The sailor in twilight

Special to The Times

The phone rang as I wrestled with the wood-framed window to close out the Santa Ana wind dusting the desk in my father’s office. David, the hospice worker assigned to his case, wanted to know more about this 90-year-old man whose ability to speak has all but left him. Perhaps he could try to talk to him about his interests.

“On the wall of his room I see a framed photograph of a sailboat -- does he know that boat?” David asks. Today, her captain’s eyes are hollow and fogged in, and his 5-foot,11-inch frame weighs just 120 pounds. It’s no surprise that David cannot recognize in my father the robust agility and purpose he once displayed walking a deck in heavy weather.

I close my eyes to remember the blustery afternoon when Daddy called ship-to-shore to inform me that they were just a few miles off harbor -- could I hurry with the camera? I jumped from rock to rock on the Newport jetty, the Santa Ana scourge whipping hair around my face. Click: There is his sailboat DEA, broadside against blue water, my father striding aforedeck as he stretches his arm to touch her colorful spinnaker that is swollen with air to carry him home.

“That’s my father! That boat was his!” I hear my voice crack with emotion in the telling.

Daddy was a sailor. It was his first love.

He’d never change the name of a boat he purchased: That would portend ill fate at sea. There was DEA (which he insisted meant “goddess” and not “Drug Enforcement Agency”), CUMARA (Irish “hound of the sea”) and his one-and-only inboard-motor, JUBILADO (“retired”). Balboa’s safe harbor, calm and usually smooth as glass, served only as his passage to the open ocean; the bell buoy just outside the jetties magnetized him seaward -- and that devil Santa Ana wind beckoned him like a siren song. When it blew, the craft heeled under his hands, her spray soaring magnificently skyward, salt crusting to her hull.

After my mother died, we moved into a house in San Juan Capistrano where Daddy paneled his bedroom to replicate a stateroom, right down to the bedside table that collapsed on a hinge. Before the sale of our family home, we cleaned out drawers of photographs. One I especially recall: Against a 1955 backdrop of uncluttered bay and unlittered beachfronts, my father -- Barnacle Bill -- and his unshaven sailors are aboard ship, playing poker and swigging rum.

By the time we fingered these black-and-whites, all his fellow seamen had either passed away or aged to the point that wives wouldn’t allow their husbands to crew any longer with my father -- “who,” they admonished, “shouldn’t be out there either!”

Undaunted, Daddy searched for companions who might accompany him for a “cocktail spin around the harbor” in his latest boat, RUM-GO (“raw deal”). Motorized. No ocean access. “For the old folks,” he shrugged, then managed to still take a risk or two, treacherously crossing the path of three Balboa Island ferries.

The last time I visited him, we sat on a patio surrounded by stucco walls, railroad tracks and barren hillside beyond. Can my father feel the ocean breeze on any afternoon? Does he remember the sound of mainsail rigging as it slaps against the mast in early evening? We attempt a conversation, and grow silent.

All around us, Santa Ana gusts have wreaked havoc: Devastating wildfires rage from San Diego to Malibu. Eerie clouds of smoke hover over the horizon and tiny tornadoes of ash swirl in circles around the legs of our chairs. Quite suddenly, his air shifts. He lifts his face skyward and closes his eyes, inhales deeply.

“Good day for a sail,” he whispers.

Kathleen Clary Miller is the published author of 200 stories and essays. She has been working on a book, “One Lie At a Time: How I Put My Father in an Alzheimer’s Facility,” excerpts of which have been published in the Johns Hopkins Memory Bulletin and the AARP Bulletin.

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