What I Want You to Know About Rowing a Boat

The oars drop into the water in near unison. We push our bodies backward with our legs and pull the handles to our chests. We slide the handles down against our bodies, lifting the blades out of the water. We lean forward and drop the oars back in. Push and pull, down and up, moving in time with the other rowers in the whaleboat. We skim along the water and, though we are all sweating from the exertion, the movement feels smooth and effortless as we work in rhythm. Drop in, pull back, lift out, repeat.

It’s the Vallejo Waterfront Weekend. I am out in the Mare Island Straight, sitting inside one of three boats your school has registered for two friendly races. Our boat eked out a second-place finish in our first trip on the water. Now, I can see out of the corner of my eye that our boat is slightly ahead of the other two in this second race. We are well-positioned to win this one, maintaining a good pace and a half-boat lead heading into the turn.

Drop in, pull back, lift out, repeat.

I start to feel the pressure building as we approach this midway point. I am sitting starboard closest to the coxswain, meaning that the rest of my side of the boat will follow my lead as our strokes tighten and the boat does a 180 degree turn to begin the second half of the race. This is the part where I feel the least competent. I never know if my strokes are too long or too short, too quick or too slow. At our practices, I have sat in this position for one or two decent turns and a half-dozen awful ones, but I have not figured out how my mechanics differed between the two.

The coxswain starts giving us the warning: “Prepare to turn in 4 boats… 3 boats… 2 boats… 1 boat…” I grow anxious. At last, he yells out, “Hold, Port!” and I shorten my strokes. It becomes clear right away that this will not be a smooth turn. Oars clank against each other. I drop mine in and feel like I am moving no water. I try to count out the strokes but I feel out of sync, even with my own cadence. We flounder for what feels like ages before the coxswain tells our portside to give way.

By then, it is apparent we have not only lost our lead but fallen significantly behind the others. We try to find our rhythm again, but the rest of the outing is a grind. With effort, we drop in, pull back, lift out and repeat. It doesn’t feel the same as the first half of the race did. Oars flail around out of time. The boat moves along at what feels like a glacial pace. Finally, mercifully, we end up at the finish line, in third place by a long distance. We all catch our breath, stretch out our cramped hands, congratulate each other for our efforts and console one another on the results.

After we dock, I make my way back to the tents where you have been playing with your friends. As part of the Waterfront Weekend events, your school has set up a booth in hopes of attracting new family members to enroll. Several of your friends have come out for the festivities. While I was out paddling in the sun, you have been sitting in the shade building some Legos one of them brought.

“Hey buddy,” I say, interrupting you from the figure you were constructing.

“Oh, hi, Dad,” you respond. “Did you win?”

I tell you that we lost. You don’t seem too surprised. “Did you watch it?” I ask.

“Yeah, we watched it. In the first race I couldn’t see you. But I saw you in this one.”

“That’s cool,” I say. “What did you think?”

“Your boat didn’t really turn very good,” you tell me.

“Yeah, I’m aware,” I say, a little more wounded than I should be by the simple honesty of a seven-year-old.

You shrug and go back to building Legos with your friend.

About six weeks earlier, I raced from work to pick you and Ozzy up from school and doggie daycare, respectively, and sped home for a quick change of clothes. We drove to the docks and pulled into the parking lot where the other rowers and their families had already gathered for our first team practice. One of your best friends, an older kid who has taken you under his wing, was there. As I headed out to find the boat and learn how to row, the two of you ran off to play with the other kids while some non-rowing parents supervised.

A year ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. First of all, the pandemic was raging and vaccines hadn’t yet been approved, so events like this weren’t happening. But even without that major force altering everyone’s lives, you wouldn’t have been comfortable letting me out of your sight for very long. You had already lost one parent; it was obvious that what weighed on you more than anything else was the fear of losing the other.

One day at the dog park, for instance, I had to go to the far end to retrieve Ozzy, who was doing his best to avoid letting his playtime come to an end. I was out of your sight for a few minutes as Ozzy disobeyed every futile command I gave him. When Ozzy and I finally came back to the front gate where you had been waiting, your shoulders were slumped and your head was down. You told me it had taken so long you thought I had died.

