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Earlier this week, I had a chance to join my dad for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
We watched a marine sling lift lower his 19-foot sailboat into the water at Mattapoisett Boatyard to start its fiftieth consecutive season.
Climbing aboard, we adjusted a few things, raised sail, pulled the Embarker to the end of the pilings, and headed off into a light breeze.
On one hand, her launch was a nondescript event befitting a minor luxury that my family has long enjoyed.
Yet it’s been fifty years. Where did it go?
Reaching this benchmark means so much to my father. Nearing 79, he is experiencing a dwindling circle of dear friends while facing his own natural limitations. For several years we’ve worried about his balance on the spongy fiberglass deck. Sailing alone is out of the question—not because he cannot do it, but hustling to the bow to pick up the mooring is problematic.
A dad’s gift of affirmation
Still, I don’t foresee much preventing him from heading out into Buzzards Bay in decent weather, even during a gusty southwesterly skirmish that typifies a summer afternoon there. At least one of us will be along to assist.
And appreciate the time together, dashed by salt spray on a tack, or settling in to the rhythm of small rollers easing us downwind.
Reminded again, as a good friend of mine insists, that we dare not take this moment for granted.
Taking stock of the circle of seasons, and how things come round with those we love best.
I’ve been thinking about what being a dad means this week.
The most vital thing I learned from my father is not his just tenacious and beneficent work ethic. He built a company that provided for hundreds of people. That continues to be an inspiring achievement, driven in part by his engineer’s skill set and entrepreneurial zeal. And also by something deeper, as both a provider and humanist, to help others have meaningful careers and sustain their families.
For me, the bedrock he provided was validation. An openness to accept me as an individual pursuing other dreams. Unconditional support when I wavered, not without firm admonishment at times, but softened a bit like a large swell pushing the boat’s stern off-wind.
As a dad myself, hopefully I continue to convey some of the same.
An affirmation of our children’s passions and life choices. Appreciating who they are rather then trying to mold them into some likeness of myself. Celebrating their steps forward, while acknowledging the occasional gaps, their anxieties, or when pain resurfaces about the loss of their brother, or the occasional divides and contradictions that span a family.
Year in and out, we crave acceptance and forgiveness. Acknowledgment of our strengths—and support for our shortcomings.
We dare not take this moment for granted
Sailing again out towards Nye’s Ledge, my dad’s memories remain clear. He and his longtime friend, John Flood, also a civil engineer, took an inaugural sail on Embarker on November 11, 1967. It was a mild day in the 60s with only 10-12 knots of wind.
My dad had never docked a sailboat before. Returning to the boatyard dock, he knew enough to turn it into the wind. “We missed it by three feet,” he laughs.
There would be other November sails returning her for the winter.
We’ve heard many of the stories, and longing for them again, we settle in, listening to the light thump of a breaking wave.
Three days before he died, Doug messaged me on Facebook for my birthday:
“Burn a candle for me, old man,” he wrote.
John Douglas Wright, I’m overdue to light that flame.
Gregarious and loved by many, Doug was a light in our lives going back to junior high school, at least. A gifted athlete, he was funny, chortling, the spiritual fifth member of a cranking band in his college-to mid-20s days, an expert on plants, a nurseryman, patio builder, long the stud of our crew, youngest brother of five, a creator with his drawings and landscape design, adored by his late parents and family.
We cannot forget his infectious laugh, the smile bursting open ruddy cheeks, his solid, eclectic musical tastes, his heart—his good core.
How do we carry forward the best that was Doug?
As his friends and brothers know, there was also another side. He was deeply wounded if not saddled by survivor’s guilt following a car crash that killed his close friend when Doug was 25. The trauma of Gonzo dying in his arms, the cruel randomness of being struck by a stolen car going the wrong-way in a high-speed chase—this may have largely set the stage.
He veered down and sometimes lived in that hellhole where addicts and alcoholics go. For long stretches when I was not in his life—not knowing the depths of his descent—the disease ran him aground.
I don’t wish to linger long there, since those who love him already know.
We are left to wonder: which among Doug’s gifts can we run with? How do we do this?
Perhaps one answer is recognizing the positive things that came to light—as we take stock of his life and how others tried to help him, or came together remembering the man as they knew him best.
Despite some setbacks, he was doing better the past two years. Living with two close friends of ours, they became a family unit, often cooking meals together and making it through another week. He and Dianne competed to see who Pugs would jump up to for belly scratches on the couch. They gave him so much, a step out of the isolation that had been his life.
As friends gathered for a double-edged celebration of his life on Sunday, we basked in a momentary reunion, albeit tamped down by a chilly, grey afternoon that somehow seemed more appropriate than the previous day’s sunshine. I can only hope that this will continue as we occasionally evoke his spirit.
Taking stock of his life, how others helped him, or came together remembering the man they knew
Another of Doug’s longtime friends told me that as he discovered the extent of Doug’s troubles, early on he wished he could shake him up. Wasn’t there something he might say to help him understand that it was okay to live his life again? To give himself permission to let go?
