At the highest point of the Peak District, there is a waterfall that flows upwards.
'Nonsense,' my dad huffs when I tell him about it. For a man who has always wanted to visit the Peak District, he's in a dark mood. He has other things on his mind.
The thing is, he didn’t want me to come on this trip.
He told me about his plan three months ago, just after he got his diagnosis. 'It’s called a bucket list,' he’d said. 'It’s a list of things you want to do. And this is top of mine.'
Every day I went to see him, he had another item on his itinerary. Take a boat trip down the River Wye. Visit the alpaca farm. Go on a biking trail. Explore the caverns.
'That old lead mine below Winnats Pass, that's the one,' he said, jabbing at a brochure. 'That’s where I’m going. You know how old it is?' But then he interrupted himself with a cacophony of coughs, thunderous staccatos that left him hunched over, grasping at his chest.
'I’ll get you some water,' I said, but his barked reply made me freeze in place.
'Don’t!' He coughs once more, as if punctuating himself for emphasis. 'Don’t. I can do it myself.'
He is coughing a lot today too. Before we set out this morning he joked that the fresh mountain air would do him good. Looking at his frail form bent over double a few paces behind me, it seems as though it has done the opposite. When I walk back to him and place a gentle hand on his shoulder, he shrugs me off.
'I’m fine. Leave it.'
In front of the cancer nurses and the carers, my dad is another man. He is amiable, jolly even, tamely allowing them to fuss over him. He smiles as a nurse mops the side of his mouth with a napkin, patiently letting her dab away the thick yellow bile that seems to leak from his lips more and more. He thanks the carer who drops off his shopping for him, telling him what a help she is. With his doctor he tells jokes, pausing only to discreetly cough into his handkerchief. I do not clean my dad’s face for him, nor do I help him with his shopping. When I collect his fresh laundry and begin to fold it, he hisses at me to sit down. When I slide his cup of tea closer to him for easy access, he pushes it back—out of my reach, out of his reach too. He will put his life in the hands of strangers, but not in mine, so I sit next to him uselessly, doing nothing, saying nothing. I have shrunk back past my thirties, twenties, sped back through puberty and back to my helpless ten year old self.
When I was a little girl, my dad taught me how to ride a bike. He held the bike steady as I peddled, making sure it didn’t wobble. Then, once I had successfully completed three dad-assisted laps of the garden, he took his hands off the bike. A few seconds later I smacked face down in the grass, knee smarting as it scraped the ground and bike wheels spinning at full tilt in front of my eyes. I can still see my dad looking down at me apologetically. He had let go. He had let me fall. I was his little girl and I had scraped my knee on his watch.
That is how things go, isn’t it? Parents protect. Children are protected. When the tables turn, it’s something unnatural, something perverse. It’s a sunbeam that casts no light, ice that’s hot to the touch, time flowing backwards.
My father looks at me and sees a ten year old clumsily puppeteering a middle aged woman’s body. Yet this frail man, bent like a tree pushed by strong winds, is not the father my ten year old self looked up to. He is the last version of my father I will ever have, and that makes him the most precious.
After he told me about the trip, I lay awake each night with worst-case scenarios playing in my head like a movie I could not turn off. My dad tripping and falling, my dad getting lost in the mountains, my dad carried along by the currents of the rivers. I knew he would resent me inviting myself along, but I had to do it. I had to do it for his own good.
I knew if he heard those last three words he might never forgive me.
The craggy rocks around us are steep, and I wonder if taking my dad to see the waterfall was a mistake. We climb slowly, stopping every time my dad needs to catch his breath.
He needs to catch his breath often.
As I watch his chest rise and fall with what seems to be a herculean effort, I contemplate heading back down the mountain. We are almost at the top, but the air grows fiercer the higher we climb, as if to push us back where we came from.
My dad cannot make this climb. I was irresponsible to make him try, irresponsible not to consider whether he could do it.
Would one of his nurses have failed him this way? Would his carer—sunny-haired, sunny-faced Sheryl, who comes every afternoon to make lunch for him—have made him walk a path he could not finish? I have grabbed him into my unsteady, inexperienced hand and now I cannot lift his weight.
My dad was right to push me back when I tried to help him, right to tell me to sit and watch and let the professionals do what I cannot. This is what happens when you try to make a clock’s hand run in the wrong direction.
'I’m sorry,' I say.
A stuttered cough. A furrow of the eyebrows. And then, 'For what?'
'All of it. Inviting myself on this trip even though I knew you wanted to do it alone. Interfering and fussing over you when you hate it. Making you climb this stupid great hill to see some silly waterfall that probably doesn’t even really flow upwards—'
That’s when my dad points. I follow the path of his finger, past the flint grey rocks all around us and the little tufts of fresh grass to the distance, where I see it. The waterfall.
Cascading down the cliff is Kinder Downfall, a stream of fizzy white water tumbling down to a bed of rocks below. It’s beautiful and humbling and not what I wanted to see at all.
'There you go then,' I say, turning back to my dad and sighing. 'There it is, going in the same direction as every other waterfall on the planet. I’m sorry for that too.'
A strong gust of wind knocks against us, making my dad wobble unsteadily, and I quickly catch him, grabbing hold of his shoulders to keep him on his feet. He opens his mouth—to scold me, I already know, can already hear whatever admonition he’s about to bark at me—but nothing comes out. He’s not even looking at me, I realise, but over my shoulder at Kinder Downfall.
I wheel around on my heel, and Kinder Downfall sprays up water in an impossible jet. The high wind is carrying the water up in triumphant sprays, a defiant disobedience of everything I understand about the world. Behind me, I hear a wonderful rumble I haven’t heard for years - my dad is laughing in joy, a genuine belly laugh.
As the wind howls around us, the waterfall continues gushing upwards. When the water finally reaches its mutinous peak it does not give in to nature and return down to the earth below, but instead evaporates into smoky tendrils of steam.
When I look back, my dad is leaning against a rock, smiling with a brightness I didn’t know could still cross his features for me.
The wind brushes around and against us, and then retreats. I hear the gurgle of Kinder Downfall behind me as it returns to its typical path down the cliff once again, greeting the rocks at the bottom with a gentle splish-splash. I join my dad, hoisting myself up to sit on the rock he rests against. For a while, we say nothing. Finally, my dad finds my hand and squeezes it tightly. He squeezes it like he is trying to impress the shape of his palm upon mine, to leave a permanent imprint of his life line against my own.
'Thank you,' he says, 'for showing me the waterfall.'
He lets me steady his shoulder as we walk back down the mountain.
About the author
Daisy Ravenel is a writer and part-time cat wrangler interested in the strange, the whimsical and the unexplained. She can be found on Twitter at @daisy_ravenel.
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