My parents leave for London on Friday, a combination wedding anniversary gift/ birthday present for my dad.
I’m waiting to hear the second punch line.
See, I’m prone to synchronicity. Sometimes it takes years to unfold. Let me tell you a true story, one of my strangest. Bear with me; there will be enough seemingly-irrelevant details that finally tie in to classify this as Dickens Lite, but I think the payoff’s worth it.
Growing up, we took one vacation a year. Pinching and scrimping, my dad always managed to save up enough money to get us to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for two weeks. A point of pride with him. A point of happiness for me.
On each trip, he’d walk with me along the beach, stop, put out his arm, and through some mysterious process, determine the exact spot on the horizon.
“Straight ahead,” he’d say pointing , “is England. We’ll go there someday, and see Big Ben and the Queen and Abbey Road.”
We both knew it had to be someday and not this year, or the next. My family’s vacations had to fall within certain parameters. We couldn’t put an ocean between ourselves and my brother, left in the care of my grandmother during our trips. Christopher could die at any time, without much warning. We took that risk once a year, to be a ‘normal’ family, one that didn’t draw public stares, followed by quick looks away and uncomfortable whispers. For two weeks, we could be invisible.
I was my older brother’s healthy replacement. When my mom was pregnant, they were sure I was a boy. I was supposed to be Nicolas. They called me Nick until I came out sans penis. I lived my life trying to be perfect and quiet and good and all the things they had wanted from their firstborn. I was even born on February ninth, the anniversary of the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. My parents’ loves were mine. And my dad loved the Beatles and England.
Thanks to him, England became mythical in my head. Crumbling castles, empty moors, haunted forests. Fox hunts and tea at four. Big Ben, Windsor Palace, Piccadilly Square and Apple Records. Shakespeare, Jack the Ripper, Queen Victoria, the Beatles, not to mention our own family roots. I wanted to see it all so badly. And I felt guilty for wanting it, because to find myself exploring Mayfair in the rain meant that no brother would be waiting back home.
The year Christopher died, I was fourteen. We went to Myrtle Beach, as usual. Everything was ‘as usual.’ I tried even harder to be perfect and quiet and good. We didn’t stop to grieve, didn’t do the things we’d said we’d do.
But slowly, we came out of the quiet grief, and my dad started talking about England. The eighties were at least financially kind to my family, and we had the money to travel comfortably. I bought and memorized the Fodor’s Guide to London, I had tube routes planned, phrases mastered, restaurants chosen. We talked about staying for two weeks, then for a month, maybe going north into Scotland. So I bought a guide to Scotland and then Ireland for good measure (I mean, Ireland was right there after all).
The guilt was there, yes. But so was this feeling that we deserved to go. We’d suffered, and this was a reward.
I remember talking at dinner about getting our passports, when my dad announced that he wanted to buy a boat. All his friends at his new job had boats. He wanted one, plain and simple. My mom and I sat silent and bemused. This boat thing came out of nowhere. We looked at small boats. We looked at medium boats. We bought a big boat. We joined a yacht club. On the Illinois river. Yee-ha. We didn’t go anywhere that year. The boat was our vacation. Every weekend. Do you know what it does to an insecure fifteen-year-old, when you drag her an hour and ten minutes away from her new friends at her new high school every single weekend to brush fist-sized spiders and bat-sized mosquitoes off a boat in hundred-degree weather? Especially one who kind of sort of hoped that maybe she might find some nice English boy in that month-long vacation to the UK?* She gets snappish and withdraws. That’s what she does. My parents didn’t know what to make of it. My father was especially angry. He calmly told me one day that I was a cold person. The Tin Woodman. You know, heartless. Anyway, I grew up and out of my snit. Fast forward about twelve years. I’m married, living in Colorado, getting ready for a trip to Ireland for the first time. We’ve got a stopover in Gatwick, and the possibility of scooting into London with just enough time to snap a photo before turning around and hopping a puddle jumper to Cork. My parents are thrilled for me, my dad especially.
“We should have gone to England when you were a girl,” he tells me on the phone.
“It’s ok,” I say. “We had some good times on the boat.”
“You hated the boat. You still do.”
“No. It was just an awkward time, that’s all.”
“Well. At least you’ll get there. I don’t think your mother and I will ever make it.”
“Sure you will.”
A layover in Detroit. I’m fidgeting and looking around, noting the time before departure to Gatwick, and hating the clock for going so fast. Why? Because by chance, my dad is also somewhere in the airport making a different connecting flight back to Illinois. And by further chance, the puddle jumpers and international flights share the same terminal (Ah, sweet pre-911.)
They announce that the boarding will begin. We stand up, and I reluctantly take a place in line. Then I hear my name. My dad is running toward me. I smile, drop my bags and run to give him a hug.
“Have fun,” he says. “You deserve this.”
I start crying, overwhelmed. I want to drag him on the plane with me, skip Ireland and see how much of London I remember from Fodor’s.
I feel guilty too. Do I deserve this? Really?
On the plane, I take a risk and strike up a conversation with a gentleman across the aisle. He’s going home with his two kids after visiting his wife’s family in America. A friendly Brit, we talk about tea and fox hunts and Shakespeare. I tell him I live in Colorado, but that I’m originally from Illinois.
So is his wife’s family.
“Here,” he says. Let me show you some photos I took.”
He takes out a stack of photos (he had them developed because he didn’t trust the film going through the x-ray machine) and hands them to me. Familiar. Very familiar. “My brother-in-law has a boat, and we went to see it,” he says.
I feel my face redden up. “Starved Rock Marina,” I say.
“Why yes. You know it?”
“I do. Very well. My parents have a boat there. A Bayliner.”
He shuffles through another stack of photos. “I took some photos of boats…let me see…yes…”
He hands me a photo of my parents’ boat. No mistaking it. The name I stenciled on the back is quite clear.
“That’s my parents’ boat,” I tell him. I’m shaking a little. Despite being used to weird shit happening to me, O is dumbfounded.
The guy laughs, “Small world, innit?”
At this point, I still don’t know his name. I won’t know his name until hours later, just before we land and he hands O his card.
So, now that my parents are finally going (really before I did; I never got to see London) I’m waiting for the next punch line. My dad is, too.
I’ve probably jinxed it, by writing about it, but we’ll see.
*(Yeah, it’s true. Every single red-blooded American girl wants a Brit. If you come over here, you will get laid, regardless of what you look like or what your father does. We can’t tell one class accent from another and we don’t care. Just keep talking.)