Ultimately, this friend realized that he could not carry that weight of self-blame if Doug failed to turn it around. It would always be Doug’s choice.
Yet this friend never stopped checking in. Calling. Reaching out. Sensing when Doug was in a downward spiral, when he hadn’t heard from him, or when he knew something was off.
I think this is what strikes me the most: we don’t stop trying. We forgive. We clasp shoulders with those we grew up with who now live very different lives. We look to the sky for slants of light through clouds. We keep showing up.
And we dare not forget the best in him.
Some of us who were close to Doug have gnawing questions and laments. We may feel we did not do enough. This is unfair, especially for our friends who took him in. At times we looked the other way, or were worn out by his issues.
A bit hardened even while reconnecting with Doug three years ago, I felt that he had dodged responsibility to face his trauma and clean up. As if this was some ultimate failure. As if I sat in judgment. “How are you honoring your friend’s life?” by succumbing to this?
This is not what Gonzo would want you doing to yourself, I cried.
He may have been trying to climb out. Inching forward, even when set back again.
As spring arrived at Dianne’s house, Doug poked around outside doing what he was most passionate about. Pruning overgrown trees and edging gardens until neighbors asked him to do theirs. Spreading mulch and caring for annuals and tomato plants. Enjoying the sun on their porch and or walking Pugs.
There was more to do, but hopefully, for Doug, not so much left unsaid.
Let’s run with what we loved best in him.
What is this mean streak being unleashed all around us?
How do we keep a balance to stay positive and move forward?
What are we doing here?
Recently, while traveling to Vermont to visit my sister, my wife and I were stuck in traffic for nearly two hours. An empty milk truck had crashed at a construction site on I-93, dangling over an overpass.
Just as we finally approached the bridge and an inevitable bottleneck of lanes, I moved over making way for a state trooper hustling through. Two jerks then hurtled by on the trooper’s heels, cutting us and others off.
To gain maybe an extra thirty feet. As if their time, their puny orbit, was all that matters in this world.
Is expressing gratitude enough these days?
Moments later, we saw a large tow truck with a crumpled white car on its bed. There was a gaping hole in the guard rail just before a bridge where the tanker—by then extricated— had threatened to crash down an embankment.
The worst fear that someone had perished coursed through us. We were shaken at the thought, of another family, and friends being devastated by the unthinkable. Fortunately, no one was killed; the tanker spilled some gas.
And while the traffic snag was an inconvenience, we hadn’t minded it all that much, literally slowing down and listening to a book.
Yet I seethed at those two drivers, and a grim-faced man in a Lincoln who similarly cut us and others off to gain a few seconds just before the crash scene.
A few precious seconds.
Why do people have such disregard for others? Such narrowness, when a small gesture of civility or kindness opens incredible reciprocity.
Do you, too, feel malice on the rise these past few months? Or is that my misperception—even myopia?
And if I simply rail at those drivers, or judge and rant at the direction certain interests are taking this country, what good is that?
I am struggling with this.
Each morning, I try to pause and think of at least one thing I am grateful for. Naming it, and sometimes writing briefly in my gardener’s journal. Denise does this more fluently and regularly than myself. Being thankful for the positive people in our lives, and the good things happening to them—and ourselves.
Some wise person long ago must have started this practice. Helping to keep us anchored in appreciation, and perhaps seeking salvation.
When the world goes crazy, just look for the helpers, a friend of ours advised.
Yet is expressing gratitude enough these days?
”I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it.” – Senator Al Franken
Across the country, malice is on the rise. This is less a political statement than an observation of our national tone, and gaping flaws. I don’t wish to alienate friends or supporters of our nonprofit who may see things differently. I respect and am open to different viewpoints.
But I see meanness growing on many fronts.
Who believes a load of meat is more valuable than a man’s life?
Why are hate crimes growing, including the spiking number of white nationalist groups, anti-Semitic threats, and harassment and attacks on people perceived, “correctly or not, to be Muslim”? Has the mask finally been ripped off?
Why did the nominee for the Supreme Court side with a trucking company that felt a load of meat was more valuable than a man’s life?
Certainly Judge Neil Gorsuch deserves to be weighed on his full record, but his handling of the frozen trucker’s case, for only one, suggests Gorsuch lacks empathy and a regard for what everyday justice is about.
As Senator Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live cast member, said during Gorsuch’s hearing, ”I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it. And it makes me—you know, it makes me question your judgment.”
Why has the concept of mercy has been turned on its head?
Surely, there is no “mercy,” as Rep. Joseph Kennedy III declared, in making “health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill.”
Why are we heading backwards in so many areas?
Surely, there is also malice in the disdain for science—converging with an overt policy takeover by oil-gas-coal interests (read: carbon climate forcing). In perhaps another indicator of pending climate disaster, Arctic sea ice dipped to a record low for winter.
What gives here?
So how do we align ourselves with what’s nurturing and growing, rather than succumbing to what’s destructive? And avoid being washed out by absurdity.
If you find out, please let me know.