by Heather McColl Morgan
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 in fourth grade, I learned to sing the lines of this hymn…
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 aquarium…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.… We learned that there were many strange creatures in 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….
There were a few habits my father kept which made our relationship deceptively easy, and fostered an intimacy which I took for granted.… 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….
The best card I’ve ever received came on my birthday…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…. 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….
When my dad finally did come home each year…he made us his priority—soccer games, dance classes, piano recitals—he was there…. 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… 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.
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.… His attempts to remain himself while struggling against a swirling tide of changing, independent young women were 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….
[Because of my father] I carry a persistent image of God as an affirming and affectionate parent…. 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…and that our relationship will be continually made new.
Heather is the daughter of CDR Angus McColl, USN (Ret.) and the late Denise McColl. Originally published by Excellent or Praiseworthy. Available in its entirety at http://liquorneverbrewed.blogspot.com/2009/06/whose-arm-doth-reach-ocean-floor.html