My father is slightly nervous, slightly timid, and just plain slight. He is caution, planning, deliberation, care, hesitance. This is how he has been as long as I can remember. This is Dad.
But today, our small family went to the ice rink in the old train depot downtown. Pop music piped into the arena and a disco ball spun over dozens of shouting, fumbling, laughing skaters of all ages. My mother, brother and I laced up the endless hooks on our skates, pulling the laces tight, losing the grip, re-pulling. We looked up and Dad was gone. We hadn’t even put our street shoes in a locker with the stack of three quarters yet. His shoes lay next to ours, unsecured.
And he was already on the ice. His hands joined easily behind him, his posture was as casual as if he were merely strolling, but he skimmed the length of the rink in seconds flat. He came to the curve and lapped one foot over the other, rounded efficiently and whizzed back between the other skaters with the grace of a dancer. He spun and skated backwards, then forward again, weaving his course without thought or effort. There was no flash to his skate: he wore his usual coat, glasses and thin jeans, and he cut no tricks. But there on the scratched rink, slant January sunshine slicing across the ice, my father cast a long and elegant shadow, more at ease on frozen water than on land, concrete or carpet.
I stumbled onto the ice and began my flailing lap, energetic and fearless, but inept. He laughed as I tried to sneak up from behind, he whirled and stopped in a sharp hockey move. “How do you skate backwards? Show me how you do that!” I begged. No taller than me, he pushed forward as I, holding his hands, tried to slide back. He couldn’t explain how he did it, and I couldn’t do it, so we quit the lesson and just looped and looped, and I followed him and filled my eyes with his flight. To see him free that way, free as a boy skating on a frozen river in Belvedere, Illinois, free as a youth rushing into a hockey fray, free as a spirit, filled me with gladness and love for my father.