Fragments, Distant Melody
When I was a child, my father and I sat in the living room and listened to “his” music--mostly piano jazz in those days, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, Earl Hines and even Cecil Taylor--and then “my” music: the Beatles, The Kinks, Cream, Dylan. We’d listen carefully, my father jabbing at the air when Monk played a jarring chord or Bud Powell made a mistake--and then we’d argue, sometimes heatedly, over musicians and music, influences and relative significance. He took music seriously, though he often talked while we listened, drowning out the very passages he enthused over, blurring the nuances I wanted him to hear. But the talking didn’t really matter: Listening to music, for my father, was a way of being attentively alive, a way of being present. It seemed to wake him up to all sorts of pleasures, refreshing and invigorating his enthusiasms. And though even as a child I found his need to “win” our discussions to be frustrating, limiting and peripheral to the real experience of listening, I also enjoyed his fierce energy and passion, and I felt very close to him at those moments. All through college and graduate school I brought records home with me when I visited, and we listened together, just the two of us, and we shared something important and satisfying.
I loved the way he looked at me sometimes when we’d found some music we both understood and were listening carefully, hardly moving our bodies, heads cocked to one side, eyes mostly staring into space. I almost felt, in those rare moments, that we held the music between us, that it was literally ours.
More than three decades later, my father drowned while snorkeling, with hiswhole family nearby. While we swam in the beach-side pool and read books in the shade, he put on flippers and mask, duck-walked into the balmy clear water, and pushed off. He was holding a pink styrofoam float. He didn’t say goodbye: he didn’t know he was going. He pushed off from the beach and simply disappeared.
The imprint of his flippers stayed there in the sand, even as we walked up and down the beach, squinting out at the glinting blank water.
I wonder whether he called out for help while we talked or laughed and didn’t quite hear him; I wonder whether he waved, drowning, while we watched his grandchildren doggie-paddle across the pool.
The water was calm and easy to swim in; the water was teeming with brightly colored fish.
All through my childhood, both my parents drank with enthusiasm, and they lived an active weekend social life. Drinking seemed to bring out the worst in both of them, in different ways: For a few years of my childhood they argued violently and incoherently far into the night while we children huddled in one or the other of our bedrooms and tried to understand what was happening, and tried to decide what we should do. There was always music blaring loudly enough to blur exactly what my parents said. But their voice-tones came through: tauntings and curses. And a deep, blurry sense of loss.
In the morning one of the towel racks in the guest bathroom might be bent; the lights might still be on all over the house; food might be spilled across the kitchen counter, and record albums--78’s and 33’s--would be strewn across the living room floor. On those weekend mornings, the whole house felt eerie and hushed. If I went upstairs and stood outside my parents’ bedroom, I could hear them both snoring heavily, lying side by side, maybe even hugging. I didn’t understand, and somehow the feeling behind my lack of understanding was connected to the music that blared behind their arguments: Bud Powell’s fierce arpeggios, Charlie Parker’s bursts of flight.
On those weekends my parents often slept until almost noon--and then, when they got up, they needed silence. They would talk quietly. Everything would seem to be almost all right again. I remember watching my father, those afternoons, to try to understand what had happened, who my parents had really been, the night before. I watched the way they talked to each other, the way they moved through the quiet house.
I wanted to ask my father something, but I didn’t know exactly what to ask.
And then, at a certain point, my parents stopped fighting.
I love the silence of snorkeling, filled only with the sound of my own steady breathing, a sound we rarely hear and even more rarely attend to. I also love the feeling that I might be flying, of moving along at some height above the ground, watching the sunlight flicker across the sand and rocks and coral, watching fish and other shapes move through the landscape below. Snorkeling, when the mask isn’t leaking or fogging, is a time to listen to the music in my head and think of nothing but my breathing and the world below. I am so fully present I’m nowhere at all.
And that’s what I think my father loved about snorkeling too. I think he loved being so absolutely in his body that his body seemed to vanish, and I think he loved to listen to the music in his head.
But like most sons, I don’t think I ever had a clear sense of who my father really was when he was alone.
About two-hundred yards off the shore of Grand Turk Island, the water suddenly drops from a depth of about thirty feet to a depth of over 7,000 feet. It is a sheer wall, straight down, and it is astonishing and awe-inspiring to see through a mask: One moment one is swimming above coral and sand and fish, looking down at one’s own shadow crawling across the floor; then there’s the cliff, and one’s shadow becomes simple darkness, just depth. The feeling of swimming over that wall is like suddenly being able to fly, like flying in a dream--or, I imagine, like feeling the power to truly improvise, to leave a tune behind and sail off into the known-unknown. And then to fly back, to make it all make sense. Like opening one’s arms and kicking a little and floating out over the Grand Canyon, looking down and down at the impossible ache below. It was frightening and fascinating at once, and I went out there a few times before I could convince my wife and then my son to go out there with me, just to feel what it looked like, just to understand where we were: on a mountain in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!
I knew my father would love that sensation. When I asked him if he wanted to swim out with us, he said not now; maybe later...
My father loved the daily things and people of the world.
He noted, a few days before he disappeared, that there were hardly any birds on that island. A few osprey, a few pelican, and a hummingbird in the bushes outside the screened dining room where we ate breakfast. There were conch shells everywhere, scattered like the styrofoam debris on the beaches in Miami after a holiday weekend. In the mornings we saw what looked like snake tracks, many of them, of different sizes and patterns, in the beach sand beside the scrubby bushes. The sun is unrelenting; there’s virtually no shade.
Two nights before my father disappeared, we ate dinner beside the beach and looked up at the billion glinting stars in the wild sky and we talked, quietly, as we drank wine and whiskey. We felt good and thankful and happy to be together.
On the day my father disappeared, five skinny horses came to the beach where we swam; they kneeled in the water and thrashed around a little and splashed each other and themselves in the salt water. They ate some scrubby desert grass and walked slowly away. There were hummingbirds in the bushes; an osprey called from an Australian pine.
On the day my father disappeared, Matthew and I went snorkeling and then we read and talked. At a certain point my mother asked where’s Arthur and we began to look, more to do something than because we were worried. He’s probably exploring; you know Arthur; he’ll be back soon...
I walked with my brother-in-law up the beach, looking out at the ocean for my father. He walked, I noticed, as though he really was worried and I thought maybe I should be worried too. But I wasn’t worried, really, not until we got back from our search and saw my sister and mother pacing the beach, looking out to sea, as dusk gathered around them like a swarm of gnats.
We stood on that beach and looked out to sea as the same darkness fell that falls every night.
And I see myself swimming out, looking down at fish and coral. I listen to my own music as I swim out and out until the water turns dark blue, then just dark. I imagine that wall, that falls sheer for over a mile, and I imagine the creatures that live there, the dragons and monsters of the deep, as I hold my breath and swim down, down, to see if I can pull myself deep enough to find some remnant of my father, some token, maybe, to bring back to land.
Eventually, inevitably, I run out of air, and I’m forced to return to the surface.