Lichen

My father believed that "nature bats last" -- and it did, unfolding my family's destiny.


Anne Lamott
February 6, 1999 1:19AM (UTC)

In August of 1977, Duxbury Reef was green with the crust called lichen, made of algae and fungus; it covered the lava rock like slippery fabric. Lichen is what reduces rock to soil and sand. It was a heathery, sage green.

I was twenty-three, out of school four years, writing and cleaning houses and teaching tennis. I still believed in God, although I did not talk about it with my father much. He didn't mind my recounting adventures on LSD, or romantic dramas even if they involved married men, but the God business made him act impatient with me. So I had gone underground with it again. That day we were walking along on the lava beds, peering down into the tide pools -- my father, who was fifty-four, and my brother Steve, who we still called Stevo. He was eighteen. My brother John lived on the other side of the mountain with his girlfriend and came over once a week. Our mother was a lawyer in Honolulu by then. We had a black lab named Muldoon.

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If my father worshiped anything it was the beauty of nature. The tide pools were full of wafting hairlike algae and wonderful kelp like emerald green lasagna noodles. You had to be very careful when bending down to inspect the creatures who lived in the pools, or you'd fall on your butt. Spiky sea urchins dug in the crevices of the lava rocks; sea anemones, highly pigmented in August, yellow, pink, deep red; lots of little crabs picking their way through the algae and kelp. The three of us were paying even more attention than usual, trying to tether ourselves to the earth, because the world was coming to an end.

My dad had fallen over a week before while walking along Shattuck Avenue near the Berkeley campus. He had been there to do some research at the university. He wasn't hurt when he toppled over. Someone helped him up and he dusted himself off with good-natured embarrassment, but he did mention it at dinner that night at his girlfriend's house, and also that he'd been feeling strange lately, like his head didn't quite work. He was trim and in wonderful health, in love, with all of his children nearby. We all promised it would turn out to be nothing.

But it was going to be something, and I think I knew that. He had confided in me that working had been very perplexing lately: He'd start to type one thought down, and something altogether different would come out. It was like the computer inside his head was not communicating with the printer.

Still, he looked good, tall and fair, thick brown hair flecked with gray, blue-gray eyes and a long beaky nose that somehow worked on him. He wore and had always worn chinos, or jeans, and moccasins, field binoculars around his neck. That day at Duxbury, pelicans flew by so low to the water you'd think their bellies were wet with surf, and there were hundreds of seagulls, cormorants, Arctic terns, geese and ducks and egrets and herons.

I could remember being here at three on my father's shoulders as he walked along with my mother below the cliffs. Stevo hadn't been born yet, and my brother John ran up ahead, always wanting to distance himself from the rest of us. When I was eight and nine, with Stevo by then toddling along, we collected agate-sized pieces of fossilized whalebone: hard dark rocks with chambers like the eyes of a bee. We gathered them into the tiny muslin bags with yellow drawstrings that fishing weights came in. My father paid us a quarter for collecting all the whalebone we could find, and it kept us busy and attentive, on our hands and knees, pawing slowly through the agates and pebbles and sand.

Now my father, brother, and I were all living in Bolinas, my father with his girlfriend and Steve. I was in our one-room cabin. All of us were drinking a lot with much pleasure.

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There were marvelous islands of green in the water that day, kelp forests swaying with the water currents as if to a symphony. My father was very distracted, deep in thought, looking up from time to time. Stevo and I were focused on the tide pools, outwardly calm and engaged but secretly panicking, huddling together whenever Dad went off to study something new. We were waiting for the results of a CAT scan that Dad had taken a few days before. There might even be a message on his answering machine when we got back from our walk.

Steve slipped on the wet lava; it was slick and rich with marine vegetation -- walking there was like stepping around on someone's wet head. He fell on his bottom and began to berate himself, close to tears. He was a senior in high school, no longer fat. Now he was too tall, too gangly, very dependent on Dad and me. He had gone to live in Hawaii with Mom when she'd first moved there a few years before, but he'd been beaten up by a native at a bus stop and had moved back to Bolinas not long after. He sat on the rock and didn't get up, his hand was in a fist like he might hit someone, and then instead he began to hit the palm of his other hand, the way you work a baseball mitt.

My dad looked away from Stevo to give him a chance to collect himself. He pointed to where a hawk hung just above the wall of cliffs which runs the length of the beach. There are often tiny avalanches in process here, pebbles and dirt clods tumbling down the cliffs' sheer faces. Nature had never let my father down and never would. He often repeated the old saying that Nature bats last. I on the other hand was totally doubtful about whether God was going to be of any help at all if I lost my father.

