My parents divorced when I was 3 and so I spent every other weekend and every Wednesday of my life with my Dad. Or thereabouts. When I was super young, he lived at Peachtree Apartments and it was there that I practically lived at the pool. I drank Barqs Root Beer from the coke machine, swam more hours than I could possibly count, went to wrestling matches at the Municipal Auditorium on Wednesday nights, and ate mustard and/or cheese sandwiches (Daddy wasn’t much for keeping anything stocked for my visits besides the basics. Oh, and Hamburger Helper).

A little later, we moved to a mobile home in Harris County where I used to jump in the back of the pickup truck bed for our 30 minute ride from town and I’d watch the clouds and the big sky. We trained my pet rabbits how to walk on a leash (all Daddy’s idea), and I learned to shoot beer cans with a BB gun. It is also the same time Daddy confessed to buying a boat at a boat show. Now that’s an entirely different story and one that may have included some of those beer cans I mentioned before.

Lake Oliver wasn’t far away from our mobile home, so we spent a good amount of time attempting to get the dang boat TO the water. We hopped over curbs, scraped up the sides, and almost lost the boat a time or two (again, don’t ask). I made a habit of sitting in the front seat of the boat (left side) while parked in Daddy’s driveway and hoped he would figure out why in the world we have a boat sitting in our front yard.

Some years went by and that’s when I got another call from Daddy. This time with an even BIGGER move: We were moving to Lake Harding. Daddy found a house right on this peninsula off the Long Bridge. Our small 2BR /2BA house had water on both sides. He planted fruit trees and day lilies (stella d’oro to be specific), tended to his garden, and we started this new phase of our life.

It wasn’t perfect by a long shot. None of it. But, when I was on that boat sitting in the front (on the left side) with the wide open water ahead of me, none of it mattered. You lose time on a lake. Time just passes and in many cases, that was just what I needed as Daddy and I tried to figure out time and time again how to do the Father/Daughter dance as I kept growing up. It wasn’t perfect by a long shot. None of it.

On the water I was free. I loved hearing our boat slow to an idle and the sound it made when it would hit the waves just right. The sound of my Dad’s truck’s wheels turning on the gravel parking lot and the sound of the boat trailer’s wheels backing in the water. I secretly loved getting a whiff of my Dad’s cigarette smoke while speeding across the lake. Those cigarettes caused way more complications down the road, but it’s how I knew he was there if that makes sense.

Lake life for me was totally normal. I’d take off on the wave runner by myself. I loved finding a quiet slough or waterway where nobody went so I could watch the wave runner cut the water like glass. I also loved being WIDE open in the middle of the big water where all the boats were. And especially all those waves. The perfect mix of being alone and surrounded by people, but not having to say a word.

The lake is where I learned to face my fears and I learned to ski. I learned to drop a ski and then to slalom. I learned to feel safe in something that felt way too big, which is still a struggle. I learned how to spend time with my Dad by not saying a word and just riding in that damn boat for hours. That worked for us. Probably because words and emotions were too hard.

And so we rode on the boat and we were quiet. Or, we’d turn up the music and he’d dance and embarrass me. More often than not, he’d stop at different homes to hang out with his friends and though I loved his friends, those stops always signified the end of our easy, not-having-to-say-anything-but-just-being-together time. It wasn’t perfect by a long shot. He wasn’t. I wasn’t. I think deep down I always just wanted my Dad to know and see me. The me that was free on the lake. The me that said all the things I wanted to say to him out on that big open water but couldn’t say it to his face. It could be a lot.

In between the “a lot,” Daddy was sure to have a HUGE pot of boiled peanuts waiting for me and I’d eat them until I felt sick. When I think about the lake, I think of Peach Nehi, boiled peanuts, and vinegar and salt potato chips.

My Dad died in early February 2014 in his bedroom in that same house on that lake. I wasn’t there. From his house, you could see the Long Bridge, which was the perfect landmark to describe where my Dad lived. Our lawn was the perfect place to watch fireworks on holidays. So, when I had to go back to the house in mid-March to collect a box of my photos, my grandmother’s crocheted blanket, and a few other items left behind — I took this photo.

Somehow I knew it would be the last time I’d be there and that this was a goodbye. What I didn’t expect is that I would be willing to say goodbye to that entire experience by not setting foot on a boat to confront those feelings in almost 7 years. Maybe I was scared it would make me confront the hard feelings attached to the big, open water? The not-perfect-by-a-long-shot part. Maybe it was because I didn’t know how to BE on the water without my Dad? Phew. A lot to unpack here.

Today I am 44 years old and yesterday a dear friend invited me and my kiddos for a boat ride. On a big lake. In a pontoon boat like my Dad’s. This was a first boat ride EVER for both of my kids which seems so impossible that they aren’t connected to the very thing that meant so much to me for all of those years.

Yes, it was a different lake than the one I’d only ever known. Yes, it was a different boat. No, my Dad wasn’t there. But I was. I found that part of me that I thought had to go away because my Dad did. I found that I still need that open water to process my thoughts. I found that each of my kids resembled me as a kid — Mae wanted to go as fast as possible and Martin Everitt was a bit unsure. On the way home I stopped and got some Vinegar & Salt potato chips and I told my kids about Crazy Popa’s house and how I used to experience the lake when I was younger.

I wasn’t afraid anymore. I actually reclaimed the joy I missed all these years. It’s a funny thing what going fast on big, open water can teach you — and I’m obviously still learning.

I guess I’ll end with this…

There are painful memories associated with many things in our lives, but there’s also joy. I was so scared of the pain I might feel that I didn’t give myself a chance to nurture that part of me that NEEDED to be back on the lake. Because that’s the very place I found my strength and made peace with the things that weren’t perfect a long time ago.

My hope is that you find the strength to rediscover the thing that brings you joy and healing and care for yourself. Happy Birthday to me.