The home I share with Christopher Cerf, on Gerard Drive in Springs, was not spared Hurricane Sandy. We were residing in our main residence in New York City when the water rose over the spindly, mile-and-a-half long cape bounded by Gardiners Bay and Accabonac Harbor. Police cars blocked the entrance to Gerard, we read in the Times. It was not safe to enter.
Aerial views made the spit of land look like the Loch Ness Monster surfacing—humps of spine, the creature mostly submerged. A friend reported that our yard and patio were ravaged, but our house was unharmed. After a spell came the news that my eighty-seven-year-old father had collapsed in northern California. A day later, for the first time, I entered my childhood home without him greeting me with a blessing and kiss. Content with his history books, his painting and gardening, he was a homebody; I sensed the vacancy as a prelude to loss. At Eden Hospital, he cried out my name when he saw me, the daughter from far away.
He reared back from the brink. My relief imparted a sudden brightness to his garden and possessions: the lemons dazzling yellow, the lavender pungent. Glistening, the abalone shells. His easel with an unfinished sketch of pears. The Portuguese ceramics: His boyhood in the Azores fueled a fascination with history that led to a career as a beloved high school teacher.
Crème-brûlée, a puréed chocolate Guinness cake. It took me thirty-five minutes to spoon-feed him a puréed turkey sandwich. Despite not much diagnosis beyond “aging brain,” his condition mimicked the effects of a stroke. The waters had retreated but left wreckage. My family took turns caring for him—there’s a fount of true regard in sharing that. He meditated purposefully. We fished out the precious one-liners, his humor, from the river of non-sequiturs. Once, with full clarity, he said, “Remind me never to do this again.” After two female nurses helped him shower, he whispered, “Well, I’ve never done that before.”
He reverted to his native language. A nurse assumed he was proclaiming “to the ladder” when he tried to veer ao lado, to the side. The irony of long-term memory is that the seizing of each day, the gladdening of moments, is our solace at losing someone by inches, whereas the sufferer insists that history and bygone layers matter most. “I want to visit Portugal,” he declared—a desire he’d never expressed since emigrating. He enjoyed a merry argument with Juan, the nurse happy to debate whether “honey” should be the Spanish miel or the Portuguese mel. My father drank his honeyed coffee with such pleasure that he shut his eyes.
“I’d like the sun on my face,” he said, and we’d wheel him out to the nursing facility’s azaleas, petunias, camellias. He rhapsodized about gardening as a prayer. He reached toward the roses and called them wonderful. His spirit shone fiercely, shaming the chasm by illuminating it. With him stabilized in a diminished mental and physical capacity, everyone agreed I should return to the east coast. I copied out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music,” about not being resigned to “the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground,” taking with me the sorrow before the ultimate sorrow.
Christopher and I walked along Gerard Drive. The osprey nesting post still stood. The “Molly’s Hill” marker rested where Molly’s wigwam has long evanesced, leaving what Edna St. Vincent Millay calls the “fragment of what you felt, of what you knew.” The road’s edges crumbled like cake. Post-and-rail fences splintered, twigs exploded into toothpicks, tar repairs dried into burls, slabs of asphalt vanished. No one on the sandbar, catching fluke.
Sand and pulverized shells laved our front yard, with half the back yard erased and a kayak lost, scrub-brush and phragmites gone, our cedar extracted as if it were a rotting tooth. We were lucky, lucky. But disquiet had come to roost. I have puzzled about the meaning of home: What is mine; where do I belong? This was my refuge. And now safe haven has gone to smash. During the cleanup, a neighbor stuck assessor’s stakes in our yard, redefining what he felt was his. Hammers, buzz saws, wires so loose a grackle might undo them. The world leaks through the windows. A wild turkey on the shed peered at me while I rinsed a plate at the sink.
I panicked about not knowing my surroundings better, having nearly lost them: Saltwort, goldenrod, artemisia, gall-of-the-earth? Is that a Russian Olive tree? That’s a Japanese black pine, prey to a fungus that causes swift decline and death. No, those cream flowers couldn’t be Sweet Everlasting. My father knew plants; I didn’t ask him nearly enough. What is that impulse straight out of Eden by which we imagine that naming is ownership or safety?
