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A Tribute to Her Father

Editor’s Note: This week before Father’s Day is an opportunity to visit the writings of Heather McColl Morgan, daughter of Angus and Denise McColl. Heather’s tribute to her mother was posted on Monday night this week, and tonight’s posting is a tribute to her submariner father. Heather is now serving on active duty and anticipating her deployment later this year.

Excellent or Praiseworthy is posted on Monday and Thursday nights.

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.—Psalm 139:7-8

Growing up the daughter of a submariner, I was always fascinated by the raw beauty and power of the sea. Its proximity was partly to blame; until I went off to college, I had never lived in a land-locked place. The other reality that inspired my awe, however, was that the ocean was my father’s livelihood. Even as he knew how to navigate and operate within it, he lived constantly at its mercy.

As a little girl when I spoke of my father as being “at sea,” I really had no notion of the dangers he faced—he had helped teach my sisters and me how to swim, and for all I knew that’s what they did out “at sea,” diving off the deck and swimming with dolphins. The water, as I knew it then, was all glee and shimmer and launching off of his shoulders in the deep end. It was not until later that I began to appreciate the grisly possibilities associated with his seafaring deployments.

At a Navy base chapel we attended when I was somewhere between 3rd and 5th grade, I learned to sing the lines of a hymn which hung, cross-stitched by one of my mother’s friends, in the hallways of various homes we lived in:

Lord God, our power evermore
Whose arm doth reach the ocean floor
Dive with our men beneath the sea
Traverse the depths protectively
Lord, hear us when we pray and keep
Them safe from peril in the deep.

Its hauntingly beautiful melody gave me my first inkling of the risks involved in sea service. The second was when Dad began taking us to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I remember being speechless after viewing the new exhibit, “Planet of the Jellies,” where it first occurred to me that there were places in the ocean so dark that the creatures living there possessed their own bioluminescence as a substitute for sunlight. There was a theater where we learned, from a mysterious woman who narrated as the remote submersible vehicle began its odyssey in “The Deep Water,” that there were many creatures who shared this space—the deepest, uncharted parts of the ocean where no human had ever been. When my father brought me home a compressed Styrofoam cup which had been subjected to the pressures of deep water, I began to see the ocean in the same way that I saw the moon: and I saw my dad as an astronaut. Even when his deployments waned to occasional crew drill assessments that lasted only weeks, I saw him as braving the elements, brandishing his grit and skill against the entropic forces of nature and human error.

When in high school, I attended the dedication ceremony for a local submarine veterans’ park commemorating all U.S. submarine crews ever lost, and I was struck by how many of them had fallen during peacetime—due to fires, accidents and the relentless, unpredictable sea. It became clear to me that the fragility of my connection with my father during periods of sea duty was something I had not fully appreciated for much of the time he was gone. As I reconstruct my childhood deployment memories with this in mind, it strikes me that there were a few habits my father kept which made our relationship deceptively easy, and fostered an intimacy which I took for granted.

My father’s being frequently underway became so passé to me at an early age, that in a casual tea party with my grandfather at the age of three or four I commented, pinkie deftly poised in the air after a sip of air from my cup, “So anyways, my husband’s going to sea.” Clearly, I had heard my mother say something with her friends and was, customarily, mimicking her. I took all my cues from her regarding this otherwise strange arrangement whereby Dad disappeared for half of the year. I wore his t-shirts to bed at her suggestion, anticipated his rare phone calls when the boat had pulled into port, and planned all the things we would do when he got home. I recall my mother joking with other wives about the short, sound-bite messages called “family grams” periodically wired to the ship’s crew. There were running jokes of family grams that didn’t make sense or had been cut off and left with absurdly scant details, with unwitting double-entendres and accidental homophones. You eventually ran out of room for all the things you wanted to say, and had to make the most horrific cuts to squeeze a coherent message into those lines.

I also heard her talk about “mail drops,” which I envisioned as happening through some great tube lowered to the submarine through which the mail was shot or sucked into the great, central hatch I had often capered down on visits to the dock. (It was not until I had seen a helicopter perform a real mail drop on the Discovery Channel that it occurred to me the sub would have to come to the surface periodically.)What I always knew was that the preparation for a mail drop was very intentional, and required at least a day of preparation. There would be cards, pictures, and tapes of my sisters and me. These all required Mom’s patient arbitration between competing speakers, all eager to recite the newest rhyme and sing the newest song from school or church. My mother was a master at managing mood swings and petty squabbles to get each one of us to shine for our moment of expression on the stage she had created between the A and B sides of the cassette.

