Strange to have this as one of the few real lessons my father taught me. Not that I haven’t learned, and don’t still learn, from his example: his earnestness, his enduring patience, his quiet devotion to my mother. But he gave me actual instructions as we launched our canoe from a muddy, shallow bulge into an inlet off Green Bay — to keep calm when the lake water rises around me, to know that the canoe is designed not to sink, even full of water, even upside down. Perhaps he was banking on my capacity to apply this lesson as I got older, the way high-school football prepares you to be a team player as an adult. Here the wisdom was that cooler heads prevail, that sudden crises can be conquered, that it’s good to know what is likely to happen next.
But I was only ten. There’s so much I missed. Like how he watched me from the bow, the canvas life jacket cradling my neck as he dipped his paddle first to one side, then the other, to keep us on course back to the house. How he waited for a sign, perhaps my fingers dragging briefly in the lake, that I had let my attention drift from his warning about what I was headed toward. And then his mustering his courage, his freckled hands grabbing the canoe’s sides, preparing to dump us both sputtering into the olive water. And his bracing himself to enter with me the depths of my coming misfortune.