The rising tidewater in the lagoon had almost reached his neck by the time I reached him. Neither of us could swim, and I feared we both would drown. The dog: a 140-pound Irish wolfhound that belonged to my girlfriend. The town: Bolinas, a tiny outpost north of San Francisco.
Woozy and weak from his disease, the old boy had raised his leg on a signpost at the bend in Wharf Road, near the retaining wall, which lacked a rail. I watched from the porch of our vacation rental as he teetered, lost his balance, and toppled sideways, scrambling for purchase. He flailed over the edge, and out of sight.
A thump-splash, followed by a sequence of anguished howls—rines, iggers, and throaty burbowls, human language before we got fancy.
I ran to the Rod & Boat Club’s dock. There, as if I had rehearsed this set of motions a hundred times and knew them precisely, I removed my watch, pulled off my shoes. I eased into the Pacific Ocean water.
The cold! My scrotum tightened like a fist, and every internal organ sought a place to hide. I felt the sand like firm, rippled pudding on the soles of my feet. Then my feet went numb. My legs went numb. Everything went numb.
So this is how it feels, I thought. Or doesn’t feel.
“If you won’t get me a gun, I’ll get one another way,” my father said from his wheelchair. “I can do it.”
He had fallen in his home and lay twisted like a garden hose for two days before a hunting buddy found him. Whether the accident resulted from a spinal blood clot or drunkenness was impossible to tell in the aftermath, doctors said. The result was the same, either way. T-1 paraplegia.
Over the decades, I had seen him only sporadically—he left town after the divorce, when I was six—but the Colorado doctors tracked me down in Atlanta, and I moved him to a convalescent home nearby.
But he didn’t want to convalesce. He could no longer hunt, fish or chase women. They wouldn’t let him drink, either.
On the way over for each visit, I dreamed up ways to steer the conversation, veer him away from the inevitable topic of the gun. A friend is pregnant, I told him once, and thinking about an abortion. She needs advice. What should I tell her?
This was a lie. I had no such friend, but earlier had spied a headline about RU-486, the abortion pill. Soon to be legalized, RU-486 was all over the news that year, 1999.
My father said, “Abortion’s not the worst thing.”
He rubbed his face with one hand, starting at the forehead and sliding down over his eyes, thumb on the right cheek, fingers on the left, ending with a swipe, almost a wringing motion. His own father often made the same gesture. I do it. My son does.
“You can’t ever know,” he said. I assumed he meant that you can’t ever know how things will turn out, what plans to make or switch. In the courtyard of Peachtree Manor, a bright cardinal hopped among the sparrows.
“Your mother had another pregnancy when you were two years old,” he said. “She took care of it.”
The drab, floral-papered walls tilted away from me like the walls in Mystery Spot tourist cabins, where balls roll uphill and short people look tall. I was two years old in 1957. The Roe v. Wade decision didn’t happen until the year I graduated high school. Took care of it? How?
My father stared at his useless legs. “How” didn’t matter. Only a gun mattered to him now. We argued.
It was unfair, I told him. All those years without you, and I’ve found you again, and you only want me to help you die. It was not only unfair, I said, but also abnormal. Or maybe I meant unnatural, if natural is how life goes until we try to make it normal.
Assisted suicide, anyway, was against the law. RU-486 shared the limelight with Jack Kevorkian that year. A Michigan jury at last would convict the ghoulish “mercy killer” of second-degree homicide.
Bible Belt prosecutors would string me up just as readily, if I dared smuggle a weapon past the front desk so my father could blow his brains all over this godforsaken place.
Of course, I was unfair to my father, too. He simply wanted to close out for good the riddle of his loneliness, a need I have come to understand. Men get divorced, skip town, and go wandering. They abandon their children. It happens all the time; it’s what I did. And it’s how, a few years after his mishap, I ended up in the Bolinas lagoon with my new girlfriend’s shivering, terrified wolfhound.
Half submerged, he whimpered near the wall. He wouldn’t move. Could not, with a metal plate, screws and gauze anchoring his front left shank. Bone cancer.
