He loved elephants above all things.
‘Did you see the elephants in the bedroom?’ he would ask every day as if he’d never asked before. ‘Yes, I did.’ I would answer. ‘I like them a lot.’ That left him satisfied, at least for a time. From his bed I could see the elephant pictures, clipped from old calendars and National Geographic, taped to the door.
‘Did you see the elephants in the kitchen?’ he would ask. Yes. Two solid silver elephant bookends stood sentry at the kitchen window. Not many books left in that house for them. I did find an elephant bookmark, all long trunk, next to the remote on the table by his favorite chair, a wingback he got some lady to re-cover in hideous maroon nubby synthetic in exchange for an antique vanity of my mother’s. He never was good at business, my brother said. From that chair he would often watch Hot Bench and NASCAR. He didn’t seem like a Hot Bench NASCAR kind of guy. Nevertheless, they were right up there on the list of things loved, after elephants.
One Christmas I had given him an elephant decoration. Soft, gray, with sequins. When he went into the home, I pinned it on the wall so he could see it from his bed. ‘I love that elephant,’ he would say every day. ‘Can you see how it sparkles when the light hits it? Can you see it? Come over here and see it!’ ‘Yes, I see it, dad.’ I would reply. ‘I love it too.’ That left him satisfied, for a time.
Years ago, when the circus came to town, we would walk over to 23rd street to wave at the elephants on parade. When Barnum shut down last year, the elephants went to a sanctuary in Gainesville. We talked about going up there, looked at the elephant pictures on the website, how great it would be, to get that close, to see the elephants happy and free. ‘What is that,’ he’d ask, ‘a four-hour drive?’ Sitting that long, for him the pain would be unbearable. ‘Maybe after I get that operation we can go.’
Only one thing dad made us swear. Return to the Long Island beach club where he and mom met as teenagers and put their ashes in the ocean. We kept the promise. It was a spectacular day. Not a cloud in the sky. My brother and I walked out on the rock jetty and watched as the ashes washed away in the waves.
Yesterday a friend sent me a video of two elephants swimming off the coast of Gabon. Side by side they moved together, their majestic heads rising and sinking in the waves, trunks reaching out of the water for air now and again. There was a long way to go before they would get to an island off in the distance. But then they always were terrific swimmers.
Jennifer Reek holds a PhD from the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts, University of Glasgow. She is author of A Poetics of Church: Reading and Writing Sacred Spaces of Poetic Dwelling (2018) and co-editor of the forthcoming Thresholds of Wonder: Poetry, Philosophy and Theology in Conversation.