by James Bates
It was the first really warm day after a long cold winter. My wife Elise wanted to spend some time with our eldest daughter so I dropped her off at Emily's house and went to nearby Lake Harriet, one of the city's most charming lakes, to hang out for a while. I sat on a park bench in the sun watching the world go by: young couples strolling hand in hand, grinning silly grins, head over heels in love; parents pushing strollers with their new born child bundled safely inside; kids running and joyfully splashing in puddles of melting snow, parents smiling and making no attempt to stop them; old folks taking their time, walking slowly, enjoying the pleasant day. All of it good. All of it uplifting. But, if that were the case, then why did I feel so melancholy?
I sat facing west, the early afternoon sun reflecting brightly off the snow covered lake. I slipped my sunglasses on. It'd be a few weeks before the ice would melt completely but no one cared; "Let's just get outside and enjoy the sunshine," was the rallying cry of the day, and people jumped to it.
Overhead planes staged in a raged line one by one, readying themselves for their final approach to Minneapolis's huge international airport. It was five miles behind me to the east, and the big tri-engine jets (737's mostly) seemed to float through the air as they began their decent, one after another, lowering themselves out of the sky, loud engines roaring through the peaceful afternoon.
Airplane noise doesn't bother me as it does most other people. I'm predisposed to like them because my dad had been a pilot. His only job his entire life was flying airplanes. He'd been a young pilot in the Navy in World War II and then flown for a major airline right up until the day he died at his home in Seattle at the relatively young age of forty-seven. "Heart attack," they said at the time. I always wondered if it had something to do with a little early morning fooling around with the woman he'd been married to at the time, a young lady only seven years older than me.
But that was a long time ago; a lifetime, really. So why was it memories of him were flooding back to me now, on this day, this sunniest of days in the middle of April? I was fifteen when he left, my two brothers much younger. Mom was only forty-two. But my memories today, though clouded by time (and probably romanticized a bit, too,) were not to be denied: Dad coaching my little league baseball team, Dad putting up football goal posts in the backyard for me to practice kicking, Dad taking home movies of our family around the Christmas tree, Dad teaching me how to care for a car, Dad talking to me about how to act around girls. Dad being a dad.
He left when I was fifteen, there was no doubt about that. He left and I never saw much of him after that. Eight years later he died.
Died, but didn't. He's still been with me, that smiling face of his, carried in my heart all these years. I was down at this same lake a few weeks after I'd heard of his passing. It was mid-July and hot. I had been out for a bike ride and not having much luck shaking the lost feeling I had at his death, knowing I'd never see him again. I had stopped at a bench, much like the one I was on now, and was looking out over the sparkling water, gazing at nothing really, thoughts turned inward. Suddenly, above the lake a vision caught my eye; a vision of a plane soaring across the sky, a cross between a jet and a passenger plane. I looked up and watched as Dad opened the cockpit window, dressed in his best pressed dark blue captain's uniform, looking natty. He waved and smiled and waved some more. I was filled with such a sense of peace, then, seeing him, that I nearly cried with joy. Well, truth be told, I did. I cried and then wiped the tears from my eyes and happily waved back. He was okay. He might have passed from this world, but he was going to be all right; he was still flying the planes he loved to fly.
Maybe that's what was happening now, on this sunny late winter day by the lake. Maybe each and every one of those planes flying by overhead was Dad's way of say, "Hi, there son. Good to see you."
Sound weird? Maybe, but I took it for what it was, Dad and I communicating each other in our own way, after all these years. And just like that, poof, my melancholy mood vanished. It was good to have him with me.
I pulled myself back to the present and went back to watching the parade of folks strolling by, everyone enjoying the sunshine and the warmth of the day. Overhead, plane after plane after plane continued to pass by, each one of them like so many memories of my dad still alive and carried inside me.
Suddenly, there was a petulant tap on my shoulder.
"Hey, Dad. What are you doing? Mom's worried."
I turned. It was my oldest son. I had been thinking about going to visit him before I'd been derailed by a beckoning park bench and a plunge into all those memories of my father. "Hey there Jeremy. Good to see you." I smiled at him.
My six year old grandson Seth ran up and gave me a big hug. "Hi Grandpa. Look at these." He pointed out his new rubber boots. Boots that were already spattered with mud. From what I could tell they had a Spiderman theme to them.
"Those look pretty sharp, young man."
Seth grinned and hurried off to a nearby puddle where he began an enthusiastic game of simply stomping around in it.
Jeremy walked around the bench. He was tall and he hovered over me, blocking the sun. He asked again, his tone pinched and barely patient, "Dad what are you doing? Mom called me to check on you. She thought you might be down here. You didn't answer your phone. You have it turned off?"
I took my phone from my pocket and checked it. Damn. He was right, I had inadvertently turned it off. "Hey, I'm sorry. I screwed up."
Jeremy took out his phone and made a call. He and I had a close relationship. He lived in the city, not far from both the lake and his sister. We talked regularly and I saw Seth and his older sister Emily at least once a week when I drove in from where Elise and I lived twenty miles away in Long lake to take care of them after school.
I said, "I was just enjoying the sun and thinking about things. What are you guys up to?"
Jeremy was on the phone and held up a hand, "Yeah, Mom, I found him. He's fine. Okay. Yeah. Is it okay if we pick you up in a little while?" He turned to me and grinned, "Yeah, Mom, I'll tell him. Okay. I think maybe we'll go for a walk. I got Seth some new boots. It's a nice day out. Dad's good. Okay. I'll tell him. Bye."
Jeremy hung up, bent down, looked me in the eye and said, "Mom says to call her next time you decide to wander off all afternoon. If you don't there'll be hell to pay."
I smiled. I knew Elise wasn't really too mad, just concerned, and she was right. I would call next time. "I will," I told Jeremy.
"Good. Now, "He grinned and clapped his hands enthusiastically together, "How about if we all go for a little stroll and enjoy this wonderful day?"
I wouldn't have passed up a chance to spend time like this with my son and grandson for the world.
I stood up, "Let's go."
Seth ran over and took me by the hand and we all three started for the path around the lake.
As we walked, Jeremy clasped me on my shoulder and smiled, "Good to see you, Dad."
I grinned back at him and spontaneously gave him a tight hug, "Good to see you, too, son."
We started walking along the path, Seth running ahead, laughing. It was good to be with my family. I was a lucky man.
A minute later, while Jeremy and Seth were preoccupied throwing snowballs at the trunk of a large oak tree, I turned and waved once at a low flying passenger plane. Then I joined them in their game. I hadn't bothered to tell Jeremy that his grandfather would be joining us on our walk. Not today anyway. Maybe I'd tell him some other time. For now, it'd just be my little secret.
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