My father, Frank De Marco, died on July 26, 2005. He’s still with me in many ways.
The most enduring aspect of these memories of playing in the sand and jumping in the waves is my father Frank. He became my guide for adventure and creativity in an outdoor arena where my thoughts seemed to expand with special ease. There was something about forming sandcastles with him that felt like building a life. We would lay a foundation, dig some holes to create fill, and gather flowing wave water from the tides. Diving into the crashing waves alongside of him was like taking a chance and going after your dreams. With him swimming nearby using those same strong arms that pulled me out of the pool as a toddler, I was invulnerable. The ocean was mine, imaginary Great White sharks not withstanding, along with the sky above and the brilliance of the sun.
Dad taught me how to body surf. I would watch him scan the immediate horizon for the wave patterns, awaiting just the right vehicle that would transport him to the shoreline with his body face down and his arms folded under his chest. Eventually we would compete and see who could be the first to reach the beach. I tried real surfing years later, but still prefer this simple, timeless and inexpensive method of riding the wives.
My father also taught me how to float. No one else could levitate on his back with such ease. Dad would float for hours, his eyes squinting under the Florida sun. He had an amazing ability to relax his entire body, making it become as light as the foam that dances along the waves. I still cannot do it as well as he could; like the apostle Peter when he takes his eyes off of Jesus and stares at the odds, I sink quite rapidly
I think Dad’s ability to ease into a float reflected his deeper ease about life and its circumstances. Things could be rough and volatile and stormy all around, but he had a way, like Jesus, of settling down everyone else in the boat. In a sense he was my first spiritual mentor, flawed like everyone else but full of encouragement and positive thinking. (The pastor who preached Dad’s funeral called him “the most encouraging person she had ever met.”) He was not able to formally teach me how to embrace a specifically biblical framework for my life, but Dad was a powerful pipeline of grace that God used again and again to remind me that I was worth something.
Two other beach sports I enjoyed growing up included volleyball and Frisbee, that magical plastic disc you could fling forever if the wind was breaking in the right direction. Dad and I tossed a Frisbee back and forth hundreds if not thousands of times. He taught me the basic maneuvers, then started adding intricate moves such as how to make it skip, how to throw it side-ways, how to catch it one-handed. My confidence grew as the years passed. I learned how to “thread the needle,” the daring step of slinging the Frisbee toward Dad’s outstretched hands as he stood in the midst of a crowd of beachcombers, knowing I would hit my target rather than someone’s head. Most of the time that was the case; for the other occasions, I am deeply sorry for knocking off your sunglasses or breaking your nose.
Dad also taught me how to throw a football and I became quite good for someone my age, able to hurl deep passes in sandlot games with friends. I can still visualize my father in our backyard, his hands modeling how to grasp the ball around the stitches, us tossing the pigskin back and forth and running patterns for each other. On occasion the ball would sail over our neighbor’s fence, and one of us would have to face the crotchety old lady next door and retrieve it.
As I write this and visualize Dad waiting to receive my pass, I wonder if there could be any greater event in this world than playing catch with your father. Something magical happens when you toss a ball or a Frisbee back and forth; it is like you are exchanging a piece of yourselves with one another. Soul is touching soul, heart reaching out to heart, each person giving their very best to the other
These memories help me realize why the closing scene of the film Field of Dreams is so powerful. Among the ballplayers who wander from the cornfields into Kevin Costner’s newly-constructed baseball diamond is Costner’s father as a young man, full of vitality in a season before the stress of making a living wore him down. Before his father turns to go back into eternity, Costner asks him for a game of catch. Costner’s emotional wounds lose a little bit of sting with each smack of the ball into his outstretched glove.
As I see Dad poised in the backyard, full of health and energy, I feel those lingering wounds of loneliness being touched with a little more salve. He sailed the ball or Frisbee into the wind again and again, and it chased after me as I chased to keep up with it.
Years later Dad also taught me to drive a car. He had a diesel sedan in the early 1980s, and we utilized the beach for these initial lessons as well. Gradually he bumped me up to 25-30 mph streets, and one of those featured a winding curve that led to a near collision with an oak tree. (Dad stayed calm—I think.) Before I knew it we graduated to the highway, and that fall I was a designated front-seat passenger helping other new drivers in 10th Grade Driver’s Education class. They truly needed help, since one of our adult teachers was often, to put it mildly, inebriated.
I still retain some vital lessons Dad taught me about driving a car, including his crucial defensive driving advice (which has never failed me to this day) to always assume every other driver out there is a complete idiot. He also advised me to stay focused on the cars in front of me rather than the ones behind, which in a way mirrored his style of not getting down about the past but moving forward to carve out a preferred tomorrow. He encouraged me not to tail gate and to use my signals. And eventually, after I burned off the arrogance of youthful driving, I heeded his advice.