"Come on, buddy, you're OK. Get up," my father said kindly, reaching out a hand. My brother didn't take it for a minute. He was wild with anxiety. He was very young to have to go through what was unfolding that day as our family's destiny. We were, in fact, going to learn later that afternoon that my father had a brain tumor on the word section of his brain, a metastasized melanoma, something no one had ever survived at that time. In just a week or so, doctors were going to take out as much of the tumor as they could, but they weren't going to be able to get it all; its tentacles reached deep inside his brain. He was going to come home from the hospital to his girlfriend's house looking like Dr. Frankenstein had had a go at him. He was going to have the most aggressive forms of radiation and chemotherapy available, be part of a clinical trial that wouldn't work for him; he was going to have one good year in between these treatments where he would be able to work off and on, and walk with us every day; he was going to live to see John graduate from Berkeley; he was going to live to see my younger brother graduate from high school; he was going to live to see me sell a novel about our family to a fancy New York publisher; he was going to live to read a draft of it while his brain was still functioning. But then the cancer was going to start to eat away at his mind, and he was slowly going to end up like a huge friendly toddler. He was going to have to bear knowing for a while that his mind was going; he was going to have to bear letting his kids and girlfriend dress him, clean him, feed him; he was going to end up living at the one-room cabin with me and Steve, his girlfriend and oldest friends around, playing Pete Seeger on the stereo, and Billie Holiday, Joan Baez, and Mozart, the Modern Jazz Quartet. He was going to end up in a coma a month before he died, the cabin turned into a hospice room and us the stricken nurses. My father's handsome fair face was going to have tumors on it -- tumors on the skin that today was flushed with health. The cancer was going to spread like a chain of stores, and he was going to need morphine and catheters and lemon swabs and fleecy bedding. Maybe he would hear the music we played on the stereo in the cabin, maybe he would be aware of us watching him through the night, but what we did not know that day on the lava rock was that he was going to die two years from this August morning -- this morning when the three of us were walking about peering into tide pools, with our dog Muldoon bumping into our legs, the late-summer diffusion of light making everything in the pools seem larger: the sea anemones, the bloom of algae, the tiny crabs.

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) 1998 Anne Lamott; published by arrangement with the author and Pantheon Books.

In August of 1977, Duxbury Reef was green with the crust called lichen, made of algae and fungus; it covered the lava rock like slippery fabric. Lichen is what reduces rock to soil and sand. It was a heathery, sage green.

I was twenty-three, out of school four years, writing and cleaning houses and teaching tennis. I still believed in God, although I did not talk about it with my father much. He didn't mind my recounting adventures on LSD, or romantic dramas even if they involved married men, but the God business made him act impatient with me. So I had gone underground with it again. That day we were walking along on the lava beds, peering down into the tide pools -- my father, who was fifty-four, and my brother Steve, who we still called Stevo. He was eighteen. My brother John lived on the other side of the mountain with his girlfriend and came over once a week. Our mother was a lawyer in Honolulu by then. We had a black lab named Muldoon.

Advertisement:

If my father worshiped anything it was the beauty of nature. The tide pools were full of wafting hairlike algae and wonderful kelp like emerald green lasagna noodles. You had to be very careful when bending down to inspect the creatures who lived in the pools, or you'd fall on your butt. Spiky sea urchins dug in the crevices of the lava rocks; sea anemones, highly pigmented in August, yellow, pink, deep red; lots of little crabs picking their way through the algae and kelp. The three of us were paying even more attention than usual, trying to tether ourselves to the earth, because the world was coming to an end.

My dad had fallen over a week before while walking along Shattuck Avenue near the Berkeley campus. He had been there to do some research at the university. He wasn't hurt when he toppled over. Someone helped him up and he dusted himself off with good-natured embarrassment, but he did mention it at dinner that night at his girlfriend's house, and also that he'd been feeling strange lately, like his head didn't quite work. He was trim and in wonderful health, in love, with all of his children nearby. We all promised it would turn out to be nothing.

But it was going to be something, and I think I knew that. He had confided in me that working had been very perplexing lately: He'd start to type one thought down, and something altogether different would come out. It was like the computer inside his head was not communicating with the printer.

Advertisement:

Still, he looked good, tall and fair, thick brown hair flecked with gray, blue-gray eyes and a long beaky nose that somehow worked on him. He wore and had always worn chinos, or jeans, and moccasins, field binoculars around his neck. That day at Duxbury, pelicans flew by so low to the water you'd think their bellies were wet with surf, and there were hundreds of seagulls, cormorants, Arctic terns, geese and ducks and egrets and herons.

