The winter I was five, my dad’s best friend died. He would have been, based on my best estimate, about thirty-four years old.
“He was in a car accident,” Dad told me, one evening as he picked me up from dance class. “So if Mom and I have been a little on edge lately, that’s why.”
I hadn’t noticed them being more visibly upset lately, but then again, I was five. I was still mastering the fine art of writing my name in crayon; interpreting bodily cues was a skill that would come later.
Sometime shortly afterward — though before or after the memorial, I can’t say — Dad handed my what had been his friend’s binoculars. “He would have wanted you to have these.”
It was strange. Though this man had also been a close friend of the family, I had no strong memories or even recollections of him using the binoculars. He must have, I think, on fishing or hiking or camping excursions. But really, the memories I have of him are of grins and fish, bushy beards and beer.
I do, however, have memories of us — dad and me — using binoculars together. He had his own pair, and I had these. We checked out far constellations and lunar eclipses and shooting stars. In early morning hikes, we watched deer unaware of our presence. On Lake St. Clair, I spied on lily pads and wetlands and Canada. On Lake Michigan sand dunes, we both imagined we could see Chicago.
In the following years, the idea came to me that my dad wanted me to keep the binoculars — not for me, not for his best friend, but for him. Somewhere, Dad had this need for me to understand and remember that this person, who I’d never really get to know as an adult or even as an older child, had been a vital part of his — and also a shaping influence on my — life.
And so I still have them.
Sadly, over the course of several moves, something inside them has broken, and looking through the eye lenses only results in a blurred and fragmented image. But the reason I keep them has less to do with how useful they are to me and more to do with my connection to my dad as a person, to his life outside of being a dad.
So when my dad himself died a couple of years ago, still at the too-soon age of fifty-six (too soon, at least, in the sense that a lot of us weren’t ready to let go of him), it seemed fitting that I asked my mom if I could take his own binoculars with me as a keepsake.
“Of course,” she said. In that moment, I’m not sure she’d have denied me anything as long as I said I wanted it as a way to remember Dad.
Still and all, they might be the tangible object I have from my dad that I love most. (I say, carefully scanning the books on my shelves to be sure I’m not forgetting anything there. There is my DVD copy of Kingdom of the Spiders, but William Shatner — even vintage William Shatner as a cowboy — is not the same thing.) I definitely have these memories of he and I both using our binoculars to better see things that sparked our interests and imaginations. But more than that, I kept them because his binoculars belong with that first pair.
Just like — if there is any justice in metaphysics and the cosmos — my dad and his friend are back together, catching big fish up in heaven.