We stood alone among the rocks and oyster shells, surrounded on all sides by water. Somewhere beyond the water lay the land and the noise of the daily grind, but here now the only sound was the gentle lapping of the slow rising tide against the side of our tandem kayak which was moored to a large piece of driftwood a few paces from where we stood. Beneath our feet was Rock Island, as we had become accustomed to calling it. Presently it was no more than 100 feet at its widest point, a small patch of algae covered rocks, shells, and mud peeking forth from the surface of a small creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. But soon, as part of the daily tidal dance, it would again sink back beneath the surface like a giant sea turtle returning to the depths after rising for a breath of air.
Rock Island was just a short paddle from the house where I grew up and just a little further from the house where I presently lived with my wife and kids. I had stood on this very spot many times before, but not for several years. When I was a child the island used to be much wider, even containing green grass, but now it was diminished, devoid of greenery, and only surfaced at low tide. Weathered by time and climate change, at high tide the island was now a ghost, its presence below the surface only marked by the tattered solo white flag someone had staked to its center to warn passing boats.
The island was not the only thing that was changed; 3 decades earlier I had stood here as a boy with my brother Andy, who was now gone, with the same sense of wonder I now saw echoed on my son’s face as he bent down to study a school of tiny swimmers trapped in a tidal pool near his feet. He was about the same age now as I was when I first visited the little island. A lot had had changed since then: a man now, my brother gone, married and a father of three, a life full of responsibility. And yet when my son looked up at me, eyes full of wonder, smiling, I saw my reflection and I smiled back.
It’s an awesome responsibility to be a parent. To be their compass, their shepherd, their mentor. Some days the drudgery of it all and the stress and chaos of the modern world can get the best of you. No one is above that. But on some days…in some moments…like this moment…you are completely awestruck. And you realize how unbelievably lucky you are. And you to tell yourself to never forget this moment, because in a blink it will be gone.
With the warmth of the sun on my back I thought more about my brother and about the many adventures we had shared. I felt a great sadness that he never got to meet my kids, that he never got to have kids of his own. He would have been a great father. He would have enjoyed standing on this island with his child. In my mind I turned over the words of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.
“Maybe all I really know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman” Norman said speaking after his brother’s death. “You know more than that” his father responded, “he was beautiful”.
I bent down and picked up a flat rock and sent it skipping into the glimmering water beyond. My son smiled and grabbed a rock by his feet. A less than perfect effort, Ker-plunk! Skipping rocks was just one thing on an unending, ever growing list of things left to teach him. A father’s work is never done. But on today’s adventure he was the one teaching me. I watched his joyful smile, his eyes wide with wonder, his child like innocence, his curiosity, and all the signs of a mind free from the trappings and baggage that come with time, responsibility, and innocence lost. It was perfect. He was perfect. How do I keep him just like this? He was a reminder to never take the simple things for granted. To never lose my sense of adventure. My sense of wonder. To never lose site of the beauty all around us. It’s everywhere, if you’ll just awaken from adulthood and reopen your eyes. The child that lives within us all is a powerful thing. It must be revived. It must be cherished. It must be protected. There’s a purity there. A better world if we’re willing to look for it.
A hint of movement on the far shore reminded me it was time to return home soon. It was just a short paddle back to my wife and daughters, but the light was fading fast, there were chores left to be done, baths to take, and bedtime stories to read. But this kayak paddle with my son..this adventure…this magical visit to Rock Island..this would stick with me for a while. I closed my eyes efforting to imprint this magical memory forever in my mind. After several moments, when I opened my eyes again, I looked at my son. I watched him and I smiled. Because I knew for him, it was the same.
As we approached the shore I could see my wife in the yard playing with our 2 daughters. Only weeks before she had bought me this tandem kayak as a father’s day gift. Quite a gift it was proving to be. Maybe we’d save up for a 2nd one so someday soon we could all go for a paddle together as a family. What new adventures lay ahead for us? What new challenges would life bring?
I guess the only constant in life is change. That can be scary at times, but man…what a ride!
I cast one last glance back at Rock Island, now a speck in the distance, blanketed on all sides by a shimmering sheen of water illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. Again I was reminded of the words of Norman Maclean.
“Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Such beautiful, melancholy words. They speak to my soul as a reminder that it’s all fleeting, yet, your story will persist. What will your story be?