Virginia creepers, mourning doves. Deer prints. Bayberry. Whelks, their spindles exposed in cutaway, are the traces of the gulls up to their tricks, dropping their quarry on the pavement to crack open their crudo feast. Near the Piping Plover and Least-Tern Nesting Area, at the end of the road, a litter of shells glitters like a mosaic floor from my father’s book about Roman ruins. Violet roses bloom here where the St. Vincent Millay poem most resonates: The endearing things become dust, and the dead are consigned to feeding the plants. She mentions roses in particular. We grasp at fragments in our yearning to reconstitute an entirety. A petal. Powdered mollusks. Dad’s clothing warm with an excess of sleep in it. His oil-painting of waves. Even staring at the abyss, he spoke fondly of pie.
He wrote about the Portuguese presence in America. There’s Mineola, Newark, Fall River, Providence. But I’d look around the East End, because I reside here. In Sag Harbor, I’d uncover vestiges of those Azorean whalers who claimed it as home; I’d unearth traces for his sake.
What a blunder. I almost fainted where the Portuguese are interred in the Old Burying Ground and breathed a prayer for them and the African-Americans alongside them, all their slabs worn to scratches. The Hurricane of 1938 toppled the steeple from the Old Whaler’s Church; the emptiness still looms. Two ladies at the Historical Society were helpful, and the docent at the Whaling Museum sketched me a map to the graveyard. But the harpoons and pictures of bloody flaps being cut from whales—what was I thinking?—drove me reeling away. I glimpsed a sailor’s mustache cup with an angel for a handle. My mustachioed father was always groomed. A restaurant offered crème caramel with essence of red roses, but all I wanted was to go home. It is what he keeps requesting. I had gone to Sag Harbor to look and know; it collapsed me into a storm of feeling.
Nature might easily swallow Gerard Drive some day. The garden on which my father spent half a century—I already envision it gone. Yet the gift, the surprise, out of an intimacy with my father’s decline, is the call to embrace uncertainty and the intractable enormity of erosion. I ebbed into an aching joy, or a joyful ache. A deepening. Place is precarious; it must be persons where we reside. And so my father is my home forever.
Just as Christopher is my home. He sets up his telescope to show me Jupiter’s rings and helps me name the stars. We eat dinner while looking at the water. Close by is a marker on a driveway: BEIJO. The house hides past a curve, immaculate, as if from a storybook I once had and lost. BEIJO is Portuguese for KISS. I loved the father I knew, but I love him as he is now, too, very much. I miss him as he was, and—just that, I miss him, miss him so. I’ll visit soon. I didn’t ask to come here, he liked to joke about being born, and I certainly didn’t ask to leave.
The view over Gardiners Bay brings striations of shocking pink. One night, swans glided under the bands of peony and carnation sky. My father had flown here to comfort me. He used to wish me “pink dreams”—sonhos cor-de-rosa—the Portuguese equivalent of “sweet dreams.” Sleep in the gentlest color, my dear. Sleep in the color of flowers. Goodnight. He tells me to love this place as long as I have it; this place instructs me on how to love him as long as I have him, and beyond. Instead of fearing how an end will come, I must be tender toward mystery. I must not ignore the radiant powers of sadness.
At twilight, the rose-pink sky stuns with its beauty, intense with its desire to paint how my father described the shade of dreams. I bathe in this brilliance that cedes to night, or bides its time before returning at dawn and fading to full morning.
August Mark Vaz passed away on September 12, 2013, surrounded by his family.
This essay first appeared in Narrative Magazine, as First Place winner of the 2013 Fall Story Contest.
August Mark Vaz was such a beloved teacher at San Leandro High School (California) that his classroom is still called “The Temple” by students long since grown. My father’s bust of Virgil was featured in an official Senior Prank: Each year, students kidnapped Virgil, and we received ransom notes and hilarious photos. Virgil in bed; Virgil wearing glasses and drinking beer; Virgil buckled into a car. Dad would traipse the aisles of The Temple, pretending to be upset, demanding Virgil’s return. He had a near-perfect record at guessing the ringleader’s identity, unnerving everyone with his psychic powers. (Virgil always got returned!) This photo shows my father with his revered sidekick. When Dad retired, Jeffrey Jordan—a kidnapper!—presented my father with a diploma for Virgil. Jeff sent a white bouquet when my father died, having learned from Dad’s “History of the Far East” course that this is the color of mourning. Artist, historian, gardener, and pioneer in writing about the Portuguese in America—Dad grew up in the Azores—some of his last words, before he passed into spirit, comprised the Portuguese Night Blessing. As children, we asked him for it every evening before we went to sleep. ~ Sunday Magazine of The New York Times.
“I must be tender toward mystery. I must not ignore the radiant powers of sadness.” Words of insight into grief. Thank you. Also, my wife graduated from San Leandro High School in the late 1960s. I wish I could ask my wife if she had your dad as a teacher, but she died a few years ago.