by Scott Driza
I’m perched atop a parking garage peering down at the dark figures below me. They are assembling slowly, shaking hands, and mingling. Eventually, they’ll be looking for me to say a few words.
I ponder what I’ll say, feeling detached. My eyes close. My mind drifts to an early outing with my father. It was 1990-something during the summer break. When school was out, my family was basically nomadic. I grew up in campgrounds and local towns while my father took long breaks from work. This particular summer we’d driven far north and were fishing in the Boundary Waters Wilderness near Canada.
My memory of this always shifts into high gear. My father is frantically paddling, trying to outrace a swelling storm. Per his orders, I’m kneeling on a seat cushion, trying to wedge myself as far forward as I can. “We need your weight up front!” He yells. I’m probably eight years old and I’m now death gripping our canoe’s gunwales, bracing myself as the small vessel crashes into waves.
Suddenly, our progress slows down. Our rental canoe pitches forward, and then lurches back. The waves are now whitecaps breaking level with my knuckles as they clinch the sides. The canoe rocks and rolls like a tilt-a-whirl. It seems we are moving every direction at once.
“We need a decision.” My father yells. “We’ll never make it back. We need to go there!” and he points towards shore.
I look in direction he points and start to nod. But, suddenly, I’m dunked into the frigid water and my limbs start instinctively paddling to keep me afloat.
I’ve never understood the mechanics of what happened. In an instant, we were in the water. It was as if a giant hand pulled us under. The next thing I realized was that it was REALLY cold. I was instinctively gasping to catch my breath.
My father got a hand on me and said, “Stay Calm!” He held me firmly and looked into my eyes until it was clear I understood. I tried to speak, but my voice was incoherent. Luckily, I was clinging to the floating seat cushion that had been beneath me.
In retrospect, as a kid, it’s tough to discern between “real” danger and a routine mishap. We’d had bad stuff happen before. We’d even gotten a flat on the highway recently, but I knew this was different. This was chaos: Our gear strewn in every possible direction. I looked down into the water to see our spinning rods quickly sinking into oblivion.
I started to doggy paddle toward our nearby tackle box. It was one of the few items that floated. The orange and brown plastic box looked like a floating traffic cone. A wave would carry it up over my head, and then it would suddenly disappear from my view as it dropped into a neighboring trough.
“GRAB ONTO THE BOAT RIGHT NOW” my father SCREAMED. I turned away from the tackle box and gasped at how far I was from the boat. I’d only turned my back briefly, but the boat was now two waves away. I couldn’t swim fast enough with the cushion. Suddenly, my father’s arm grabbed me and thrust me toward the boat again.
This time I tried to hold fast as I kicked my feet toward shore. Gripping the canoe was painful because my hands were numb and clumsy. Details are scarce after this. After an eternity, my feet touched bottom. I tripped and stumbled over the smooth, round rocks, but I made way onto shore. My father did everything else. Out of all our gear, we’d only managed to hang onto a couple life jackets, an oar, and the canoe.
My dad huddled next to me trying to cheer me up. “That was a good decision you made going for shore, huh?” he asked. I wanted to nod in agreement, but I could only shiver. Over the years, he’d give me far more credit than I deserved for that decision. It was clear that had we tried to cross back to our campsite, we likely would have drowned.
The rest of that day is a complete fog. I know the storm broke, and my father managed to get us back to camp. I don’t remember any of it. The next thing I remember is my mother. When I saw her, I started telling the story as fast as I could.
She was triaging me, pulling each of my limbs from the soggy clothing. She checked that my arms and legs were still there and still apparently in working order. I was telling her how suddenly the waves came upon us and how we decided to go for shore, when she stopped, grabbed my shoulders and asked me, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”
I continued, “We made a good decision to go for...”
And she cut me off incredulously, “Good decision? The only good decision would’ve been to stay at camp! They’ve been forecasting that storm all week. You’re lucky you both aren’t dead!”
And so it was. Early on, there were two variations of the story. My mother’s version emphasized the fateful results of a poor decision to ignore the weather forecast. “They were lucky to get out of that lake alive!” She said.
However, my father’s version put things in a different light. “Good thing we went for the near shore. Had we tried to make it back across the lake, we would’ve drowned.” My father said and left out any mention of the morning weather forecast.
I always squirmed when my mother started telling the story, but over the years, a funny thing happened. Maybe she grew tired of mentioning the morning forecast? Or, maybe she simply forgot? But, after the first few years, her story mirrored my father’s. She pretty much stopped mentioning the weather forecast.
Of course, I liked my dad’s version. But there was an undeniable truth in my mother’s as
well. We really shouldn’t have gone out on the lake that day.
I rarely tell the story anymore, but I noticed that I don’t even tell it consistently. Sometimes I emphasize the poor initial decision and luck. Other times, I focus on good decision making in the moment and how it saved the day.
So, I was listening very keenly when I recently heard my father tell the story for what would be his final time in the hospital. He noticed my interest and called me over. “After all this time, what did you learn that day?”
I’ll admit the question caught me off guard. I’ve lived through numerous other ill fated adventures, had kids of my own, and even had some close calls with them. I thought about it a bit, and I started talking about the importance of good decision making.
I noticed my father was comfortably reclined into his hospital bed. His grayish blue eyes fixed on me as I continued speaking. I rambled on, but I knew my answer wasn’t resonating with him. It instantly hit me: I bet he wants to acknowledge how reckless it was to ignore the forecast that day! The words came tumbling forward, but he cut me off.
“No. No.“ He shook his head and let out an emphatic, “And No.” Then a smile crept up on his face. “It was never about the forecast. The most important thing is that you tell your own story.”
He paused. “It doesn’t matter what the adventure is, you come back and tell the story. If someone else is telling your story, that’s a problem. You don’t want the lead role in someone else’s cautionary tale.”
I’m walking toward the front of the church now, past the rows of pews and I smile thinking back on that moment. All these people are here to pay their respect. They’re expecting to hear the story one final time. I know which version I’ll tell.