When I was young I saw things he reminded me of.
He had on a plaid golf hat, one of those half beret, half ballcap things they wore in the days of the Bowery Boys and John Dillinger, baggy pants he called his khakis and a sweater that was already old when I was born he said had belonged to his great Uncle Mimmy. I saw his topsiders were caked in wet sand and suggested we stroll a little further from the breakers. But the sand was too dry and soft up there and made much harder to walk. In the universe of beachcombing the trade off was wetness versus energy, and he'd known he was going to get his feet wet and had steeled himself to the fact before we got into the car.
It was one of those days you could see the mist in the Jersey Shore air. Tiny particles of white, baby raindrops that were too young to fall and got tangled in your hair like pollen from trees made of winter breath. The breakers rose black against the white sky and the air smelled fishy salt.
He liked it here. It was where he found peace from his unrealized dreams of being a sailor. He told us his life was all about never getting what you wanted and living with it. It was about crosses that needed to be borne. Joy was something that happened accidentally when you caught your breath while bearing down on the pain. He'd told me he imagined himself in a boat on the horizon, just losing sight of land, heading for open water.
"You hate this," he said. "Let's go back to the car."
"No, it's fine," I told him. Water dripped onto my jacket from my sopping head.
"If you had worn a hat like I told you--"
"It's fine," I repeated. I would make it fine.
Waves crashed on the jagged black boulders and dark brown sand. It sent shards of foam streaming that touched our shoes and made them glisten wet.
"You see that owl?"
"Which owl, Dad?" I took of my glasses and wiped off the fog. Scanned the empty shoreline, the jetty, the paper edge horizon that divided earth from heaven.
"When you were a kid, I could point and you'd see everything."
"My eyes got bad. You forget because nowadays they can make these glasses pretty thin. I'm blind as a bat."
"That's not what I'm talking about."
I tried not to be annoyed. Swallowed the theory I was cold and could convince a man with a cancer fever to stop walking down a frigid, empty beach. If this was where he wanted to be, I would be here. It was his time now. I was trying to find a way to enjoy these rarified moments. But he had a way of digging, and I was still me under all these years.
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about when your hamster died."
"What hamster?" I let myself ask, certain I was probing into a delusion that was growing from the mounds of percocet he took. Maybe I could convince him he wanted to leave.
"For your sixth birthday I bought you a hamster--against your mother's wishes, I might add. It lived for two days and when it died you were a wreck. Crying. Jesus. You wouldn't stop. You wouldn't go to school. So I took you outside and showed you the hamster running into the woods."
I remembered the hamster escaping. My father telling me the kid's story, the hamster was going back to its family in the forest. That was my memory. It was real and I was not sick. Damn domesticated rodent was probably eaten by an owl the next day. I didn't know about owls, then. He waited till I was older to show me those.
"Dad, the goddamned hamster got out of the cage and ran away. I saw him running into the woods."
"Yeah. You saw him." He smirked, reached into his pocket and pulled out a pill bottle. Popped one of his pills on time.
"Dad..." I said. I really wanted him to see it was the drugs they were giving him. Oxycontin. Percocet. He was lucky he could still walk. What the cancer hadn't done to him they were making up for by crippling him with pain killers. "It didn't die. It ran away."
"Just like I'm going to run away," he said.
"You think you're smart but you can't see past the nose on your face."
"Jesus, Dad. What did I do now? I'm not going to walk with you if you're going to rag on me like this."
"Ok. Lets go back."
He turned abruptly and it took a few steps for me to catch up with him. We said nothing the way back up the beach. And it wasn't until we were driving back up route 36 toward the house that he said, "You think I'm going to live forever, don't you?"
"Nah, I don't," I said, trying to keep a straight face. Show nothing.
"I saw my uncle Mimmy," he said. "Your mother doesn't know. Scared the shit out of me. I woke up and he was standing beside the bed. I couldn't get him to say anything. He just stood there, crying. And then he disappeared."
He got out his handkerchief and wiped at his eyes. Blew his nose.
There are times when you're useless because you lack the skill. If a plane was crashing and I jumped into the pilot seat to take the controls, it might only delay the inevitable impact. But then there are times when you're useless because you don't know how to start loving the people you should love. There must have been a thousand things I could have done. There he was next to me, still breathing, and we both knew he wouldn't last more than a month or two. I'd go back home to California and miss more of his life. Come back when he was dead or nearly so.
A thousand things. I couldn't think of one.
"You should see what's around you," he said. "Before you get like me and you can't help it."
"Ok," I said, biting my lip as hard as I could.
We pulled into the driveway, and I went around and helped him out of the passenger's seat.
"That hamster--you remember how big it was."
"I dunno." I held up my hand, opened my fingers, "How big are hamsters? Like this, maybe?"
"See those trees out there? Your eyes are how bad?"
I didn't know what he meant right away. I walked with him inside and he went straight up to the bedroom to get into his bed clothes and lie down.
I'm not sure he ever got up again.
When I left him to fly back home to California from New Jersey I realized, just a sideways glance as I handed my bags to the airport shuttle driver, beyond my mother waving from the porch, past the window to the room where my father lay dying, the room that used to be mine, where I slept for years with my life going by, out to the tree line across the near mile of unmown grass.
Everything there, too far to see.