By Kamm Prongay
Puget Sound is five degrees colder in the winter than the peak of summer, and those are five important degrees. I wanted to swim anyway, so followed the steep, narrow trail to the beach. In summer, blackberries occlude the entrance. By late December, someone has trimmed them back, and the trail is a strip of mud, rutted from heavy rain. Bigleaf maple leaves cover the ground, a slick yellow carpet across the ooze. The path was once well-tended, and led to a wooden boardwalk and boat landing. Small steamers, a Mosquito fleet of independent boats, would stop to pick up mail and cargo, for delivery north to Port Madison, south to Eagle Harbor, or somewhere further along Bainbridge Island.
That was a century ago. An overgrown trail and collection of decaying pilings are all that remain. Sentinels from a forgotten dock, they stand in the water a quarter-mile offshore. Pelagic Cormorants use them for sunning. I use them as a navigation aid, a marker to swim to and around. They also mark the tide.
It took 25 minutes to settle my father for a nap. Another 10 to wriggle my hips into a neoprene suit. Five-minute walk to the beach. A foot more of the pilings are showing. An ebb current will carry me out to sea.
Today is the first time I am swimming so late in the year. My brother swam around the entire point one November. I paddled alongside in a kayak, ready to rescue. Once on shore, he shivered so violently he could barely walk. Today, there is no rescue boat. I balance my desire to be in the water with this knowledge. I am very prone to cold. My bare feet are white against the black basalt bulkhead, and I watch, detached, as my toes curl and form themselves around the rock.
The first step into the water is the hardest. Cold Shock, they call it: an involuntary gasp as your skin receptors register 49-degree immersion. I prefer a slow approach. Two steps down the rock, and then into the water. I keep my head up until the reflex gasp passes, then put my head in and swim. With each stroke, water creeps around my neck, trickles between my shoulder blades, and rubs against my arm pits. Ten strokes, eleven, twelve, I count, breath out, flow out with the current.
Beyond the pilings, I roll onto my back and float. My feet drift up, buoyed by the wetsuit, and I hold them just above the water’s surface, framing Seattle’s skyline between my arches. I rest in the waves, rocking gently, salt tears mixing with salt water.
Once, I walked these beaches with my father. During summer low tide, we would pick blackberries, plump orbs, sun-warmed and sweet, their purple skin slightly salty from sea spray. Two for the bucket, one to taste, our picking rhythm matched with conversation about his latest sweet pea varieties and yard projects. We would watch the bald eagles nest, laugh at the river otters, and share picnic lunch on the beach.
Today’s lunch was not so pleasant. “Did you have to do this? Did you have to move me out of this house?” Remembering his accusation, my throat tightens. Even in the cold water, irritation and anger mix, blood rushes to my face, my fists clench. I reminded him of family conferences, his inability to determine time of day, whether to eat or sleep, and the complete social isolation from age, impaired mobility, and COVID. He looked beyond me, out into the Sound, with its slow but constant activity of sail boats, fishing trawlers, and container ships. After several minutes, he sighed and swallowed, then looked at the floor. He took a sip of coffee. “This is nice soup,” he finally said, and went upstairs to nap.
Numb feet and hands draw me from this memory. I roll over, swim back, against the tide. At the house, I peel my wetsuit over hips, thighs, calves, one foot, the other. I finish with a quick shower, then ready the bathroom for my father’s shower.
For 43 years he has lived above Puget Sound, his daily rhythm guided by the changing light and changing tides and changing seasons. When my mother died last year, we thought he would follow. COVID gave him purpose. He tapped memories of the Depression and WWII naval service, assured us that he could care for himself. He adapted to online grocery orders. He planted hanging baskets with pink fuchsias and purple petunias, woke at six every morning, shared breakfast with his cat. We dared, my brother, and sister and I, to hope. Each weekend, one of us would visit, to cook and clean and stock his refrigerator and freezer.
As the summer waned and the Northwest days grew dark and gray, his mind followed. The three of us compared notes: in one day, he fed the cat an entire container of liver, but he was not eating. He called at odd hours, 2 a.m. for my brother, 2 p.m. for me. We adjusted our schedules, determined to care for him in his home as long as we, and our spouses, could manage.
My father wakes from his nap. He has not showered this week, and so I guide him. We gather clean clothes: white cotton Jockey crewneck undershirt, blue corduroy pants, a matching blue and cream plaid flannel shirt. I put a stool into the bathroom for him to sit on, and start the heater. He stands in the doorway and asks, “What do I do?” I talk him through unbuttoning his shirt, help take off his watch. Hearing aids are next. His hand tremors make removing the ear molds challenging, so I ease them out. They are followed by thick trifocals. We continue like this, he looking at me, stating an item of clothing, confirming the order, removing the item. Together, we remove shirt, shoes, socks, pants and belt, until he is standing in just a white undershirt and grey adult diaper. “What’s next?” he asks.
How should I—eldest, daughter, lesbian—be in this moment? My father has always been so modest. He wears two swim suits, briefs and trunks, for insurance. His running shorts would have delighted a nun.
I exhale, turn on the water and adjust the temperature, then help him out of his t-shirt. He slides the diaper off. I help him step in and guide his hands to the grab bar, then step back to let him wash. He holds the grab bar with his right hand, lifts his face toward the warm spray, his left hand shakily moving the water over his face and through his hair. Water envelops his body.
My father’s thoracic spine has collapsed into a large ‘C’ and his shoulders and pelvis hang over each other. Much of his muscle is gone, and I count individual vertebrae, trace each scapular spine, and follow outlines of all his veins and tendons. I am acutely aware of shared DNA, that one day, my back will look like this.
I pour shampoo into my hands and massage his head. He laughs as he rinses the bubbles out. His pleasure in the shower leaves us both happy. We decide on a spontaneous drive, half-mile to a beachside park, to sit and watch the mergansers before dinner. Then I help him into pajamas, brush his teeth, tuck him into bed, and turn out the lights.
Day leaves quickly in December, and I stand in his dark house, looking east, toward Seattle, Rainier, and the North Cascades. My heart lacks the capacity to process all of this: my father as he is now, my memories of who he was. I reach for a word, an emotion, and hear only silence. I am left looking out at the Sound. Light spills from office windows, transforming tall, angular skyscrapers into a forest of white. Seahawk stadium, arches illuminated in cobalt blue and bright green, squats between the city and the port. Mammoth orange cranes, Brontosaurus necks stretched over a container ship, bob slowly over the water.
Further to the northeast, I can just see the mast lights of a tug with tow, three all-around white lights in a vertical line signal its identity. I watch as the mast lights and green starboard running lights move against the far shore, and calculate speed: 12 knots. The tug turns southeast toward port, yellow stern light now visible. At first, I cannot see his tow. Slowly, it appears, low on the horizon, requisite 100 yards from the tug, two vessels linked by a submerged chain. I watch the stern light of the tow appear, and gradually lose the two vessels as their lights merge against the lights of the far shore. The only other vessel is another tug, unburdened, single white mast light, outbound.
About the author:
Kamm Prongay is a writer and veterinarian whose essays intertwine science, nature, people, and place. A child of the South, raised in the Pacific Northwest, Kamm spent time at sea as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer before coming ashore to pursue veterinary school, clinical practice, teaching and research. She has contributed to four textbooks, and her essays have appeared in scientific journals and UltraRunning magazine. She holds a Bachelors in English Literature from Whitman College, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Washington State University, and a Master of Clinical Research from Oregon Health & Science University. Kamm lives with her wife, Liz, and two curious cats in Portland, Oregon.