When I think of him, I see him in a white wife-beater and blue shorts, skin deep dark brown, heavy wrinkles. I see him leaning against a brick wall, cigarette in his mouth, distance in his eyes. A few years back he caught pneumonia, and gave up smoking cold, after smoking a pack a day for fifty or more years.
When we speak about him, he’s the cool grandpa, the one who wakes early and does fifty push-ups each morning. He has this uncanny knack for making the perfect amount of food, so everyone is fully satisfied, no one has over-eaten, and there is nothing left on any dish—a real achievement in a household where the number of mouths to feed varies from eight to sixteen depending on the day.
He speaks a little Spanish, a remnant of his sailing days, traveling from port to port in Southern America. The first time my dad met him was at age seven, and only briefly before he left for another sailing trip. He jumped ship and swam to shore, lived in the States for a few months before being deported back to China, then jumped ship again and became a naturalized citizen.
Back when I was in high school, we had a little family reunion on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. My grandpa would stand for hours on deck, a cigarette balancing between his lips, looking across the sea, looking into his past. Towards the end of the trip, he told us, jokingly, “When we get back to America, I’m going to stay on the ship. I’ll be a waiter or scrub the floors or anything. I just want to stay on the ship.”
But I think he meant it. These days I often wonder what would have happened if circumstances had been different: if there hadn’t been three families living under his roof, if there hadn’t been an autistic child and a schizophrenic child placed under his care.
This semester, I have spent more time by the ocean than ever before, waking early and eating oatmeal in the morning light, or spending afternoons there, reading Faulkner or Eliot or Mary Oliver. And when the days are long and weary, I’ll sit out there alone, and let the darkness engulf me, stare out at the lighted oil rigs creating patterns on the shifting water, breathe, in and out, in and out, and all is well.
There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.
Something there is in the ocean that draws me back again and again. Maybe it’s the constancy, the continual rushing up and washing away, rubbing the stones smooth. Maybe it’s the newness each time, the thick swirling fog one morning, and the clear white light another; the pelicans swooping head-first into the water, and the snowy plovers running in when the tide goes out, pecking at the sand, then running out again when the wave comes creeping back up the shore; the orange and purple and pink of sunset, the silver of twilight.
All I know is that it is here, by the ocean, that I understand my grandpa most easily, when the wanderlust tugs at my feet and the memories tug at my heart.
I’ve been steeping myself in the music of Gregory Alan Isakov these last few weeks, who sings of the sea, and makes me want to build a raft and drift off to the middle of the ocean, far from any sight of land, where I can be with God sending us all the big waves and I wish I was a sailor so I could know just how to trust, maybe I could bring some grace back home to the dryland for all of us.
But the other day God taught me a little bit about trust from the safety of shore. My cheeks were already salty from tears, and I turned towards the ocean. It was fishing time, a large fishing boat anchored in front of me, the pelicans hovering, waiting to strike, then diving with alarming speed headfirst into the water with a splash.
Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a dorsal fin, and, for a moment, hoped for a dolphin, looked for a dolphin, but dismissed it as a diving pelican. Then I thought of impetuous Peter, whose toes and insteps, just before sleep, would remember their passage on wave-tip towards the Messiah. And I thought of mustard seeds, and friends of mine who have prayed specifically for dolphins and seen them.
So, despite a deep sense of foolishness, I prayed for dolphins. I waited, and whispered: “I believe; help my unbelief.” And suddenly there they all were: dolphins all around, at play, dancing in the light, for me alone, simply out of God’s good grace. And what I felt was not scalding pain, shame for my obstinate need, but light, light streaming into me, over me…my question not answered but given its part in a vast unfolding design lit by a risen sun.
And now: I am grateful, almost giddy, at peace. God has been good to me, even in the moments when the unknown looms large and close. And I think of my grandpa, his bravery, his sense of adventure, but mostly his attitude of surrender and resignation, the letting go of dreams for the good of all his people.
and oh that full bellied moon she’s a-shinin’ on me
yeah she pulls on this heart like she pulls on the sea