I love the lake.
The lake doesn’t love me.
Dad bought his house on the lake before I was born. The lake lives in my earliest memories. In childhood, dad would make me volcanoes in the beach sand. We had our best conversations on the dock.
As a teen, I sat on the dock to calm down and get away from the chaos in the house. My best friend and I sat there many hours, talking out of earshot of my dad, watching the birds and the fish and the changing color on the water.
Ever since I left home, the lake appears in dreams or at least great pools of water. When I haven’t seen a body of water for a long time, I can feel the change in my own body as soon as a lake or ocean comes into view.
I love the lake.
But I never thought it couldn’t kill me.
When I was about ten, I went too far out to retrieve a ball. It was green with white stars. I forgot how close I was to a hole, and my foot slipped and went down. The water turn cold and black. Holes killed people. I thrashed in panic and landed a few feet away. The ball floated out into the lake and I hurried back to the shore worried I’d stirred up whatever resided in the mucky reedy places.
Plenty of times growing up, I’d seen the water moccasins and the gators. I’d seen gators snatch up ducks. A large bird, so large, taller than my eight-year-old self, grabbed the hook from my fishing line, and it pulled me right off the dock and into the water.
I knew of the drownings, people sucked into those holes or perhaps being pulled in by a gator. I’d been badly sunburned and swarmed by mosquitos. I’d seen the storms and the lightning race across the lake, and even on one occasion, a funnel of water, skirting the shore. I’d nearly stepped on a four foot gator as I walked to the dock, too distracted by the book I was reading.
At five, a neighbor took me alligator hunting on an airboat. My seat was the box where they stuffed the caught gator’s corpse.
And not in “our” lake, but in other lakes in town, swimmers died from brain-eating amoeba.
When I was little, I did go swimming in the lake. What can I say. Parents in the 70s weren’t different. (I ended up with my picture in the newspaper because I was toddler, standing in the water, wearing a diaper and holding a fishing pole. It was winter and people thought it was funny, a toddler fishing in the cold.
So often, my dad would just watch me do my thing, and he’d shout, “Don’t let the gator getcha!”
When I took my own son to the lake, I loved introducing him to this part of my life, and always in the back of my mind lurked the idea that this lake could kill him. My son is a city kid. He was startled by the darkness and the sounds of night on the lake. For him it was louder than living in the city.
But I love that lake.
I love seeing it every time I step out the front door or look out my bedroom window. I love that moment when I fly home to visit, and I get that first glimpse of the lake from the highway.
Years ago, I developed the ritual of saying goodbye. I knew that one time would be the last time. Of course knowing something and experiencing it are not the same thing. But in any case, every time I put my suitcase in the rental car and hugged my dad and his wife, I turned to stare across the street and down the stretch of grass. “Bye, lake,” I whispered, never really believing it was the last time.
And then the last time really was the last time.
Thanks for reading.