My beatific father is being transferred to hospice care in Naples, Florida today. I have no words for the impending loss of the only other Filipino Bercaw in the history of the world, so I’ll tell you the story of how he turned me into a mermaid.
My father’s eyes are fixated on the dozens upon dozens of black folks swimming in Huntsville, Alabama’s public pool. It’s the summer of 1970. Beau’s face is all scrunched up because he’s trying to hide his exasperation. I hang on the chain-link fence, gazing at the water and waiting for his frustration to pass.
“Are we going in, Daddy?” I finally dare to ask.
“Doesn’t look there’s much for room for us, Gal.”
I reach up to grab my father’s dangling hand. The pool is full, but since I can’t swim yet, we don’t need much room—just a spot where my dad can stand and I can hold onto him. He is 32 years old; 6 feet 6 inches and 170 pounds. I am tall for my age, which is five, and scrawny like Beau.
“There’s a place!” I yell, pointing to a spot that has just opened up near the rope line separating the shallow and deep ends. “Come on, Daddy, let’s go.”
We walk in the gates, all eyes on us. It’s just like in the Philippines—where I was born five years earlier when Dad was a surgeon at Clark Air Force Base during the Vietnam War; and where he, too, was born when his father worked for General McArthur in 1938 Manila.
I take off my skirt and flip-flops and stand by the side of the pool in my bright yellow bathing suit. My dad pulls off his T-shirt that says, “University of Virginia.” Everyone stops swimming and looks at us, as if their black-and-white television sets had abruptly turned color. The tallest, pinkest man in Huntsville is about to swim with his five-year-old, blue-eyed, yellow-suited, whiter-than-white, scrawny daughter in a blue-green pool in the heart of black Alabama.
The swimmers fall silent as my father lets himself down the ladder to the open spot. A few people give way slowly, making little ripples. Otherwise, the water is still. No one is moving a muscle. Except for Beau and me.
I walk to the edge and curl my toes over it. I shift my focus to my father, who shoots up among the other swimmers like a bamboo stalk in a rice paddy.
“Jump in, Gal.” Beau nods. He looks very serious, the way I think he might when he’s about to operate on a patient.
Someone else’s father nods at me, too, with a big smile on his face. For a second, I wonder if I should jump toward the black man with big white teeth instead of the white man with a big scowl.
I take a big deep breath and exhale loudly, as if I am one of the blue whales that we saw while sailing on the SS President Cleveland from the Philippines to California.
The little boy nearest to me starts counting.
I look back at my dad, who has his hands ready to receive me, and inhale.
“Threeeeeeeee!” shrieks the boy.
I leap up as high as I can, kicking my legs while I am still in the air, trying to go higher still. I close my eyes and imagine that I’m flying all the way across the Pacific Ocean. I’m not entirely sure what I will do when I hit the water.
I land in my father’s arms, which he’s raised above his head to catch me like a pop-fly ball. He lets go and drops me in the water in front of him.
When I come up for air, the sound is back on. The waves are splashing again; children are squealing again. I am one of them now. My chest feels puffed up as big as a life vest.
My father takes a step backwards. The people directly behind him scatter.
“Swim,” he says. He’s studying me intently.
I do what I’d seen the other kids doing when I’d peered through the fence: I kick my feet wildly and paddle my arms while I stare up at him. He never takes his eyes off me.
“Good, Gal. Now put your face down and do it again.” He steps back again. Everyone scatters again.
I come up coughing.
“Don’t drink it. Blow bubbles.” He steps back farther.
Blow, pull, kick, I tell myself. These are the actions that take me to my father. I feel like I am conquering him, as well the water, with each arrival on his shores.
“Lesson over,” he says abruptly. “You can swim.”
“Can’t we stay?”
“No, it’s time to go home.”
We pull ourselves out by the ladder and dry off—no one paying us any mind by now. The open spaces we leave behind fill in quickly. It’s like we’ve never been there at all. Except that, in the short time between our arrival and departure, I’ve learned to swim.
