|“Boo!” my ten-year old screamed as she leaped from behind the concrete staircase. Landing in the middle of the sidewalk, she grinned and spread her arms to block me, my three siblings and our 86-year-old dad from passing. Dad responded to Sadie’s prank like any doting grandfather: “Do that again and I’ll shoot you! I’ve got a gun.” (He didn’t.)
“Jesus, Dad!” I snapped, glaring at him as Sadie cowered behind me.
Grabbing her hand, I marched ahead of my family. When we were out of earshot, I turned to Sadie. “I know you were just trying to be funny,” I whispered. “But Grandpa’s tired and you startled him.”
“He’s a douche bag!” she yelled.
Wrenching her hand from mine, she ran towards the motel where we were staying. We’d arrived in the seaside town of La Jolla–the last place we’d all lived under the same roof–for a reunion that afternoon and had just finished dinner. I was having serious doubts that I could survive the evening, let alone three days of family bonding. Dad complained that the casual Mexican restaurant where we ate was “too fancy”—he preferred Wendy’s. Slipping into oldest-child-control-freak-mode, I bickered with my sister and brothers about plans for the next day. Sadie whined that she wanted to go swimming. And until he lashed out at her for scaring him, Dad pretty much ignored his only grandchild.
His alcoholism and depression drove my parents to divorce when I was in high school. By then, I was as used to his angry outbursts as I was to the beautiful yet melancholy classical music he coaxed from his guitar. After the divorce, Dad quit drinking, moved out of state and had limited contact with his children.
He eventually settled in Alamogordo, New Mexico. These days, his instrument of choice is the ukulele. The uke has made him a bit of a chick magnet—he has an adoring fan base of Filipino Buddhists—and helped him win the coveted title of Alamogordo’s most talented senior. When he’s not playing music, Dad watches old movies, rails against “quacks” and “medi-crap,” works on his obituary, and goes ballroom dancing.
A few years ago, he e-mailed me that he wanted to be with all of his kids for Father’s Day. “I may not be around much longer,” he wrote. It had been 20 years since we’d all been together. So I arranged the first of what are now annual reunions, reminding myself whenever family dysfunction rears its ugly head that each one could be our last.
Back at the motel in La Jolla, Dad perked up. While the sea lions across the street barked in the background, he and my brother Peter (also a musician) performed tunes from Elvis, Johnny Cash and the Beatles. He even taught Sadie a few chords on the ukulele.
The next morning, my other brother, Richard, a surfer, volunteered to teach me, my sister Betsy, and Sadie to surf. Dad tagged along.
At the beach, Richard coached Sadie in shallow water while Betsy and I attempted to tackle larger waves. A stiff breeze ruffled the gray-green ocean. I kept glancing over my shoulder at Dad, worried that he’d be getting cold or tired. Clad in baggy khakis, a tan driving cap and industrial-strength orthopedic shoes, he paced slowly along the shore. His frail frame looked like it would blow away in a strong gust of wind.
Hooked on the rush of chasing—but rarely catching—waves, it was almost lunchtime when I dragged myself out of the water. Dad was sitting in the sand next to Sadie, his arm around her shivering shoulders.
“You okay, Dad?” I asked.
He smiled up at me.
“Okay?” he replied. “Watching all of you play in the ocean together—this is the best gift I could ask for. Today I feel like a father.”
Dorothy O’Donnell is a freelance writer from Marin, California. She used to think training for marathons and triathlons was hard. Then she became a mom in her forties. Although she’s written about travel, health and business, these days her main focus is writing essays and a memoir inspired by her toughest, and most rewarding, endurance event–motherhood. Her work has been featured in the Marin Independent Journal, Mothering and on KQED radio. She recently won a prestigious MAGGIE award for one of her GreatSchools essays.