When I was 18, during the summer following my first year in college, my dad and I took a road trip from Santa Cruz, California to the East Coast. On the first leg, we drove 26 hours to Chicago, taking turns to sleep in the back seat of our 1984 Dodge Aries station wagon while the other drove.
My dad was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut and graduated high school in Concord, New Hampshire, attending college at UNH. Eventually, he went to graduate school at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, Mass. My earliest memories are from that campus. Reaching across the breakfast table to take something from my little sister and knocking the coffee pot over onto my left forearm, where I still have a scar. Standing and squatting with a gaggle of other toddlers around “the pee tree” where we all learned to urinate as a community on cue. Barreling down the vast grassy hill on my big wheel and putting out my foot to stop myself from careening over the retaining wall into the part of the parking lot where the dumpsters resided. I broke my leg and was still wearing a cast when my dad took his first call to a church in North Bennington, Vermont.
The furthest point from home we reached on our cross-country drive in 1991 was Maine. Some old friends of my parents said that we could stay in their cabin on Kezar Lake. It was a quintessential Maine cabin, rustic but comfortable, with a creaky wooden porch. Large windows in the main room faced the woods behind the cabin. One day we sat in rocking chairs looking out those windows and I asked my dad, “If you could choose anyone to walk out of those woods right now, who would it be?” He thought for a moment, then said, “Barbara.” Barbara is my mom. I was incensed. “Dad, we just left mom a week ago and you’ll see her in another week. Why did you pick her?” “I don’t know,” he said, “I miss her.” Now married myself, I can understand why he picked my mom. Your life partner is irreplaceable and extended periods away from them can hurt on a visceral level. “I thought you would have said Jesus,” I argued, “Why didn’t you say Jesus?” “Because I’m afraid of what he would ask of me,” my dad said. To this day, it strikes me as one of the most honest and realistic things I’ve heard someone say.
There were canoes at the cabin so we chose some life vests and a couple of paddles and carried the canoe to the water. Now that felt like Maine. We may as well have been in an L.L. Bean catalogue photo shoot. It was a gorgeous day. We crossed a little expanse of lake, then carried the canoe and set it in the water again just over a small hill. We paddled for a couple of hours. It was idyllic. Until the afternoon wind picked up. Paddling a canoe against the wind is a Herculean task. Not fun. Not relaxing. Finally we reached the small spit of land just before the last bit of lake we would need to cross to get back to the cabin. The wind was really blowing. My dad suggested we put our things in the canoe and swim across. I was not convinced. “I can do it,” I said, “You swim, I’ll paddle.” I gave it a good effort, like any over-confident 18 year-old might. But alone in the canoe, the wind kept blowing me in circles. I tried and tried until my whole body hurt. Finally, I threw up my hands in exasperation. At which point, the wind flipped the canoe, with me in it, upside down. I came up spitting water, disoriented, and heard a sound I can still hear today – my dad laughing in an uncontrolled kind of way, a full body laugh he could not, and did not want to, contain.
All of our things in the canoe had fallen into the water. I was able to salvage them, then drag our water-filled canoe to the edge where my dad was waiting to help draw it up and tip it over so we could carry our sopping selves back to the cabin. “Canoe Man!” he said, chuckling. “What?,” I replied.” “Canoe Man!,” he repeated, obviously proud of the new moniker he had created for me. “Shut up,” I said, now wet and shivering in the wind. He continued laughing. “Let’s back to cabin, Canoe Man, and get warm.”
Canoe Man. My dad didn’t let me forget that story for the following decade, the decade of my 20’s. I didn’t relish his retelling, especially when we were around people whose opinion of me I care about. It wasn’t until I hit my 30’s that I could embrace my inner, and outer, Canoe Man. Canoe Man thinks he’s in control of every situation, or at least that he has the wherewithal to control his own fate in every situation. Canoe Man thinks that if he just tries hard enough he can turn back the wind. Most of the time, Canoe Man does just fine. Except when he doesn’t. Like when a relationship goes sour or when his best friend dies or when he slips into a funk and just can’t pull out of it. Canoe Man tries and tries and tries, but the wind always wins. He throws up his hands and he gets unintentionally baptized again. Baptism is as much about death as it is about life. Sopping wet and blessed by his own failure, he crawls out of the water, pulling his waterlogged vessel behind him to the sound of someone laughing with delight, someone who loves him, someone who has been there before.