After our return to Depot Bay on Tuesday, August 25th, I received an email from my wife saying that my father had died at 4:30pm the previous day. He was 93 years old.

At that time we on Arctic Tern had just arrived at our most remote location to date. The closest airport was 300 miles away, but behind us ice moved down on a strong NE wind, blocking a retreat up Prince Regent Sound, and ahead, Franklin Strait had yet to shake itself of winter. We were fighting to maintain an anchorage free of ice and had no hope of escape until something shifted ahead. In our quest for the Northwest Passage, we were now at our most committed and vulnerable. Against this the news of my father’s death hit hard, but it failed to surprise.

  • Retrieved from the baby sitter’s house at night. Limp body lifted to the car. Cold night air wakes me. From his shoulders a boy is shown the constellations.
  • Morning pancakes at a road side diner outside Stockton. We two sit at the counter. The edges of cake are crispy and the butter, soft and salty. It is a man’s world, the diner. Truck drivers and retirees chatting in the corner. It feels a secret world I’d been let into, though it is but a work trip for him and a stint of summer vacation with dad for me.
  • Tying a bowline “the way we learned it as Merchant Marines.” I watch his hands work the line. I think them very strong. Once when we live in Alaska, I go for a row in our dinghy and get swept by the outgoing tide. The Coast Guard rescues me with their ship’s tender. When they toss me a line, I whip a bowline in the end so fast that the tender pilot pays me a compliment. My pride at that far outweighs the shame of rescue.

Dad had been declining for several years. When I announced in 2010 that I would attempt a solo cruise in my small boat, he was already having trouble holding a conversation. Over time, repeated small strokes had taken their toll. Still, my adventure interested him deeply, and he wished to help me plan. We would talk for hours about the differences between compass variation and deviation, for hours because he couldn’t quite remember which was which. And then he couldn’t remember that he didn’t remember.

  • Fishing for halibut with dad from an open boat in the channel outside Sitka. I am a teen. I have just discovered spitting; spitting, I know, is manly. “Why do you spit?” he asks. It is a gentle but pointed question. I never spit again.
  • An offhanded remark, “I know I am not good looking,” he says. I am a child then. My only context for handsomeness is my father. I am shocked by his admission; find it incomprehensible.
  • Fresh spring onions. He eats them with every dinner, for strength. Mother cleans a small bunch and lays them next to his plate in line with the flatware. He eats them with unusual gusto. I try to copy but cannot.
  • Family scrabble games—he always wins. He has a fine memory for facts and places, a keen sense of geography, and a large vocabulary which he enjoys using. Even with these advantages, however, he sometimes makes words up. I learn to question him. But often even these made-up words are in the dictionary, I find. I couldn’t believe it!

Conversations with him became tortuous. Dad knew he was failing to communicate; he became frustrated, frequently shutting down, and I did not always push to get through. Through to what? It was too difficult.

Then once about a year ago we fell into a bout of talking. It lasted over an hour. The subject, I think, was a particular musical band or instrument from his younger years in the Midwest. I say I think because we never got there. I asked him questions (Do they play trumpets? Do they march? Is it a school band? Are they from Chicago? Do they dance? Is it Polka? Were they your friends? Did they use sheet music?) and Dad would answer “yes” or “no” but then often change his mind. Sometimes a question would create a spark; he’d attempt to form the word for this sudden flash and fail. He’d strike at the word with his head, then sink back. I’d resume my query, two men playing 20 questions, neither knowing the answer. What was different, though, was that we were BOTH trying to get through. It was the trying, the joint effort, that was meaningful.

  • The loudest sneeze I’ve ever experienced. Slowly his face scrunches, his whole body rears back, and he simply explodes–hayeroof!–a roar that registers on the Richter scale. If you don’t see it coming, it can scare you right down to your toes. Mom screams from the next room; my sister jumps, then looks disgusted. No amount of complaining ever gets him to entertain a more civilized sneeze.
  • The smell of his mariner’s uniform, which hangs in his closet my whole young life, though he retires from the sea before I am born. It carries the rich scent of bunker fuel and grease, smells that, to a boy, bespeak the big world of heavy machinery, toughness, adventure. But each time I wear the coat I’m disappointed; it does not fit.
  • Everything to do with stories, he adores. He loves reading, writing, talking, even public address. But he can’t tell a joke to save his life. Once I attend a presentation dad gives to a group of seniors in Stockton. He opens with a joke, as is the fashion, but somehow manages to start with the punchline. Neither the talk nor he ever recovers.

By the time I left for the Arctic, Dad was essentially silent. Mom, his caretaker for years, reports he began to lose his famous appetite. His eyes couldn’t focus long on the television or distinguish it from the light in the kitchen. When we talked on the phone he couldn’t remember where I was. “Phoenix?” he said, when I called from Greenland. During my last visit home, I sat close to his chair and put my hand on his bare ankle. We sat this way most of the evening. When our eyes met he nodded his head as if knowing.

  • Playing baritone duets with him. I even transcribe (badly) hymns we can perform in church. He is a march-kick-march kind of musician, and I am embarrassed to play with him in public. But sometimes at home and in the privacy of our living room we hit upon such sweet harmonies together. We play the same song over and over, holding the last bright notes as long as our lungs will allow. We lean back, basking in our satisfaction.

For years I have been philosophical about my father’s always-immanent passing. “We get old; we die, and we have known this forever” I said. But I was leaving something out; something I couldn’t quite touch. Several times I began a eulogy for what was obviously coming, but couldn’t figure how to start. The file still sits empty on my desktop.

After all, what does one say?

  • When I am ten and my dad is 50, I suggest that if we each live to be as old as the patriarchs, that ancient generation whose span reached toward a thousand years, we will be very much the same age. He will be 1000 years old on my 960th birthday. We’ll be peers. We’ll be equally strong and equally wise! I am pleased with this deduction. Dad just smiles.

I hike out to Fort Ross the day after I get the news. Fort Ross is two buildings and all that remains of the Hudson Bay Trading Company’s post on the shores of Depot Bay. One of the buildings is derelict, but the other is kept up by the RCMP as an emergency shelter. Inside are beds, a stove, food, maps, and a log book to be completed by any who pass that way. It has become a tradition for yachts attempting the Northwest Passage to sign in. I write my name and address, my boat name, the year. Then I walk around taking photos. But just before leaving, I circle back and enter below my name, “In Memory of my Father, Roy Reeves, who died in California on Monday. He got me here.”

3 Comments on “Remembering

  1. Beautiful Randall very touching memories of your Father thank you for sharing them with us and for sharing so much of your journey by taking the time to write your blog. We really appreciated this. Hugs Randall and to you all from Tam & Maryxxxx

  2. I am so very moved by your “eulogy”, your memories, and although I scarcely know you, and did not know your father, I am weeping and deeply touched.
    Your neighbour, Mary W.

  3. Randall – I’m sorry for the loss of your Dad. The memories you list here are so endearing and it is clear he was a good man, a good dad and a very powerful and meaningful influence on who you are today. Sending you much love – Jaime

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