I used to have a crush on the man who hugs me and whispers, “I’m sorry.” We stand at the edge of a sanctuary that holds my father’s ashes.
This man, who has driven five hours to attend the funeral, was one of three sons in a family that did everything with my family. Soon, the two of us are recalling all of the times we went snowmobiling in the woods of northern Minnesota. I’m not surprised when he asks, “Remember the sled?”
On those trips, I was the youngest and the only girl. While there were five of us in my family—my parents, my two brothers, and myself—we always had only four snowmobiles. I had to ride in a sled that my father had made especially for me. It had a one-inch pad of foam on the plywood bottom and metal sides, kind of like an old runner sled, except the back wasn’t high enough for me to sit up as we flew through the woods at thirty miles an hour. Because we literally snowmobiled from morning till night on these trips, that meant I had to lie on my back and stare at the sky for eight hours. Every bump jarred my body, and before twenty minutes had passed, I felt like a slab of veal locked in a meat freezer.
My father thought he was being kind. This way, I didn’t have to hold on to someone’s waist for hours, and he had included a pad.
When we arrived at a spot for lunch, I had to be shoehorned out of the sled. My mom would pull off my moon boots, put my stockinged feet as close to the fire as I could bear, and nestle my hands in her armpits. I would cry—from the pain of the warmth charging back into my extremities and from what I would now call the injustice of it all.
No one ever questioned if the boys should have their own machines, even though the adults routinely called the boys reckless and wild, even though this man I had a crush on (and most of the others) crashed more than once.
“I can’t believe they made you ride in that sled,” he says. “I don’t know how anyone thought that was a good idea.” He now has three daughters of his own.
It’s early March, four months after my father’s funeral. The temperature hasn’t climbed to forty-three degrees in ages, so I lace up my shoes and go running. As I near home, five snowmobiles roar past me in the ditch. A few seconds later comes the familiar smell of exhaust.
A woman runs along the road; my girl self is back in that sled. Gasping squeaks escape me, and my dog, who’s been pulling on her leash the entire run, now keeps turning around, wondering what she can do to help.
I understand my parents wanted to include me in what the family was doing. I was maybe too small to handle a big machine on my own to begin with. Plus, I grew up in a generation where we routinely climbed sixty feet up a rope to the gymnasium ceiling with only a three-inch pad over the skull-crushing floor. It’s not the safety—or lack thereof—that bothers me.
What bothers me was my place. For years, I was an object, dragged behind everyone else—the ones who could make things happen.
Today, I am the one driving a powerful machine and dragging my daughter around, and it is exactly what she wants to be doing.
It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and our lake teems with traffic: jet skis, pontoons, motorboats pulling people on skis or tubes. Like I’m pulling my daughter, for the first time.
In the past, we had to sit on shore and watch. Now we’re in our vintage speedboat, circa 1975 (which, my husband points out, is about when I was being dragged around in the sled). Sparkling brown with mustard seats, the boat sports an eight-track tape player that came with The Best of the Bee Gees. We picked it up yesterday. Actually, my brothers picked it up.
My husband and I were having a party to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary, and my brothers drove up to join us. Since neither of our cars could pull the heavy boat, we asked if they’d be willing to pick it up and bring it to the landing on the other side of our lake.
As I talked with the other guests and refilled the bread basket, I kept looking across the lake, waiting to catch sight of the boat, which my husband had bought without me ever laying eyes on it. Later, I heard a rumble, and I saw a deep-hulled monster barreling toward us. My middle brother, wearing that shit-eating grin of his, blasted the horn. Every three seconds.
My father built the sled and wouldn’t let me drive my own machine (I cannot recall if I ever asked him if I could, or if I ever asked why I could not). He tried to have big dreams for me—he hoped I would get a degree in international relations and work for the UN. He also expected me to be a stay-at-home mom. He didn’t know what he wanted for me.
Maybe that’s why I don’t know what I want for me. How can I move forward when I might make a mistake? Things aren’t going well? It must be my fault. I’m terrified all of the time—for instance, I don’t want to go tubing because the fish with teeth might attack me from below and I don’t want my husband to drive because he might go too fast and kill us.
And yet today, I drive the boat.
“Is she having fun?” I yell to my husband.
“Yes!” He sits in the seat next to me, wearing his swimsuit. Facing backwards, he laughs as our daughter flies over the waves I seek out, the waves I make. Waves that are so huge, I shriek when the boat hits them.
My father never shrieked when he pulled us. With surprisingly tan arms for a Swede, he drove our blue boat with ease and control.
When I find myself—woman self, girl self, terrified self—in my father’s place, pulling a girl behind me, I start to cry.
As a doctor, my father watched people suffer and die. When he was diagnosed with incurable leukemia, my father’s relationship to suffering and death shifted—he became their subject: he suffered, he died.
Near the end of his life, he asked me to sit on the side of his bed one afternoon. In a voice softened by illness and fatigue, Dad said he was sorry he’d been a hard man to live with. He said he was proud of who I was and what I had done. He said, “I love you.”
Had he ever said that to me before? How could I not remember something like that?
He closed his eyes, tired from the conversation.
When I got up to let him rest, I saw my father’s leg sticking out from beneath the sheet. Nothing left but yellow skin and bone.
“Dad?” I said. He opened his eyes. “I love you, too.”
“God, Mom,” my daughter pants as she climbs in the boat, “you’re a great driver.”
My first impulse is to argue, but she’s right. How did that happen?
I thought I spent my youth looking at the cute family friend with his feathery blond hair and dreamboat blue eyes, but a part of me must have been watching my father, to learn how things were done, the same way he had learned how things were done as a boy.
This begs the question, did my father have a sled? Something that made him feel helpless and small, even though it might have been done in the name of love?
I look at the sun catching the water beads on my daughter’s body as she moves to let her father climb onto the tube.
“Do you want to drive?” I ask her.
“Nah. If there’s a rock in this lake, I’ll find it.”
I could make her take the wooden wheel. I want to.
Or I could let her decide what she will and will not do.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.