A gentle fading

Sunset, sitting on the dock at my ex-stepgrandfather’s cottage, I dangled my feet into the still lake, watching the tiny waves ripple out. I’d gone down to the dock feeling a bit melancholy, trying to say goodbye. I scooped up a handful of water and tossed it into air. The water shifted into tiny spheres as they fell back to the water, splattering its surface with dozens of little bullseyes. But then something interesting happened: all the little bullseyes joined into a giant one, a target that radiated outward, then disappeared. There’s physics to explain this, said my smart sister, but I was astonished nonetheless: it felt like my own little discovery.

And that’s one thing cottages are for, surprising connections with the natural world that widen your eyes and narrow your focus to just one little thing.

Of course cottages were for other things too: sun and swims and sugary treats, dinner in damp bathing suits and after-supper boat rides, fields turned into baseball diamonds, fireworks and fireflies, a sky improbably full of stars. They’re for happy hour turned happy hours, card games and cleansing pints, the clinking of glasses and dominoes and dimes in Crown Royal bags, the gentle swing of a hammock and the wheeling arms of Heels Over. They’re for diving for golf balls, finding fish in pockets of shade, holding your breath as long as possible. For laughter and loon calls echoing across the lake, the tinny patter of rain on the roof. Hamburgers for breakfast, the Dairy for lunch, corn roasts and vegetable dinners, tea and cookies on the dock in the evening. For wild hair, calloused feet, and always a bit too much sun.

I’d been going to that cottage for 29 years. For a long time it was my favourite three weeks of every summer. It’s where I became part of a new family, embraced with open arms, though I was, I’m sure at least at first, the baggage that comes with marrying a divorcé, the awkward +1. I made new friends too, had crushes, got my first bikini, learned to back dive and play Chinese checkers and identify the fish I stalked in the shadows beneath the raft. I swam almost as much as the resident loons and was marginally lake-famous as the teenager who swam the length of the lake and back on a bet with her dad.

It was a place of so many beginnings, though on this recent visit I was there to help weed through old stuff, to prepare it for sale. Many years every bed was full, even the couch—the cottage was a cup spilling over. But now, so many were gone—died, divorced, moved away—and there was no one who could give it enough time to hold on.

We like to imagine things will go on forever, and perhaps that’s why goodbyes are so hard: we’re forced to face that they don’t. But it was a place that had already seen a series of goodbyes, and the evidence was all around us: we flipped through old photo albums, my grandfather dropping a finger on each face and announcing them dead, unearthed my late-nana’s wedding dress, now yellowed with age, packed up old lamps and crib liners that once seemed worth saving and now were destined for the dump. We drank gin and tonics every afternoon at 4:30 in honour of another departed grandmother. My dad, still alive but no longer a part of the family, lingered in photos, in the wood sign that once hung over the garage. Every time I’m there I feel his absence keenly: he is a great connector of people, and without him we sometimes seem like those water droplets, our ripples overlapping but not quite joining up.

The other thing about goodbyes is they’re hopelessly inadequate, of course: we expect them to be a period, a tidy cap on a long book of feelings and memories, people and landscapes and the tiniest details, like an ugly magnet or faded paperback. Really a goodbye is more like the periods in an ellipsis, the beginning of a gentle fading away . . .

I was reading an old New Yorker on a plane recently and stumbled into Kathryn Schultz’s wonderful meditation on loss, “When Things Go Missing.”  She starts by ruminating on misplaced objects (wallet, keys, etc.) but before long she’s talking about the loss of her father. “We will lose everything we love in the end. But why should that matter so much?” she writes. “By definition we do not live in the ends, we live all along the way.”

I struggled with the right way to say goodbye to the cottage, but as Schultz reminds us, that part is beside the point. Perhaps the best goodbye is being alive to the moment, savouring that moment of dockside astonishment, and not forgetting to take in the scenery as the car turns off the dirt road one last time.