One of my earliest memories is of my father storming into the downstairs playroom with a stack of records that I loved listening to and snapping them into shards while I cried. As I recall, one of his records had been scratched. I’m not sure if the scratch had been my fault, but that was no matter. This is how justice works when mixed with abject frustration.
One night, I awoke in that same room. As I stood in the streetlight glow through the parted curtains, I saw the silhouette of our menacing pinball machine, and beside it our monstrous, chipped-brown spring horse. I knew this as the playroom, but with no memory of how I came to be standing there at three in the morning, aged four, I screamed. And I screamed and screamed until my father ran down the stairs and rescued me. He returned me to bed, assured me all was well, and lulled me back to sleep. I never sleep walked again, and he soon started his new life in a nearby town.
It wasn’t until much later, and especially now as a father myself, that I would come to understand — even sympathize with — the complications of his life at the time. I try my best to keep my own frustration at bay and play up compassion around Noodle. My father did the same. Neither of us have perfected this gentle art. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the good man doesn’t always get it right. Perfection needs no redemption, and I have yet to come across anyone who wouldn’t profit from meeting a savior.
Soon after the sleep walking incident, on a cheerful summer day, my brother, my mother, her neighborhood friend and her two teenaged daughters — our regular babysitters took a picnic to a local park. I know that it was a hot day because the neighbor’s car, in which we pooled, had electric windows with dead motors and no air conditioning. Since then I have always thought that cars with electric windows should come with backup cranks, much as every car comes with a spare tire. By the time we arrived at the park, we were baking, ready to spread out in a shaded picnic spot and wait for cool evening to fall.
Ducks filled a pond and its banks and they followed people who carried sandwiches . They spied us and waddled behind as we skipped past holding our lunches high. We walked down a shallow hill, and across a bridge over a small stream fed by water falling from the pond. I paused on the bridge to watch the water. This may have been the first time I had ever seen such a thing. It was not raging. It was peaceful. It was unlike anything I had seen at any school playground or day to day play spots near our house. I remember being intrigued by the sound, the popcorn static that you could tune out to a calm whooshing backdrop against which the birds’ songs whistled clear. As I listened I watched the flow, the ripples covering the rocky stream bed, the sun glistening off them between the tree branches in the breeze. And yet, as alluring as the waterfall was to a little kid like me, I could not touch it. But I wanted to. Oh, did I want to explore it, to feel its splashes while I listened closely, in and out of the whoosh whoosh — the unending whoosh.
Through the water, I heard my mom call my name and I followed to a stand of trees where they were spreading out the picnic. I don’t remember many details — just that there was shade, sandwiches, probably sodas and chips. Nothing out of the ordinary, as nothing ever was. The grownups sat talking and cooling off while my brother, the babysitters, and I took some heels of bread to feed the ducks. We walked back over the stream, and I paused again at the waterfall. Again, captivated. I wondered if it would ever stop. I wondered how it could keep going and going, how it could be that the pond didn’t dry up with all this water pouring out of it all day, every day, unending.
Through it again, I heard my name and had to catch up on the hill.
Our only instruction had been to not walk on the road, but to get to the shore where the ducks were, we had to, unless we scaled a narrow path between the guardrail and the water’s edge. A concrete drain pipe connected a higher pond to this lower one from under the road. There was a short brick wall leading to the pipe, and the others had already held their arms horizontal, shuffled one foot in front of the other, and crossed before I caught up. I didn’t want to go. They egged me on. But I felt unsteady. I was wearing my new sneakers, and I wasn’t sure-footed in them quite yet. If you want to feed the ducks, you have to cross. You’ll be fine.
Mid way, I slipped on the wet concrete. I fell into the water, just higher than I could jump off the bottom of the pond. I thought again of my new sneakers. Now they were wet, and that worried me. Would they shrink and would they still fit? I had picked them out myself a couple of days prior, carefully surveying styles and colors zeroing in on a black and yellow bumble bee themed pair that I felt perfectly suited my personality. As a little kid, picking out one’s own new shoes is a rare expression of autonomy and independence. Decisions are infrequent offerings, and now it was a poor decision that had gotten me under this water. Still thinking of the sneakers, I wondered what my mother would say when she saw them soaked. Would she be mad? No. It’s a hot day .They’ll dry off at the edge of the picnic blanket in the sun and breeze when we get back. I’ll wear them home.
My attention shifted and it occurred to me that I needed to get out of the water. Quickly. I saw the brick retaining wall and I reached for it. I remember clawing at it with my fingernails, but it was covered in slick moss and I slipped off. I kicked at it and against it with my bumble bee sneakers, trying to pop my head above the water, but the surface was tantalizingly just out of reach. I tried two, maybe three times. Then I stopped.
By all accounts, drownings look rather peaceful from the outside. I can tell you that, surprisingly, it’s not so bad from the inside either. I stopped kicking and drifted. As I drifted I pictured the waterfall, and I imagined seeing myself tumbling over it, landing dead at our pleasant summer picnic, another part of the family split off. I could feel my hair waving in the water, and through the ripples I could see a bird gliding overhead. I remember imagining that I could glide through the air like the bird, and through the water like a fish, and across the Earth like a phantom.
Another sudden shift and the bird’s perspective was my own. I blacked out, drifted up, and watched below for a little boy to land at the waterfall’s base.
