Many times in life we have experiences that, when we look back on them, were very profound and treasured happenings. On a few rare occasions I have realized, at the very instant, that what was transpiring around me was something I would never forget and found myself wishing I could stop the clock to savor the moment. The most vivid and lingering of these special times occurred as I was approaching my 40th year and evolved around my father Eugene, my son Bobby, and myself.
Bobby and I had been on canoe outings before but on this trip we decided to make it a three generation affair. What we were headed for was a two day/one night paddle down the Peace River north of Arcadia in south-central Florida. We were dropped off by a commercial outfitter near Zolfo Springs with our canoe and pushed off mid-morning.
Nothing unusual was in store for us the first day or night. We spent the day paddling; Bobby in front, me in the rear, and Daddy laughing about being in “the lazy man’s chair” in the middle. We camped out and had all the excitement that one would expect from a grandfather, son, and grandson campfire get-together but my lifelong remembrance was not to come until our trip was almost over the next day.
After two days and a night on the river, we arrived at the prearranged pick-up place. The outfitters called the location “Gardner” but it was really little more than the end of a dead end road at the river’s edge. Actually it had, at one time, been a through road and the ruins of the old bridge were still evident. Arriving about two hours ahead of schedule, we decided to beach our canoe across the river and do some exploring on the old road side. Little remained of what, I’m sure, was once an important artery of commerce in this rural corner of the earth. The three of us settled down, ate some lunch and, realizing our little odyssey was about to end, wandered our separate ways. It was here and now, and at that exact hour, that began what I will always hauntingly remember as the mid-point of my life. The one instant in time when I sat truly in the middle from whence I could only be “too early” or, more probably, “too late” ever again.
The river bank at this juncture was a steep sloping ridge. Bobby had gravitated down to the edge of the water. Daddy, with that little smile on his face and without saying a word, drifted away from the river toward higher ground and into the edge of a, long abandoned, nearby old orange grove. I, for no particular reason, sat down on the sandy ridge above the slow flowing river almost exactly midway between the two of them.
Down below me, Bobby was squatting down making mounds of mud on the bank. They weren’t anything too elaborate, just mounds, and every now and then he would look up at me as if to say … “I know I’m too old to be playing in the mud but, just this one last time.” I couldn’t hold back the happiness in my eyes but my lips were silent. I wanted to tell him that you never lose the little boy that lives inside and that I wish I could come down and “give him a hand.” I didn’t say anything and neither did he.
A short distance away, Daddy had taken up a position underneath an old orange tree. He just stood there alternating glances between the knarred and barren branches and the general direction of the ridge where I sat. He seemed as one with the old grove–the harvests of years past were much closer to both of them than the world on the other side of the river. He would reach up, break off a leafy twig to smell or taste, then fleetingly look my way again before smiling and moving on to the next tree. I got the feeling he was speaking to me without a word being said …”Boy, I won’t get to do this with you again because I’m growing old and so many things that used to be easy are awfully hard.”
I wanted to yell out to him that we would do something just like this next week or, at the latest, next month. I didn’t want this to be the last time and I wanted him to know it but, somehow, the moment passed. We smiled at each other again and both looked away.
My “in between time” was happening. Bobby was on the river bank looking up but couldn’t see my father. Daddy was in the old grove with a clear view of me but could not see his grandson below. I was between the two and could see both of them. Now it happened: I realized that, as I was between them in distance, I was also between them in age. I could understand my son and his youthful play and envy his innocence. I could recognize the melancholy in my father’s eyes as he wandered through the fallen leaves in the shadows of the old grove. This was my moment of being between … I would never be able to recapture it. Bobby would never again play in the mud where I could see him because he would be a boy no more and Daddy would tell me he didn’t think he could take another canoe trip because he just hurt a little too much when he got up in the mornings.
Sure, I didn’t have to let the moment get away. I could have decided to take them deep sea fishing or travel to a major league game or any number of other excuses to try once again but the big business deals, the meetings out of town, and all the other mileposts and yardsticks of success got in the way. The worst part is that I knew this, even as I sat there on that sandy ridge.
The time came, we crossed the river, and the outfitters picked us up. The three of us rode back to the base camp in silence. I’m sure the other two weren’t aware of the significance of the moment. Daddy’s happening, whether he had recognized it or not, was long past and Bobby would have to wait for another place and time. Mine had come, stayed for a sad and wonderful instant, and would never be again.