. Papa wipes his eyes. Again. His brother passed away a few years ago.

I see it then. The unexpected amid the expected. A leaf print on the concrete. It makes me stop. I 

stare at the intricacies etched forever in the concrete. I bend down and run my fingers along the indented veins and outline the perfect maple leaf that sailed to this spot. In the past. When this concrete was first laid. When it was still wet. Still impressionable. Now it’s hard and stuck. No more room for change. No more time to change. No change possible.

This time I’m wiping my eyes. The time for Papa to change is gone. He is who he is. And I can either lament what could have been or accept what is. Sigh. I rise and walk quickly to catch up to my hubby’s dad. My second dad.

Leaf out, he presses the button. Like he’s holding the door open for me, he proudly escorts me safely across the street. Or is it the other way around? Does it matter? I could run. But I choose to walk. I hug Amma and Papa and tell them I’ll be back soon.
“Have a good day. Thanks for the walk. It was a nice walk.”

“Yes. Yes. It was a nice walk. I like to walk. Bye.” Papa sits on his outdoor chair as I walk to my car. When I turn the ignition I see Papa walking toward me. He loves to wave goodbye as I drive off. I wave back.
In my rear view mirror, I see him standing there at the corner with his umbrella, still waving.  

Looking back. Looking foward.


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3 thoughts on “A Man and His Ocean

  1. Whether intentional or not, I enjoyed the parallel between the title and content of your blog to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It was beautifully touching and it never ceases to amaze me how God uses the little things like your cement leaf to tell us it is we who need to make the change within the situation. You are a wonderful daughter-in-law and such a blessing to your family. 😀 Thanks for sharing such a poignant moment in your relationship with your second papa.