My next memory is waking mid-retch in the process of sitting up. I sat and spat a stream of water and spat and spat some more. I was surprised to see so much water come out of my body. I wondered when it would end and I considered how strange it must have looked to the crowd gathered around. I don’t remember the babysitters’ faces, or anyone’s faces for that matter. I remember looks of confusion. I don’t blame any of them. Witnessing a jolt from walking to dying is a difficult shift to grasp, though now and forever I see flashes of it all around me. It used to frighten me, overwhelm me in the years following the day at the duck pond. But now it is a matter of course. My life is a series of survived instants.
One man had recognized the drowning for what it was, and thinking back, it makes sense. I imagine that he had seen war, but he was not a hardened man. He was strengthened with compassion, and extended what he had to save me. He had probably felt this same shift that I was feeling — between life and doom — when his arm had been blown off. He gave me his remaining hand, took mine gently, and pulled a calm little boy from the water.
I don’t remember any words. After retching and coughing and collecting myself, I remember watching the man in a red and navy, horizontally-striped polo shirt walking away, one sleeve flapping in the breeze on which the birds were still gliding. I never saw his face. If somehow he revealed himself right now, I would not speak to him. No, I would probably cry and smile, laugh nervously, and I would kiss his face like a son to his father. There would be no need for any other exchange, because he would see that I have lived everything he taught me in that instant.
Yesterday while I washed dishes, Noodle trashed the living room and spilled a glass of juice on my notebook. I stormed into the room when I heard the unmistakeable clatter-splash, barking for him to get a towel — FASTER! I rescued my notebook, sopped up as much of the liquid as I could before it dribbled across the table and on the carpet. While I barked and sopped, Noodle stood quietly, repeating “I’m sorry.” His chin sank to his neck. “I’m sorry.” His cinnamon eyes watched, calmly, as I worked furiously to undo what had been done.
Later that night while I was sitting in my corner chair writing, Noodle stirred in his room. It’s winter here and when the sun sets a ghastly chill rolls off the sea and through our windows. We always cuddle and tuck Noodle and set him up as the ring leader of his posse: Knuffle Bunny, Honey Bear, Shark Bear, Super Cow, and Mr. Pickle. Occasionally when he stirs, one of the posse will fall off the bed. This kid has slept through house parties, incessantly barking dogs, and once even Fourth of July fireworks. But he’ll blink awake at Honey Bear’s silent tumble.
I heard him fiddle with the knob, give it a couple of clumsy twists, and pull open the door. He stood squinting, chin down, one hand balancing on the doorknob, one rubbing an eye, and he asked through tears where Honey Bear went. I put down my notebook, went to him and took his hand, led him back to bed, found Honey Bear just outside of his reach, and re-tucked the two of them. He let his eyes fall closed as I whisper sang a couple of verses from an old American song. He drifted away, and I watched until his lips parted and his eyes shifted back and forth behind their lids.
Sometimes I can’t imagine what it must be like to wake up with a three year old’s sense of alone. Surely Honey Bear and the others come to life and keep him company all night, perhaps because I am not with him. It’s the most time we spend apart at a stretch, and to be honest, it’s no easier for me. I’ve just learned to manage better than a little boy, surviving instant to instant most of the time.
But then my imagination calls back to the spilled juice, and I can’t conceive what it must be like to wake up and hear Daddy’s bark ringing in your ears. Do these moments of singing and rescue wash away the spatter of mundane daily frustrations? Am I making my frustrations his? In what will certainly be a grab bag of Noodle’s memories of me, I hope hope hope that when he reaches for one, he gets a rescue rather than a shouted insistence that father knows best, because in reality he doesn’t. He’s just doing the best he can. And we all become our fathers.
For a time, I thought that my survival beyond the water was enough. I thought that I could model my life on my savior. I thought that sacrifice would frame a re-made me, as if I had it in me to undertake an existential reconstruction in grade school. But it turns out I’m no savior. I am the saved.
I guess mine is a story of second chances, though sometimes I think it might be little more than good fortune or that elusive sense we often call fate. Whatever it is, I’m here. I’ve got a boy now and like any parent, I want to give him a future better than my past. But for as hard as I try, I know — and I’ve known since I was four years old — none of this is certain. Not even the memories we make. Still, I’m giving him the best I can, and I hope his memories of me won’t one day need their own redemption, as mine have.
A good man stepped up when my dad wasn’t there to pull me out of that pond. I can tell you the kind of emptiness that leaves you is sometimes as terrifying as monsters under the stairs and ghosts in the neighbours’ windows. It’s taken me a while to make peace with that gap and to fill it back in. This is that story.
From another angle, this is the story of how I’ve learned to be there for my son. You could say I’ve felt the gentle touch of some kind of salvation, and my son feels the same every time I offer my hand and he takes it and holds on. That’s all a little boy needs. To know we’re together and it’s going to be alright.
As I reflect on the one-armed man, I consider his lonely existence. He didn’t stick around long enough to collect his heroism. There would be no television news crew to interview him, to cobble together his back story, to splash his wounds and redemption across the screen, while the purveyors of the story collect advertising revenue at his and my expense. No. He is a savior, and there are saviors among us everywhere, unnoticed and undiscussed but flexing their influence when we least expect it — often in an instant before vanishing. The one-armed man simply left me alive. No fee. No exchange of any sort. No flash photography, and no proof. I guess what he really did was to give me the possibility of belief. That’s what saviors do. That’s what fathers do. That’s the good man.