I slogged toward him in the water, which soon covered his ribcage and shoulders. I curled my arms under him, and hoisted this bundle of hairy, sopping laundry. The water touched my own collarbone. He growled, an indignant murmur.
Then he went berserk.
He barked, snapped and spun around, whacking at me. His mittsize bandage scored a blow to my temple. We went under twice, three times. Human held onto dog, or parts of dog.
I had never fought an Irish wolfhound in the ocean before; I had never expected to. He weighed almost as much as I, and could easily have ripped me apart, but chose otherwise. Maybe he wanted to register the most sincere protest possible without causing this human great harm. Maybe he only wanted to let the water take him, and finish the pain.
Sliding my right arm under his front leg, the healthy one, I looped my other arm over his back, for a modified half-nelson. I lifted his massive dog-head and slogged through the water, now at my chin. We would make it.
We made it.
I heaved him onto the dock, where he scrambled to his feet, faltered, collapsed. A crowd from Smiley’s Saloon cheered from shore, beers in hand. They sifted away.
I stroked his heaving chest and lay beside him. Good boy, strong boy. The gritty, sun-warmed planks of the dock welcomed my cheek, and for a piece of time neither of us could measure, we rested. On the backs of my eyelids throbbed a tapestry of capillaries. Clouds of squid ink and powder-fleck stars.
My girlfriend introduced me to her friend Eric, an independent filmmaker. At dinner, Eric told us about losing his brother to AIDS, and how he had scattered his brother’s ashes in their favorite boyhood creek, early one winter in upstate New York. Visiting the site a week later, Eric said, “I rounded a bend, and there he was. My brother.”
A tree lay across the creek. The ashes had failed to disperse, and “they were congealed, hardened against the side of that tree, like an obscene, petrified sponge. I wanted”—Eric formed his hands around empty air—“I wanted to gather him up.”
I resolved to do a better job for my father, when the time came. He had told my stepmother that he never wanted to live past 50. He did, though, lasting into miserable old age, both legs amputated because of gangrenous bedsores. He developed leukemia. His kidneys failed, and then it was over.
By then I was alone again. Through friends I heard that my former girlfriend’s dog had relapsed, and the cancer had spread to his lungs. He survived only a few months after that.
I had first planned to distribute my father’s ashes in the rivers and streams of the Midwest where he had fished, but decided instead on the ocean. Every tributary empties into it, after all. My fantasy about how this would happen was very specific.
Ever since Dad told me about the abortion, I had pictured my mother’s unborn fetus as a boy, my little brother. Somehow, in my mind at least, we would do this together. My brother carries the box of ashes to the water. I open it and fling them, set them free. I try to pray, but falter. He prays, then, for both of us. He sinks to his knees as he finishes, and I place my hand on his shoulder. I gather him up.
Of course, the day did not—could not—go this way. On my 50th birthday, I stood with my grown son, Skyler, on the beach at Bolinas. The burnt remains of my father consisted of powder and bone chunks, and I found myself tossing them wordlessly into the frigid, furling waves, an outgoing tide.
“What’s that?” Skyler pointed to a dark blob, 20 or 30 yards from the water, below a steep cliff. We ran toward it, grateful for a fresh task. The blob honked and squawked and flapped at dry sand.
Together we stared down at the young sea lion, and its black disk eyes, rimmed with spiky lashes, regarded us.
I phoned the marine biology center. Soon, a squat, calm woman in a yellow slicker stood with us. “You did the right thing by not touching him,” she said. “He will either make it back to the ocean by himself, or the tide will come up and get him. This is normal.” She must have meant “natural.” I noticed how she skipped mentioning a third possibility.
Driving out of town, I called out landmarks to Skyler. “That’s the house where I stayed for a while. Smiley’s Saloon over here—I spent plenty of hours in Smiley’s. There’s the Rod & Boat Club.”
As we passed, I glanced toward the dock, which seemed smaller, bleached, warped by time and weather. On it I saw – that is, I think I saw; I’m pretty sure—a fading, irregular, more or less dog-shaped stain.