“Everyone needs a little park bench,” he says. My father pauses to look up at me, pencil poised in his right hand, the fingers of his left curled around a half a mug of coffee. He rarely has either hand free from these props.
“I have a little park bench I go to in my mind when life gets to be too much.” His chocolate eyes, framed by merry creases that fan out from the corners like fireworks in a Fourth of July sky and once-long lashes still visible at the age of fifty-five, twinkle with excitement as he tells me this, as if he’s sharing the secret location of buried pirate treasure.
“That’s great Dad.” I really don’t know what else to say. I do get it, though. Everyone needs a place to go where they can mentally escape. But I find this contrary to the cheery persona known as my father. He’s about as carefree as they come. Why would he need this coping strategy? Oh, right. I suppose it makes sense. For me as well, what with college finals just a week away.
My father continues, “I’ll take you there one of these days.” He grins as if he’s just expanded upon my earlier prize-winnings with what’s behind “Door Number Two” and we’re on the TV show Let’s Make a Deal, like my mother had been when she’d won a dining room set and silverware courtesy of Monty Hall while eight months pregnant with me.
“That would be nice.” I smile, and I mean it.
It really would be nice. After lunch. And finals. My stomach rumbles.
It doesn’t look like he’s making an attempt to get up yet for our lunch date so I take the clients’ seat on the other side of the drafting desk across from him, curling my right leg up underneath me in the process. “So, it’s not just a place in your head?”
“It was initially. And then I found the real thing.” He rocks back farther in his chair, sets his coffee on his desk, and places his hands behind his head, continuing his description of a Little Park Bench with such passionate reverence, it takes me by surprise. An ever-present luminosity shines like beacons from both eyes and I’m finally captivated. “It’s a sanctuary of sorts, a peaceful oasis when life fails expectations,” he explains, and I think of finding a magic wardrobe with access to my good dreams.
No one Little Park Bench looks the same.
What a strategy, I think, and I conjure up all sorts of possibilities based upon my father’s tastes and preferences. Something tells me it’s not at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art where he’s a docent. I’ve never understood his fascination with modern art, but I warm to his park retreat idea and soon realize we might be kindred spirits after all—on the idea of a mental bench anyway. I could use one. And despite my father’s blithe demeanor, I can understand why he does too.
It’s 1983 and his suffering business is a weight I’m not yet equipped to fully imagine, but it feels sore and raw anyway. It’s difficult to be in this place of memories and not look melancholy in the eye. This architectural office, once bustling, full of suede and hip floral prints, wide brimmed leather hats with tassels, and bell-bottomed jeans worn by long-haired bearded drafters, now sits empty, lonely drafting tables lined up in formation in the spacious, high ceilinged warehouse space. My father, in characteristic jovial fashion, has placed life-size cardboard figures of employees cleverly colored in with architectural markers at what used to be inhabited desks, but their muted silence tastes like sour mutiny on my tongue.
Now, dress is limited to polyester and high-heeled pumps, and music to minimized laughter that still echoes off empty halls with talk of Little Park Benches, the air forever full of Folgers and the belief that it will all change again.
I feign delight, but the absence of life here pulls on mine, and his joy, perhaps mustered for my benefit, is something I’m having trouble absorbing. In spite of the emptiness and what must certainly be my father’s sense of loss, or worse, a feeling of failure despite past success—however temporary it is hoped to be, his never-ending sense of humor and jolly countenance will always be a constant I can count on. In the days to come, I will think a lot about the idea of a Little Park Bench. The concept becomes part of the love language my father and I share, a patois of sorts. Little Park Bench becomes my favorite vernacular phrase.
So when I finally see my father’s bench in person, I'm a bit disappointed. There isn’t much to it, just an average bench in a neighborhood park burrowed between homes in a brand-new subdivision. A needle-like sapling watches over it while a sprinkler clicks off ribbons of water in rhythmic fashion nearby. The grass isn’t even a lush, verdant green, but a newly hatched lemon-lime, shorthaired variety whose future appears dubious. “Wow, Dad,” I want to say. But I don’t of course.
He’s enchanted, and so I allow him this moment. And try to understand him. Here is a freshly turned section of Fairbanks Ranch, one of the wealthiest communities in San Diego, maybe even in the whole world. He’s just designed a monster of a house for a client near where we now sit and I know he’s long aspired to do the same for himself. My father once drew up a smaller personalized version for us, but our family home is now in the process of fading, along with other sentient things, thanks to a skittish economy. And my parents’ divorce.
I realize then, his Little Park Bench has as much to do with aspirations as it does tranquility. To be an architect incapable of bringing his own home fantasy designs to lasting life must feel something like an artist’s inability to hang his artwork on his own walls. The way things are looking, my dad may never again breathe oxygen into life in this regard, but he’s still creating in his imagination. Here hope lives.
Of course, then, this Little Park Bench is one of the first things to come to my mind following his death in a plane crash. Next are all the homes and buildings he set down for posterity in our city, along with those he will never have an opportunity to envision.
The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art graciously donates the space for a splendid memorial and in a large white room with wide windows to the sea, as the day’s pink remnants melt on the water and we drink champagne and celebrate his life, I smile knowing he would be pleased. I think about that Little Park Bench. I wonder if he has a better one now.
I don’t even recall how to get to the one he showed me. But I realize it doesn’t matter. It was my father’s special place, not mine.
I halfheartedly resolve to find my own.
I can’t seem to settle on one that appeals to me but then it just happens. I’m at the top of La Jolla Cove overlooking the jagged rocks below, where California Sea Lions steep in the sun and the muted rhythm of crashing waves soothingly hypnotizes. There, at the highest point sits a small, unadorned park bench, all alone. It’s an unexciting, thick wooden structure, elevated by a slab of gray concrete and surrounded by ice plant beaten back.
God is here. I think I feel him!
Of course I do.
Far-off voices blend in serenade, a fitting backdrop against a mesmerizing siren’s call that can be heard and felt and I cannot look away. The ocean’s vastness makes me think of my father and of spiritual things and though I can’t see the ocean floor, full of bright orange garibaldi, or the brown kelp that floats in the foam, I know they are here. I can’t feel the smooth, white sand between my toes or the cool water as it attempts to spirit me away, but it’s all here, whisper close.
I pray that my father is too.
From this gritty bench my skin is sticky, my soul soft. And it now occurs to me. This is my bench! “Well, Dad,” I say out loud. “I’ve finally found it.”
Surely, he must know this.
I can’t imagine any other place in the world where the supernatural can be felt so strongly. If my father’s death has done anything, it’s confirmed my desire to know more.
I want to know God.
For surely where he is my father must be also.
Both of them unseen. Both of them felt. Like home, somehow.
My own Little Park Bench overlooking the sea is everything he said it would be.
But what I don't know at this time is that I'm still looking. I haven't found home yet.
I don't know God. Not really.
What I don't yet understand is that in order to find him, I will have to seek him with all of my heart. And I will have to give up nearly everything I've ever known that stands in my line of vision.
One that sweeps across the vast plains of Kansas, where another Little Park Bench waits just for me.
(Excerpts taken from MILK & HONEY LAND: A Story of Grief, Grace, and Goats.)