Another time, my sister was visiting us, and one evening she and I decided to have a socially-distanced drink outside with our neighbors. Previously, when such meet-ups would take place the neighbors would come sit on our back patio. This time, however, they were worried their baby, who was battling a chest cold, might wake up and need their immediate attention, so we gathered in front of their house. We were about ten yards from the window of your bedroom, where you sat playing contentedly on your iPad. I told you we were going to have a drink with our neighbors but I neglected to tell you about the change of locale, figuring you would be able to hear us chatting away nearby.

I was mistaken. At some point you needed something and called out for me. Getting no response, you went to the backyard, but I wasn’t there. You grew frantic. I don’t know how long you were like that, alone and afraid. At some point, though, I heard the faint sound of your cries coming from the house. I rushed inside to find you in tears and red-faced, almost physically sick with fright and despair. I hugged you tight and let you know I was here, that I would be here for a long, long time, and that I was sorry you didn’t know where I was. Eventually you calmed down. For weeks, I was haunted by that awful look of horror on your face, and I was careful to make sure you always knew my whereabouts, even if I was just heading downstairs to watch TV.

Now, though, you have no problem running off to play with friends while I go out on a boat for an hour. Or watching my team collapse around a turn before you head back to the tent to build Legos with your friend during a busy Waterfront Weekend.

Now that the race is over, I notice a sadness beginning to settle in. Not about losing the races, but about the end of this short season in our lives.

After the teams would finish rowing practice on Thursday nights, the kids and adults would gather in a parking lot over some refreshments. The kids would catch Pokémon on their parents’ devices, or practice bottle flips to see who could land the most impressive trick shots. The adults would talk about being out on the water in the beautiful fall weather. We’d ask one another how our kids were liking school, what we did for a living, and how long we had lived in town.

Once you and I had had our share of bottle flips and small talk, we would go get a late dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant, the one that always makes us think of your mom since she was the first to discover it. You would have a bean-and-cheese burrito and a Snapple. I would get an enchilada special and a pineapple agua fresca. We would talk about how school was going, the latest drama at recess, and what rides were your favorites at Legoland. Then, we’d head home, where I’d let Ozzy out while you took a bath and then finished your homework.

There was nothing very grand about this routine but I’ll miss it all the same. For one thing, I’m not sure it will repeat itself. Our friends who spearheaded the whole event are moving to a new town, and there’s no guarantee you and I will be living here this time next year, either. Like so many other parts of our lives, it is here and then gone as we keep paddling along.

And if we are just rowing a boat through life, then our time with your mom was like the first half of my race. Our family sailed along smooth and steady; effortlessly in rhythm with one another until all that beauty was broken by the chaotic turn of her death. For months after, our oars thrashed around, bumping up against one another’s, out of sync and uncertain as we tried to get the boat moving again.

So then our life ever since has been like the second half of the race. The wretched turn still lingers in our minds, still throws things off just a bit. Yet, we keep trying to find our rhythms. To regain our confidence in each other and in ourselves. To see again the beauty in the simple strokes that carry us by.

And now here we are. I am out on a whaleboat, trying something new, enjoying time with friends before they move on to their next adventures. And you are under a tent, delightfully oblivious to my whereabouts for a while, like a healthy kid should be every now and then. This was a good stroke. On opposite sides of the vessel from one another, but very much in sync.

The boat moves on to new waters. Not as smoothly as before, but that’s OK. It’s moving all the same. We’ll just see what the next stroke brings.

Drop in, pull back, lift out, repeat.

3 Comments on “What I Want You to Know About Rowing a Boat

  1. This essay is really beautiful, Caleb. I love the way you compared your lives to the boat race. Wish I could have watched this in person. I remember the rowing crews’ attempt to recruit you when you arrived at Gonzaga when they saw your height and wing span. :). It looks like a tough sport, so I’m proud of you for your 3rd place award.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m taken, totally, by this analogy and give thanks for this incredible talent you have to write. You are doing so to heal, to provide history and context in the future for your son, but you are giving those of us who read these epistles gifts for our own journeys. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful. I always look forward to your posts. They are always so well written and they truly capture the reader. You have a gift. Thanks for keeping Jaime’s memory alive in these stories. I love them!

    Liked by 1 person

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