When my father handed me the end of the rope, I didn’t know it would be the last thing he would teach me or the last time I would sit by his side to learn.
“We need a knot right here.” He pointed. “Can you tie one?” We sat shoulder to shoulder in plastic chairs at the edge of the shoreline he’d loved for more than half a century. Across the lake, speedboats hummed and jet skis growled. In our bay, silence reigned.
My father explained how to tie the knot: over, over, around and through. For once, he didn’t demonstrate — his hands were too swollen, too sore. Too worn.
He’d forgotten that I’d tied this knot a hundred times before. Any other summer, I would have reminded him. I would have scolded, resisted, fought. “I know how to do this,” I’d said, again and again, in our collective past. “I’ve done it a hundred times. You don’t need to show me.”
This time, I didn’t remind him. I tied a quick bowline: over, over, around and through.
“Good, good,” my father said. “Now we need a match.”
I ran up the sloped yard and into our cabin, tucked between hundred-year-old oaks and thick maples and rows of sturdy birch trees that lined our driveway like sentinels. The matchbooks were where they’ve always been, on a plain wooden shelf built by my father’s hands, next to the mugs with faded patterns and coffee stains.
When I walked back outside, the screen door banged behind me, the way it’s done nearly every day of every summer of my life.
My father sat still in the chair where I’d left him minutes earlier. Waiting, staring across the bay at boats or gliding loons or lily pads or, perhaps, at nothing but his own memories.
I’ve always known the back of his head, but in that moment, his hair was whiter than ever against the bright northern sky, and his shoulders were tired, drooping. I wanted to hold him in this place, framed by the shimmering water, the glowing sun, the reeds and the cattails and the towering trees, forever.
We didn’t know death was coming in those final weeks at the cabin.
But I knew he was soft and sentimental in a way he’d never been before. And I knew, for once, not to fight him at every turn. Not to chafe, to protest, to resist a father’s intentions to teach his child how to survive without him, someday.
There has been much dialogue in recent years about what topics our children are, and should be, learning in school classrooms. Following remote schooling during the pandemic, an NPR poll asked parents to judge whether their children were on track in subjects like math and science, reading, writing, and socialization and communication skills. Another survey out of the UK revealed that parents wished their children would also learn practical life skills in school, like how to save money or start a business. And recent national debates have focused on how to best incorporate vital topics like inequity and social-emotional learning into our education systems. These are important conversations to have. My father, who was a public school teacher for many decades, would have agreed.
During the last summer with my father, on the side of a quiet lake, I was also reminded of the importance of taking time to learn seemingly small — but ultimately significant — lessons from those who are willing to teach us outside the walls of school.
How to tie knots. How to build campfires, shuffle a deck of cards, drop a fishing line in the water. How to listen and learn when someone is offering the time to teach us something new. How to cherish all the lessons that will someday be missed, with excruciating pain, after our fathers are gone.
For the first time in years, during his last summer, my father joined in all our family activities. Boat rides, slow walks up the wooded driveway, family card games every night. He was teaching my children to play poker: five card draw, Texas hold ’em, night baseball. My kids watched and listened with a graciousness I’d never had when I was young and my father tried to teach me anything.
“Can’t we just play, already?” I’d said.
But my children soaked in their grandfather’s instructions with attentive ears and endless patience. “I want to play the game with the one-eyed jacks and the kings with the axe,” my 7-year-old said. “Will you teach me how again, Grandpa?”
And for the first time ever, during his last summer, I found patience, too. Side by side, in our plastic chairs, my father and I sat and I listened, matchbook in hand. He held the rope toward me, his hand shaking.
“Light it, then burn the end of the rope, right here,” he said. I know, I know, we’ve done this a thousand times, I might have said, a year or two or 10 earlier. A child’s shallow protest, to resist the lessons of her father.
But this day, I didn’t protest.
I lit one match, then another, then another. I held the matches to the frayed end of the rope. The rope caught fire, then snuffed out, again, again, and again. My father frowned. My shoulders tensed. Surely I could light a match without help.
A few steps away from where we sat in our hard chairs, my father had taught me how to light my first match. He’d taught me how to build a fire, nestled among the stones of our firepit. He taught me how to stack the logs in the firepit to make sure enough air moved through to keep the flame alive. And he lectured us, more times than I could count, on which type of logs burned better for cooking, for bonfires, for dry weather, for rainy weather.
“Dad, I know already, you don’t need to tell me,” I said every summer, even as an adult. “You’ve told me a million times.” A lifetime of small arguments, forgotten at the end of every summer day but bigger to me now that he’s gone.
After he died, I became acutely aware that my father’s place in this world is now consigned to my memories, to other people’s memories, not his own. And I remember how, during that last summer, when my dad taught me to tie a knot I already knew how to tie, I did not argue.
I was gentle with him, for reasons yet unknown. Later that day, after the sun dropped lower in the sky, I would kiss his soft hair before running back into the cabin to help my mother cook dinner, to teach my children how to shuffle their cards for a game they would play on the screened-in porch where children have played cards for generations.
My own children would not protest when I showed them how to shuffle, because I haven’t spent nearly enough time teaching them lessons I once took for granted.
They don’t bother to resist, because I don’t show them how to do things over and over, the way my father once showed me. Because instead of teaching them, I grow impatient and shuffle for them. My father would never have shuffled the cards for me, or tied the knot, or lit the match. He taught me as many times as it took, and then many times after.
As a breeze stirred small ripples across the surface of the lake, I lit one more match and held it to the end of the rope, and it sparked for a second before dying out.
My dad cupped his large, bent hand around my smaller one, gave me a moment of shelter from the wind, and the next match burned until the rope grew hard at the end, unyielding.
“That’ll do,” he said with a nod.
He watched me walk across the echoing planks of the rickety dock that he built himself and that once was sturdy. I tied the rope to the third pole and to the bow of the boat, and cinched it tight. Then I returned to my father.
We sat. Waves lapped against the shore in a quiet song, and time rolled on.
Rebecca Swanson was raised on the lakeshores of Minnesota and now lives with her family in Colorado. Find her on Twitter @RebeccaLSwanson.