We’re in Canada at Thunder Bay Beach on Lake Erie, my father and me, standing at the shoreline. It’s a perfect late afternoon near the end of summer, the warm water lapping at our toes and the soft sand and hard pebbles contouring the bottoms of our feet. The sun glints like a thousand mirrors on the water’s surface. The long arc of the shoreline extends in either direction.
There’s the lighthouse in the distance, at Point Abino, a familiar blue pillar since my childhood.
It’s not even a pretty beach, just a small fenced public access squeezed between privately-owned waterfront homes extending in either direction. But it’s a pretty day and it’s my beach, the one where I spent every summer growing up. My father, now in his eighties, still has his summer home, just a block away. He still swims in this lake, almost every day.
Today will be his last swim.
There are other people on the beach — young families and a group of teens. My brother and his wife are sitting on beach chairs with their books. And I’m here, visiting for the weekend — I come at least once a month now.
Bob Klein has always been a good man, a humble man, soft-spoken and unassuming. Handsome. He’s a man of faith and of dignity. He believes in putting his fate in God’s hands, although I wonder if that belief is eroding.
Bob is a strong swimmer. In college, he captained his swim team at St. Bonaventure University. He can stroke and stroke — or could before he began to lose some of his coordination. That’s why somebody accompanies him when he swims now.
We walk into the shallows, where the water is the warmest, commenting on the beautiful day. We get along well, my father and I, although we haven’t always been close. He wasn’t the kind of father who had deep and meaningful conversations with his children (there are five of us). Maybe it was just the era when I grew up, in the 1960s and 1970s, or maybe it’s simply the nature of his character — and mine, too.
Once we get about waist deep, we exchange a glance and both take the plunge, diving below the surface, pushing through the water, cooler near the bottom, holding our breaths, then springing up.
“Oh, that’s nice,” he says, surfacing, the water dripping from his face.
I think I disappointed him a lot when I was younger. I got in some trouble. I lacked direction. I moved away to college when I was seventeen and hardly looked back. But I love my father, and I know he loves me.
We swim out to shoulder depth (we’re both tall, over six feet). We can see across to the other side, the United States. It’s probably ten or fifteen miles as the crow flies, or as the man swims. We used to talk about swimming across (ha, ha). We used to talk about walking along the beach, beach after beach, over sand and rock outcroppings — Thunder Bay, Windmill Point, Crescent Beach, Bertie Bay — all the way to the Peace Bridge at the mouth of the Niagara River. We never took that journey.
Today is his last swim because tomorrow his wife, Audrey (my mom died 30-something years ago and Bob remarried at one point), is taking my father back to Buffalo and putting him in an assisted living facility for residents with dementia. She can’t take care of him any longer. His behavior is too erratic and difficult. He’s done some things I don’t want to mention because they are humiliating and degrading, and if he knew he’d done them he’d be horrified and ashamed.
I know he doesn’t want to live this way. No one does.
I look back toward the shore and see moms watching their kids play in the shallows or in the sand. Sunbathers on the beach. Two guys tossing a football. My brother reading his book under a beach umbrella to protect him from the sun.
“Do you want to swim out a little farther?” I ask.
I don’t think he hears me.
“Remember when we used to talk about swimming across?”
He laughs at this.
“Do you want to try? To swim all the way across?” It’s a question I came up here planning to ask him and my heart beats a little faster when I do.
It may be immoral, but I’ve had this thought: My father can avoid the slow, inexorable black decline into mental nothingness and catatonia. He can swim straight out, deeper and deeper, farther and farther from the shore, intending to cross the lake, swim until he’s too exhausted to continue, and I will swim by his side and be there when he finally sinks and we’re too far out for me to save him. I would have to swim back alone.
“Swim across the lake?” he says.
“What do you think?”
He stares at the horizon, the hills rising above the far opposite shore, and then he looks at me and I see something in his eyes, what I interpret as a melancholy, despairing recognition of his situation, and his inability to do anything about it.
“It’s too far,” he says quietly.
He knows. I’m sure he knows.
“You’re right,” I say. “We’d never make it.” Although, knowing my father’s grit and determination, he just might make it across. I’m the one who would tire, flounder, and drown.
We head back to shore and wrap ourselves in towels and dry off in the sun. The next day he ends up in a place in Buffalo called Park Creek. A year later he’s moved to a nursing home. I keep visiting every month, witnessing the fade. I’m not sure if he knows who I am. A year later he is dead, and I am the one drowning.