For the most part, a sailboat navigates through its world of wind and water not leaving a single trace of its passage. Nothing is consumed. Nothing is altered. The winds and the water are left in exactly the same condition for the next user. Sailing is forever.
—Michael B. McPhee, Sailing
When I was a boy, I was once fortunate enough to leave New York City to spend some time at a small lakeside camp upstate. Though I had spent the first part of my life on a farm, by that summer, I was a city-boy through and through, and I found most of what occurred at the camp wholly uninteresting. I longed to return to New York until the magical day that we were taken to the camp on the other side of the lake to learn how to sail in little boats called Lasers. I was enthralled from the moment I sat in one. I loved the shape of the sleek yellow hull. I loved the feel of the smooth sail fabric and the rough ropes that raised it. I loved the way the delicate wooden tiller trembled at my fingertips and how the little craft would change direction like a dragonfly with the slightest twitch of my hand. Most of all, I loved feeling the wind, invisible and cool, as it filled the sail and moved me forward, like a father’s strong hand pushing me across the deep green lake.
That summer, I spent every moment I could spare in a Laser, and those days left in me an indelible love for sailing. Perhaps because of that love, I have (almost) always lived close to water, never wanting to be far from the chance to step onto a sailboat — the simpler, the better — to recapture that magical feeling I experienced as a child. As soon as my boys were old enough, we took to the water in what is known as a “Flying Scott,” the small six-person craft one sees in summertime sailing on the Potomac River. I taught Enzo first, showing him how to set the sails and leave the dock, how to look out at the water and trees on the shore for signs of the wind, and how to move the boat across the river in unison with the wind. “Sailing,” I often said, “is like dancing with the wind, and the wind always leads.” Both boys loved their time at the tiller, and we often went out on a windy day after a storm, which is when one finds the greatest speed. Every outing had laughter and smiles, even the one when a sudden gust of wind as we were tacking capsized our boat, and we had to be rescued and towed back to shore.
I remember now that sailing was one of those activities, like listening to music or driving, that Enzo and I did in almost total silence. We communicated more with a look, a nod, or a wave of the hand than with words, developing, over time, our own wordless way to guide our little craft away from the city or back to its berth. Perhaps the moments watching Enzo as a boy shaping our path, finding his own way, learning to make decisions and give us orders filled me with hope and pride. Then, for the first time, I gathered a glimpse of the young man he would become: calm and steady, with easy movements and quiet leadership.
Those days with the wind in our sails have been much on my mind lately, as I count down the few weeks that remain before the first anniversary of Enzo’s death. For some reason, when I am alone, I look at the photos of the boys and me on the Scott and recall those moments of sunshine and spray, of speed and smiles. Sailing is, in some ways, the simplest of things but, in others, exceedingly complex. You can do everything correctly and yet make no progress — the wind, sun, and currents always have the final say. Sailing can make you feel powerful and powerless; perhaps its appeal and fascination lie in the opposite feelings it generates within the sailor. It is, moreover, a fitting metaphor for fatherhood itself: we make preparations, take precautions, teach our children everything we know, but we can never leave behind our own flaws and weaknesses. We are, in the end, at the mercy of forces we cannot control. Thinking about this situation, I recalled a passage from Yukio Mishima’s novel, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. The main character, a cynical boy named Noburo, believes that he is fortunate to have lost his father at a young age:
There is no such thing as a good father because the role itself is bad. Strict fathers, soft fathers, nice moderate fathers — one’s as bad as another. They stand in the way of our progress while they try to burden us with their inferiority complexes, and their unrealized aspirations, and their resentments, and their ideals, and the weaknesses they've never told anyone about, and their sins, and their sweeter-than-honey dreams, and the maxims they’ve never had the courage to live by — they'd like to unload all that silly crap on us, all of it!
He is not entirely wrong, and I often wonder now that Enzo is gone how many of my many shortcomings I imparted to him. Looking back and also noting his brother, I find solace in the thought that perhaps they are both smart enough to take from me only what is good and ignore those many defects they must see within me. On those days on the Potomac or the Chesapeake, with the breezes flowing with us and the telltales smooth against the sails as we sped across the waves, I like to think that Enzo saw me as a father trying to prepare him, even then, and as best I could, for manhood, and that he saw in sailing both the value of patience and self-control and also the nobility of acceptance of what is natural and beautiful in the world.
Now, as I approach the end of this first year without him, I sense something else that Mishima wrote in his novel:
Real danger is nothing more than just living. Of course, living is merely the chaos of existence, but more than that it’s a crazy mixed-up business of dismantling existence instant by instant to the point where the original chaos is restored, and taking strength from the uncertainty and the fear that chaos brings to re-create existence instant by instant. You won’t find another job as dangerous as that. There isn’t any fear in existence itself, or any uncertainty, but living creates it.
“Living is merely the chaos of existence,” he notes, and at times this past year, I have felt overwhelmed by life’s chaos. I have spent hours asking myself unanswerable questions, deciphering impenetrable messages, and looking to the past and present for the right words to help my loved ones and myself endure this most terrible year. As I reach its end, I am finding a kind of peace in the chaotic storm. My older son is gone, and I understand the finality of that departure. However, my younger son is alive, and I understand the responsibility that lives on. I have recorded the story of the boy whose life was cut short and continue to write the story of another boy who lives on. I have grieved beyond all imagining, but there have been pauses for laughter and joy when I recall those magical moments of parenthood that exist in my memory — an undying flame of love and remembrance that lights my way through the darkness.
So it is that as this year and journal finally draw toward their close on June 1, 2023, I realize that it is time Dino and I return to the Potomac and challenge the waters once again. The winds are still blowing, and there are days to share beneath the sun’s warm rays. However, in the solitude of night, I know my mind will often return to the river’s bank. There, I’ll stand before my little sailboat on the dock, filling it with images, sounds, words, and dreams. My cargo loaded, I’ll step in and untie the rope that holds me in place and begin to glide away from the shore. Soon, the lines that open the sails will slip, and I’ll feel the wind give them shape and power. Moving beneath the moon, I shall delight as the breezes carry me across the waters of time. I shall turn left and right, watching the bow cut into the waves and sensing the currents moving beneath me. Soon, the winds of memory will carry me beyond the bay and out to the deep sea. There, in the darkness, if I am lucky, he will appear suddenly at my side. With a smile and a nod, I shall release the tiller and let Enzo guide the craft, leading us back once again into that moment, not so long ago, when father and son sailed silently together on a golden summer’s day.
I’m not a sailor
I’m not so strong out of my shoes
Dragging like anchors
Over the ocean
Pearls in the sky strung 'round the moon
Pointing to you
So I’ll sail till morning
Or I’ll sail till I’m
Carried to you tonight
I’m not a sailor
But I’ll spend the night out on the sea
Out on the sea
And I’ll sail till morning
Or I’ll sail till I’m
Carried to you tonight
—“Sailor” by Dan Messé
Thank you very much for reading about my son and for your kind words. Some images of those we love stay with us a lifetime, and that photo of him looking out at the Potomac on that glorious day is one I will treasure always.
Beautiful writing. Thanks for taking me back to Camp Berkshire. Crazy place. It must have been wonderful being out on the water with both of them.