If my mother bent over backwards to make deployments seem normal, my father more than met her halfway. I still have many of his postcards in my possession, which used to arrive monthly while he was away, even though the submarine did not have mail drops or pull into port as frequently. Some of them are postmarked from the exotic places whose pictures they bear; others of them are not postmarked at all. Rain or shine, birthday cards and flowers appeared, all bright and thoughtful. The best card I’ve ever received came on my birthday in Charleston, South Carolina and reads: “I’m proud of the kind of person you’re growing up to be… Love you, Dad.” I thought it was extremely serious a thing to say on a single-digit birthday—almost the kind of compliment you hear adults give each other with a slap on the back and a toast. It made me feel grown-up, and I saved it as much for that message as the shiny, embossed butterfly on the front. I later learned that my father would write many of these messages to each of us prior to deploying, so that they could be dispensed regularly even when he was out of contact. He also made friends with the local florist, whom he customarily visited prior to each deployment to hand-write the cards that would appear in the bouquets which would automatically appear for each family member’s special day throughout his absence.

When my dad finally did come home each year, these same special occasions, missed once or twice before were doubly celebrated. He made us his priority when he was onshore—soccer games, dance classes, piano recitals—he was there. Math homework was suddenly not so intimidating, except for his periodic reminder that there was “no crying in math.”He seemed remarkably equipped to return from long absences and reestablish immediacy in his relationships with us, to affirm us, to amuse us, to hold us accountable and to talk us down from ledges. Perhaps his intuitive, highly verbal way of relating to us was thrust upon him, being surrounded with daughters. Maybe it was the hallmark of being his mother’s son—she had always been a highly expressive, passionate model of womanhood from the first. Whatever the source of my father’s knack for good communication, even from long distances and depths, I have found it to be a rare gift. It is noteworthy that this man who was absent for almost half of my childhood, has remained one of my closest friends in adulthood.

This friendship has been possible because my parents raised us on a rigorous policy of candor, in which there was little room for pouting or sidestepping when faced with the truth. I have learned to appreciate this, because you always know where you stand, and valuable information is never withheld, if you will dare to ask the question. This was never more comically obvious than when, at the mature age of six, I asked to know where babies came from. I knew that the bedroom played a part, but I thought that perhaps the event could occur while husband and wife held hands—their arm-skin forming a sort of semi-permeable membrane through which the baby-making materials could pass. My father quickly banished all such sci-fi renditions from my mind: we would have a meeting about it after the younger girls were in bed. That night, pulling the H encyclopedia from the shelf, he showed Shannon and I its transparent layouts of the human body, complete with cardiovascular, muscular, digestive, and reproductive systems. That was how we got the birds and the bees talk—straight up, no chaser. These night conferences occurred whenever we had serious business to transact (a very similar one had taken place just a year before, when after my persistent nagging, my parents had prayed the sinner’s prayer with me one stormy Guam night in our living room). When invited to these powwows, we felt as if we had been initiated into some privileged world of mature responsibility—partly because we helped my parents convince my sisters we were still in bed, and also because we were treated as if we had a right to understand and discuss whatever was being presented there.

Predictably, my father has not always been a perfect communicator. There were times where the “honeymoon” period after his homecoming was followed by an abrupt adjustment for everyone. After being in the highly regulated world of a deployment, he could not fathom why the recycling wasn’t sorted properly, why everything wasn’t ship-shape. My mother jokingly referred to him as “Captain von Trapp” on such occasions. There have also been times, as each of us came of age and went off to college and the wide world beyond, where communication with Dad became strained, confusing, and full of power struggles. He has become famous for anchoring his perspective in a sea of hormones and emotions with such gems as “This offends my common sense!” and, “Can we all stop emoting here and just be rational?” (In recent years I have begun to deprive him even of those classics, rebutting him with recent neuroscience findings that the female brain is more highly adept at processing emotion, and therefore it is possible to be both emotional and rational at once. His point is well taken, however, that men and women view and solve problems quite differently, and that they ought to learn from one another constantly to avoid crippling extremes.) His attempts to remain himself while struggling against a swirling tide of changing, independent young women are admirable—a lesser man might have jumped ship long ago, settling for mediocre conversations and emotional distance.

Every God-fearing dad in some way strives to image our Heavenly Father, and I believe mine has done so most notably in his use of words—both spoken and written—that reach to us even from a long way off and remind us of who we are…who we are becoming. Even as I have struggled not to lose my faith in recent years, I carry a persistent image of God as an affirming and affectionate parent who does not shy away from the tough conversations, but confronts them with dignity and compassion. I also have the distinct sense that when I cannot hear God clearly or when it seems He has deployed His Spirit elsewhere and left me—de profundis clamo (“out of the depths I cry”), and I have fair certainty because He is my Father, that what is hidden will be made known in good time, that there is a postcard coming soon in the mail, that there is a late-night conversation that will elucidate things.

Questions to Share:

1. How are you using your words, both spoken and written, to express the love of God, our Father, to your children?

2. Twenty years from now, how would you like your children to remember this time of separation? What has Heather written about her experience that is an encouragement to you as a parent?

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