The rain falls in torrents. Like an engorged snake, the river has made its way hazardously close to the cluster of houses that huddle behind three feet tall sandbags. The river has easily overtaken the wild knotweed and flimsy trees that protrude from the water waving their surrender. And although it appears to be moving at a calm pace, even the strongest person would be unable to fight the current.
During the fall and winter months I often wonder what possessed my parents to move us here. Why did my dad feel the need to live in a fixer-upper house so near an unpredictable river? When the river rushes by in frothing fury, I stare mesmerized from my bedroom window, half-terrified that one day it will swell too high.
But the summer months always come and the river recedes to a mere three feet. On days like these, my dad and I pull our red canoe down the embankment and into the river. Grasping my paddle firmly with both hands, I plunge it deep into the water. My dad mans the back, steadily steering us up the winding river. Our canoe glides easily over the shallow waters, the current nearly nonexistent. Enveloped in tall evergreens that cast long shadows on the water, I can’t help but feel calm and safe.
These quiet moments with my dad are not taken for granted. My dad suffers from Bipolar disorder, and his moods are just as dramatic and terrifying as the swell of the river. I first witnessed him struggling in the murky depths of a manic episode in sixth grade. He was in the hospital for two months and off of work for three. It was emotionally draining and sometimes frightening being around him – one moment he was attempting a handstand, the next he was throwing coffee mugs at the wall, and the next he was running through the park crying hysterically.
It took me a while to reconcile this person with the one I had grown up with – strong, protective, and just a little dorky. I remember the exact moment when I realized he was still the same, old dad. My parents and I were sitting in a tiny, claustrophobic room at the hospital, waiting for the doctor to come in so we could sign the release papers. My dad was talking so fast I could barely keep up, but then suddenly he stopped, took my hand, and gave it a quick squeeze. I looked up, and he mouthed the words, “I love you.”
Soon after he recovered, we moved to our house by the river. We spent that summer painting the walls, ripping up carpet, and putting down new flooring. During the evenings we would sit beside the river and talk, my dad’s fishing pole propped up against the fence. The storm had finally passed.
Although having a dad who is mentally ill is not something I would wish on anybody, I would also never wish for my dad to be any different. He taught me how to play the fiddle and how to bait my fishing hook, and he has inspired me in a way that no one else has. It is his strength that motivates me to achieve – and to know that I will be able to take on whatever life throws at me. Even at his worst times, I know the summer months will come and like the river he will soon recover from the downpour.
The river bends, and I cannot see what lies beyond it. Yet, I still feel anticipation at what is coming and where I may be going. As our paddle strokes propel us upstream, the river is quiet and clear beneath our canoe – so different from what it was only months before. And it is peaceful.