He gives my hand a squeeze when I wave goodbye to the chain-link fence. The blue water behind it is way more fascinating than the skin color of the swimmers. Beau and I walk home holding hands in silence.
A week later, my father announces it’s time for lesson number two. I hadn’t known that there would be another. I thought a lesson was finite. Before it you couldn’t swim; after it, you could. The end.
“Put your suit on and get in the car,” my father says.
“The car?” I ask. “Why aren’t we walking?”
I want to hold his hand and do everything exactly the way we had before.
“Don’t ask so many questions. Just trust.”
I lurch into the backseat of our big green Oldsmobile. I sit on my towel to keep the seat from burning me. The window only rolls down part way, so just the top of my head gets a breeze. I watch the houses and shops disappear behind me, and peach and pear trees take their place.
Maybe we’re going back to the Philippines, even though we’d only just moved here from Gainesville, Florida, where Dad was a neurology fellow. I’d asked him then what a neurologist was and he said, “a medical doctor who studies and treats the nervous system.”
Beau interrupts my thoughts. He is thinking about the Philippines, too. It’s like that with us.
“Gal, did I tell you about the Filipino boy I helped save from being strangulated by a python? You were just a baby then.”
“No, how’d ya do it?”
“We taunted the python with a live chicken. I danced that chicken in front of the snake’s eyes like the snake charmers I had seen in India. I pretended the chicken was the pendulum of a clock and I tried to hypnotize the python with it. The snake’s muscles relaxed and someone grabbed the boy.”
“Weren’t you scared?”
“Bercaws and Filipinos aren’t cowards.”
“Are Filipinos scared of Bercaws?” I am afraid of my father—not certain which one that made me. I wonder if Beau’s father, before he forgot everything and went to the Veteran’s Hospital in Roanoke, had the same effect on my dad.
“Everyone’s afraid of Bercaws,” he says, laughing uproariously. I can see his big blue eyes squinting and watering in the rear-view mirror.
“We’re here,” he announces.
“Where are we?”
“The Flint River.”
Dad opens my door and goes to get something out of the trunk. I put my bare foot down in the mud. I can see the river down a leafy bank. We’d left so quickly that I’d forgotten my flip flops.
He comes back with a shotgun in his hand. He gets down on one knee and fires up into the trees. I look up to see if any birds fall down. Is he trying to kill a buzzard? I don’t dare ask. He’ll only tell me things if he feels like it.
“Just scaring the snakes away, that’s all, Gal.”
“Worse. Cottonmouth water moccasins. You’re a dead man if one bites you.”
“But I’m a little girl, Dad, not a man.”
“Then you’ll die twice as fast.”
I twist up my face. I don’t want to be a man or a little girl if either involves being bitten by a snake. Beau will protect me from those slithery rascals, I reckon. I vow to do everything he tells me, and to do it perfectly.
Beau puts the gun back in the trunk and lifts me onto his shoulders.
“See that?” he says, pointing to some shiny leaves as he walks to the river. “It’s poison ivy; don’t get near it unless you wanna itch for a week.”
The ground is a long way down from my father’s shoulders, but I can see the leaves he is talking about. I am glad my muddy feet are bouncing against his shirt and not walking on the ground.
When we get down to the water, my father wades in. I am still on his shoulders. The deepest part goes up to his belly button and touches my toes.
“Stand on my shoulders,” he says. “Then jump off and swim.”
I try to breath in some of Beau’s courage. Then I stand up, holding his hands for support, and propel myself into the air just as I had done off the deck at the public pool. I come up, turn around and try to get back to my father as quickly as possible.
I imagine snakes are chasing me as I swim toward the snake charmer. Kicking and paddling fast takes my mind off the terror. Soon, I forget all together.
“You’re a mermaid,” my father says when I get to him, squeezing me tight.
“Even without a tail?” I ask, happy that I have pleased him.
“A slightly deformed one,” he laughs. “That’s why your ol’ dad loves you so much.”
My father and I spend the rest of the afternoon playing in those waters. I jump off rocks or tree trunks and swim like crazy to get back into the arms of the only other Filipino Bercaw in the history of the world.