03 February 2016

The Little Green Raft

I remember the little green raft that sat in the middle of the water. A ladder on one side to climb up to the astroturf-covered deck (the cheap kind of astroturf, plastic and sharp) and then jump off one of the sides. I mostly remember going off the left or right, because the far side was the deep side.

I remember the two slides - big, blue fiberglass monstrosities that seemed to reach to the sky. Even the shorter of the two was daunting. The ladders onto them seemed to go up forever, and you could see the world from the top.

Further out was The Rope. The Rope was where the water got deep. Big kids played out past The Rope, but it was forbidden territory for smaller kids. Even in the arms of a parent, going past that rope was a frightening prospect.

These are my memories of the South Wilmington, IL Fireman's Club, a private-membership park with lakes carved from the old coal-mining days. Fishing, swimming, boating, camping, it was all there. Both before my parents divorced, and after when I'd spend a month or so each summer there, this is where my dad would take us on those hot days, to get some family time. I remember him scooping me out of the water and throwing me a hundred feet in the air. I remember coming up out of the water and hearing his big laugh over all the other sounds of people splashing, playing, laughing. And I remember doing it all over and over again.

The last time I was there was a few years back. To be honest, I can't even remember when. It was after I was an adult, and so some things struck me then: The slides weren't really all that big. The "deep end" of the little green raft was, maybe, three feet deep. The tosses through the air were probably four or five feet. The Rope that delineated the children and the teens was probably in six feet of water. And the big raft beyond the rope...well, to this day I can't say I ever set foot on that raft. First I was too little to play with the "big kids", and then I was grown and it would have just been odd.

But what didn't change for me was my dad. Larger than life, I never looked at him the same way I saw those other objects. He never "shrank" to fit my worldview. And part of that, I'm now realizing, is because I never actually knew him.

My parents divorced when I was around four. From that point on, I saw my dad during summer break, for a week around Christmas, and a short break around Easter. A lot of those times, he still had to work, so even then it wasn't a lot of time spent together. Aside from me, there was also my two sisters, a step-sister and step-brother, and a half-sister from his second marriage (as well as his new wife, my step-mom). Even during down-time for him, that's a lot of people to split his attention. We did spend time together, but it wasn't just our time.

Life is very strange, and becomes far more so as you get older. As I got older, I started going to visit 'up north' less and less. I had friends, we were running and doing stuff during our breaks from school. I think this is pretty normal. Teens generally spend less time with parents anyway, and when you add in the four-hour drive to get there, it just exaggerates that. I remember my dad coming down with his boat and spending a day or two with him on Mark Twain Lake. And he came down for the high school graduation for myself and my sisters. But those are the only times I really recall him coming to see us rather than us going to see him.

All of these thoughts are rattling around in my head today, and I'm sure they will be for a long time. Dad died two weeks ago. And it hurts, there's no doubt. But I keep coming back to one thought: Why doesn't it hurt more? And honestly, that hurts even worse. Because I know the answer. And I hate it.

There were people non-stop coming through his visitation for nearly 5 hours. All of them had such great things to say about what a great guy, a hard worker, and a great dad he was. But there was a little dagger in my heart to see the surprise on their faces when I (and my sisters) were introduced as his kids from his first marriage. More than one used a variation on the line of "I didn't know he had other kids."

One of the reasons that hurts is because I know it's at least partially my fault. Yes, there are other factors involved, and yes, I could write an anger-filled rant about those reason (and, I believe, be fully justified in doing so), but those are things I had no real control over. What I did have control over was actually just being there more often. I would be hard pressed to say for certain, but I believe I've seen my dad maybe four times in the last decade. Four times in ten years. There's always an excuse - work, kid in school, etc (there's a very real reason I've turned off "Cats In The Cradle" on the radio twice in the last two weeks). Everyone has those excuse, and they're all valid. But you don't know they're excuses until it's too late! And that's weighing on me.

Along with the people I've never seen before and will never see again at the visitation, I've been watching posts from family on Facebook. From my half- and step-sister and step-brother, talking about how huge of a factor he was in their lives and the lives of their kids, to my cousins, aunts, uncles, talking about how he was always there, to even his great-nieces and -nephews going on about "Uncle Lonnie." And there's a selfish part of me that is so very jealous of them.

They knew a completely different person than I ever did, and I'll never get the chance to know him the way they do. Even if he hadn't passed away, I wouldn't have had the lifetime of knowing him they've had. For part of my life, that was out of my hands. I don't blame anyone for that. That's just the way life goes. The second half of my life (so far), though, that's on my shoulders. I didn't want to cause 'waves' with some people, I didn't want to impose myself into a life already lived. So I visited on occasion, talked here and there. That's about it. I was a guest in my dad's house, not family. And that's really all I have left to remember. It hit me - very, very hard - today that I don't think I have a single photo of my kid with his grandfather. Not one.

I don't know if that little green raft is still there. I'm pretty sure the slides are gone. But I'm holding on to the memories I have of a big bear of a man, laughing as he tossed kids - his kids, and his nieces and nephews - around in the blue-green lake water in South Wilmington. I'm holding on to those, but wishing I had more.

3 February 2016