TOWNSHEND — Dad is buckled into the passenger seat next to me, a frayed Navy veteran cap pulled down low over his forehead, his ample belly straining against the seat belt.
As I drive him slowly around Martha's Vineyard Island, one hand clutches his inhaler and the other, his empty brown wallet.
This is our daily ritual. We meander down country lanes bordered by moss-covered stone walls, through canopies of pin oaks and sycamores. Our destination, the sea, with its flashing whitecaps, now and then appears on the horizon, then disappears slowly as we descend a hill.
To coax this 95-year-old out of his house and into the car, I have to close the WoodenBoat calendar that is open in front of him on the kitchen table. Each square is scribbled over in layers of blue and black ink.
“Who's coming next? When am I leaving? Do I live here?” he asks me, in sequence, over and over, scratching my response on top of the same one I gave him moments before.
* * *
When I run out of patience, I hand him his hat, and I walk him unsteadily down the pebble path to the car. The storm door slams shut behind us.
“Where are we going?” he grunts as we pull out of the driveway.
“Just for a drive.”
“Why isn't Mom coming?”
“I'm sorry, Dad, but Mom passed away five years ago.”
“Oh - that's right.” He turns his head to stare out the side window in silence.
He points to an open field. “Mom and I camped there before you were born.”
When we pass an old schoolhouse, “I was the first principal of that school.”
Seeing an old, grey-shingled cottage, he says, “Grandpa and I dug that foundation by hand. And that's the hill we sledded down when we were kids.”
In the Depression, he did dig cellars by hand and sled down New England hills, but none of these events took place on this island. He grew up in Brockton and was a school principal.
The iconic New England landmarks of stone walls, farms, and sea are now the only way he can map his past.
* * *
When we round the hill at the Gay Head Cliffs and the vast Atlantic reveals itself, he straightens up.
“This is where I sailed off to Spain,” he exclaims, his memory and geography aligning at last.
Now, he launches into his epic, and true, stories. With them, comes my daily respite from the sadness of witnessing his decline into dementia.
They begin with World War II, when he patrolled the North Atlantic on an aircraft carrier.
Thirty years later, he set forth from Menemsha, Mass., on his first solo trans-Atlantic sail in a small Tahiti ketch, using only a sextant and nautical charts for navigation.
For years, he delivered yachts through the Panama Canal, down the coast of South America to Tierra del Fuego. His voice falters as he describes the exhausted migratory birds that dropped with a thud onto his deck at night and the schools of dolphins that swam alongside, keeping him company as he navigated by the stars.
In the Hurricane of 1991, a Polish freighter rescued him 800 miles off of Bermuda in 40-ft. seas. He swung precariously back and forth in a rope harness that hauled him up to the deck, waves crashing over him.
He watched his treasured ketch sink slowly into the deep.
“Is my boat still in Lake Tashmoo?” he asks eagerly as we head back inland towards West Tisbury, the sea fading from view.
“No, Dad, you sold it a long time ago.”
He grows quiet as we pull into the driveway edged by the hollies he planted decades ago.
“Do I live here?” he asks.
“Yes,” I answer.
“Where am I going after this?”
“I don't know, Dad, but I'll be back tomorrow.”