I could remember being here at three on my father's shoulders as he walked along with my mother below the cliffs. Stevo hadn't been born yet, and my brother John ran up ahead, always wanting to distance himself from the rest of us. When I was eight and nine, with Stevo by then toddling along, we collected agate-sized pieces of fossilized whalebone: hard dark rocks with chambers like the eyes of a bee. We gathered them into the tiny muslin bags with yellow drawstrings that fishing weights came in. My father paid us a quarter for collecting all the whalebone we could find, and it kept us busy and attentive, on our hands and knees, pawing slowly through the agates and pebbles and sand.

Now my father, brother, and I were all living in Bolinas, my father with his girlfriend and Steve. I was in our one-room cabin. All of us were drinking a lot with much pleasure.

There were marvelous islands of green in the water that day, kelp forests swaying with the water currents as if to a symphony. My father was very distracted, deep in thought, looking up from time to time. Stevo and I were focused on the tide pools, outwardly calm and engaged but secretly panicking, huddling together whenever Dad went off to study something new. We were waiting for the results of a CAT scan that Dad had taken a few days before. There might even be a message on his answering machine when we got back from our walk.

Advertisement:

Steve slipped on the wet lava; it was slick and rich with marine vegetation -- walking there was like stepping around on someone's wet head. He fell on his bottom and began to berate himself, close to tears. He was a senior in high school, no longer fat. Now he was too tall, too gangly, very dependent on Dad and me. He had gone to live in Hawaii with Mom when she'd first moved there a few years before, but he'd been beaten up by a native at a bus stop and had moved back to Bolinas not long after. He sat on the rock and didn't get up, his hand was in a fist like he might hit someone, and then instead he began to hit the palm of his other hand, the way you work a baseball mitt.

My dad looked away from Stevo to give him a chance to collect himself. He pointed to where a hawk hung just above the wall of cliffs which runs the length of the beach. There are often tiny avalanches in process here, pebbles and dirt clods tumbling down the cliffs' sheer faces. Nature had never let my father down and never would. He often repeated the old saying that Nature bats last. I on the other hand was totally doubtful about whether God was going to be of any help at all if I lost my father.

"Come on, buddy, you're OK. Get up," my father said kindly, reaching out a hand. My brother didn't take it for a minute. He was wild with anxiety. He was very young to have to go through what was unfolding that day as our family's destiny. We were, in fact, going to learn later that afternoon that my father had a brain tumor on the word section of his brain, a metastasized melanoma, something no one had ever survived at that time. In just a week or so, doctors were going to take out as much of the tumor as they could, but they weren't going to be able to get it all; its tentacles reached deep inside his brain. He was going to come home from the hospital to his girlfriend's house looking like Dr. Frankenstein had had a go at him. He was going to have the most aggressive forms of radiation and chemotherapy available, be part of a clinical trial that wouldn't work for him; he was going to have one good year in between these treatments where he would be able to work off and on, and walk with us every day; he was going to live to see John graduate from Berkeley; he was going to live to see my younger brother graduate from high school; he was going to live to see me sell a novel about our family to a fancy New York publisher; he was going to live to read a draft of it while his brain was still functioning. But then the cancer was going to start to eat away at his mind, and he was slowly going to end up like a huge friendly toddler. He was going to have to bear knowing for a while that his mind was going; he was going to have to bear letting his kids and girlfriend dress him, clean him, feed him; he was going to end up living at the one-room cabin with me and Steve, his girlfriend and oldest friends around, playing Pete Seeger on the stereo, and Billie Holiday, Joan Baez, and Mozart, the Modern Jazz Quartet. He was going to end up in a coma a month before he died, the cabin turned into a hospice room and us the stricken nurses. My father's handsome fair face was going to have tumors on it -- tumors on the skin that today was flushed with health. The cancer was going to spread like a chain of stores, and he was going to need morphine and catheters and lemon swabs and fleecy bedding. Maybe he would hear the music we played on the stereo in the cabin, maybe he would be aware of us watching him through the night, but what we did not know that day on the lava rock was that he was going to die two years from this August morning -- this morning when the three of us were walking about peering into tide pools, with our dog Muldoon bumping into our legs, the late-summer diffusion of light making everything in the pools seem larger: the sea anemones, the bloom of algae, the tiny crabs.

© 1998 Anne Lamott; published by arrangement with the author and Pantheon Books.

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Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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