When my father and I came upon the young harbor seal sunning itself on the rocks, we were walking the parameter of Monhegan Island, mending the seams in our relationship. The seal, a juvenile, still somehow bore the wide-eyed innocence of youth. It did not slip away when we moved in its direction. It was happy and fearless, basking in the warm sun.
“I wonder if there’s something wrong,” I said to my father, who was 62, and still carried himself with the confidence and ease of a man who had done well for himself in the world. “Why isn’t it trying to get away?”
We moved closer. I have always, since I was a child, wanted to touch the wild things. The seal seemed so unafraid. But you can push a thing too far sometimes. You can cause things to slip away.
We stood our ground fifteen feet from where the seal lay. We looked at it, and it looked at us. After awhile, there was nothing to do but move on.
A little further down the path, my father and I sat down on the rocks. He took pictures of the waves crashing down on the huge rocks before us and showed them to me on his digital camera.
In the mid-’90s, my father gave me a digital camera, and I tried it for awhile but I hated the thing. I was not like my father. He kept up on all the latest things. He liked to sit in front of the computer and upload pictures of his grandchildren and the wild turkeys strutting through the backyard and the red cardinals in the snowy birdfeeder. He emailed these to me, and I made time to look at them.
“Dad,” I said, when he set the camera down on the rock beside him and we’d sat in silence for some time, listening to the waves hurling themselves against the rocks and watching the seagulls wheeling above. “Do you remember that time when Frank and I came to visit, drove all thirteen hours straight through, and then when we got there how you and Betty said you would be more comfortable if we slept in separate rooms?”
How could he have forgotten it? He could not have. We had stayed up late into the night discussing it. Betty, my stepmother, is a born-again Christian, and Dad, who was always an atheist, had begun attending Bible studies with her. He left it to Betty and me to sort it out:
“What if I promise we won’t have sex?”
No, Betty shook her head. That wasn’t enough.
Betty had raised me, together with my father, from thirteen on. When I was a teen, I thought of her as a big sister. A few times, we had water fights in the house, while my dad sat uncomfortably on the sidelines, his tense gaze some complex mixture of disapproval and relief. A few times, we argued and then made up, when first Betty cried, and then I did too.
Finally, that night Frank and I drove across two countries to see them, they went to bed, leaving me, still, with a decision to make, and Frank valiantly waiting for a bed to sleep in.
I decided we would stay at a motel, and wrote them a note, telling them I would call them in the morning. As we pulled away, my father came running out in his bathrobe. I pressed the button on our rented car and the window rolled down and he leaned in.
Now, on the rocks, Dad said, “Yes, I remember.”
“Do you remember what you said?”
He shook his head no.
“You said, ‘Now you’re upsetting Betty even more.’”
He looked at me in a stunned silence. Then he said, “I’m sorry. I had never thought of that. I didn’t think of that, of how things were affecting you. You’re right, and I’m sorry.”
The next time we walked the circumference of the island, the harbor seal had slipped away. I learned later, years later, that sometimes their mothers leave them there, in a safe place on the rocks, while they go off into the deep of the ocean. Perhaps its mother had come back to reclaim it.
When my father got home, he sat down in front of his computer and uploaded the photos he had taken and emailed them to me. On some, the horizon was crooked; on others, it was just right.
photo credit: Steve Adams