My female companion at the water mentioned it first. The closeness. But I had also seen the girl and a man, almost certainly her father, as they waded in the stream 25 feet away. She was about 12, he in his 40’s, and they were were barefooted in the cold water of the one of the countless small streams that feed into Lake Tahoe. The girl was wearing shorts and her father had rolled up his trousers, and they were taking their time wading, in the quiet of vacation cabin-time after breakfast.
“He must be a single Dad. Probably divorced.” My companion had pronounced it, more a fact than an opinion. Now I looked back in their direction again, this time much more closely, because I was curious. What it was about these two people that had suddenly conferred upon my friend these clairvoyant abilities? And so before I said anything in response, I shifted my gaze, really looking now, to see if I could fact-check the pronouncement.
They were meandering, along with the little stream, crystal cold in the mid-morning sunlight of the high Sierra, lazy and indistinct, yet gently insistent in their flow. The stream itself was a small tributary which emptied into the vastness of Lake Tahoe, two miles distant.
Indeed there did seem to be an unusual degree of closeness between this father and his daughter. I watched them wading in the water now, exploring, bending here and there to examine curiosities in the stream, the girl talking excitedly about her prized discoveries. Suddenly she asked her father’s permission to fetch something back at their cabin. When he said yes, that would be fine, she seemed delighted. “Really Daddy? I'll be right back!” And she hurried off, up the very gentle and sandy slope of the stream before quickly disappearing around a bend.
The situation seemed to present an ideal opportunity to engage the man and acknowledge what a fine job he was doing with his daughter, and that I admired him. She seemed a very bright and happy girl. In the process I might also satisfy a bit of my curiosity, since I am a father too, of three sons. I had sometimes wondered whether I might have missed some emotional dimension, the doting support that a daughter might have provided, and that I imagined I could return. And that bond certainly seemed to be governing this relationship. My curiosity overpowered any reluctance I felt about intruding upon their privacy.
I did not move from my seat on the flat rock, but as soon as his daughter was gone I engaged him with a comment about the fineness of the morning. When he seemed friendly enough, I stood up and approached him a bit. I knew it might not be long before his daughter returned, so I got right to the point. “My girlfriend and I were noticing the closeness between you and your daughter,” I told him. I said that I had three grown sons and that he seemed to have that closeness that I always admired. He acknowledged that yes, he was very lucky to have that. But before I could research this topic further, his daughter suddenly reappeared, splashing around the bend, glass jar in hand to collect her treasures. The girl had returned before I could get the answers I was seeking from her father. I stepped back as she came into view, ready to disengage and leave my questions for another day.
But the girl called to her father, and she said hello to me. I returned her greeting and as I moved off away from her father, and waded back toward my seat on the flat rock across the stream. As I moved through the water, ankle deep, I asked if she had any siblings, and her answer came just as I reached the other side of the stream.
“Well, kind of.” She said it in a pleasant voice. There was no joking or irony in her voice, no evident emotion. It seemed almost precocious. Now I was intrigued.
“Really?” I said. “What an interesting answer. How so?”
“Well, I had an older brother, but he died.”
I was stunned. Her answer literally brought me up short. Still standing on the other side of the stream, I was grateful now for the physical distance between us as I could feel the tears coming on fast. I glanced quickly at her father, searching for some kind of emotion in his face to guide my response, but saw none. I remembered something Bobby Kennedy had said to an angry crowd gathered at the airport upon his arrival in Indianapolis, in 1968, when they told him the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. This was just two months before he was gunned down himself by a madman in the kitchen of a hotel as he ran for President.
What came back to me in that moment was the tone and calming gentleness carried by Kennedy's words. He had said that he understood something about death. And the unfairness of life. He had also lost people that he cared about. No one then living would have any question that he was referring to his murdered brother, John F. Kennedy. In that unscripted moment, he had simply shared his experience and commiserated with the hurting people gathered. He had known the searing pain of death, of someone snatched from his life, stolen from it really.
And so I said, as I struggled to contain my voice made unsteady by the girls unexpected answer, that I also had a brother that died, and I was sorry for her loss.
My answer seemed to surprise her a bit, perhaps it was one she hadn't often heard. Yet she seemed very composed, even empathetic. “Really?” she asked. How old had he been, and what had happened to him? I explained that my older brother had a twin, and that Michael had died of kidney failure about a year before I was born. He died just before his second birthday, in 1956, before kidney transplants were possible.
I sensed the inadequacy of my words even as I spoke them. The losses were not equal. I had never even known my brother. But if the girl thought my answer a stretch, she did not give that away. She told me that her older brother had died of brain cancer when he was 12 and she was 10.
Yes, she said, it was hard, she said. Of course she missed her brother, but she was happy for him that he was no longer in pain. In peace. What struck me across the water was the calming presence. It wasn't just the words and her calm voice. Her entire bearing and demeanor was gracious, almost regal. I suddenly found that I was calm. Tears were streaming down my face freely now, like the Irish rain, but I was calm inside. I wanted to pursue the conversation more, perhaps to find this little girl's secret to a peaceful life, but her attention had returned to the water at her feet, and the discoveries that the day held for her and her Dad. They had disappeared around the bend.