01/04/2011 07:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

'Kayak': More Than Just a Word


The word was written in red ink across the top of the manila file folder. Shaky letters, a modest schoolboy hand. Definitely my dad's writing.

I sat back on my heels in front of the cupboard where I'd found the folder and stared at the word, almost unable to breathe. Like my father, a Navy officer, I never throw away anything that I might use. This folder was stashed among many others in my office. On some, the lettering had been scratched out and rewritten two or three times. How had my dad's folder ended up in here with mine?

I keep turning up odd things that belonged to my dad, despite the fact that he died two years ago. There are the old photos of him in his Navy uniform, for instance, where Dad looks like Gerald Ford on steroids. A collection of foreign coins, with buttons and batteries mixed in, that he gave to my youngest son the last time we saw him. And his wax jacket from England, which I can't bear to toss, even though it makes my hall closet stink like wet goats.

"Kayak." Staring at that single, scrawled, red-inked word makes me remember, suddenly, that Dad's kayak was red, too. It was crafted out of heavy-duty plastic and lightweight enough for him to lift onto the top of his car even after his seventieth birthday.

Dad bought the kayak when he was living in New England, near me, to use on a local pond. That pond is surrounded by houses and probably just half a mile across. Nevertheless, being a Navy man who once commanded ships, Dad bought not only the kayak but everything you might need to navigate an ocean storm, too: a bright yellow waterproof flashlight, a neon orange life vest, a floating whistle, a box of flares. He wasn't going to be caught up short in an emergency, no sir, not my dad the Commander.

When he was diagnosed with emphysema a few years later and moved to Arizona for drier weather, Dad gave me the kayak and its bulging box of accessories -- miles and miles of nylon rope, it seemed -- along with this folder. Dad was famous in our family for his file folders, neatly cataloging everything from Sears purchases (the only store he ever shopped) to our school records, right down to faded kindergarten reports claiming that my brother wasn't paying attention and I needed to speak up more in class. The kayak folder was the last one he ever gave me. It had contained maps, a booklet on efficient rowing, pamphlets on how to use flares in an emergency, and a thick sheaf of boater's regulations you wouldn't ever need unless you were caught in a rogue wave on the high seas.

"It's always best to know what you're getting into," Dad said solemnly, giving the folder a fond little tap as he handed it over. "Be prepared."

By then, he was on oxygen and had to carry a portable tank with him. Being my father, he always made sure that his tanks were full and that he had a spare. He set his watch and timed his outings to the minute so that he'd never run out of air.

"Kayak," in red ink, on a folder. What had that boat represented to my father, that he would buy such a risky toy at age 70?

Dad was a boy from Ohio who joined the Navy before he'd ever seen the ocean or learned to swim. The kayak continued my father's love affair with water. It was also a vote of confidence in his own vitality, despite his age and failing health. The kayak let him have a final adventure his way, prepared for a seafaring challenge with a life vest, a whistle and flares, even on a peaceful pond.

"Kayak." It was more than just a word. It was a message from my father to me: "Know what you're getting into."

Know what you're getting into, when you get into a boat on the water, or into a marriage, or into a house or a job. Be prepared for hard work, for joyful play, for travel, for accidental mishaps, for parenthood, for love, for anger, for sorrow, for illness, for taking life one breath at a time, for death.

Be prepared, most of all, with the single word you would choose to write across the last folder of your life, as a way of reminding the loved ones you left behind that you are guiding them, still.