“These are not ordinary canoes. They may have conveyed spirits or shamans in their journeys to other spirit worlds. These magical boats are capable of penetrating the earth, flying across space, and ascending to the sky. Some natives believe that when a person becomes ill it is because their soul has wandered off or has been carried away. The magical canoe is used by the Shaman or his or her guardian spirits, to search for and try to return the missing soul in order to cure the sick person.”
MANY YEARS AFTER I saw this canoe carved into a giant boulder in an Ontario park, I boarded a snow covered train to West Virginia to see my parents. My father already had cancer, but now a brain tumor had been found and he was waiting for the hospital to get new machines that could radiate the tumor. My brother, Terry, sister-law, Ellen, and my mother and I, took turns sitting by Dad’s bedside, worried that his tumor might be malignant, or the radiation wouldn’t stop the growth, or the rest of his cancer would spread.
I was used to my father laughing and talking all the time. He was an engineer and a math wizard. He could crunch numbers without using a calculator. Now he was depressed, he couldn’t even balance his checkbook. He weighed ninety pounds, slept constantly, and hadn’t spoken in days.
“I have to build a boat,” A mumble came from the bed.
My mother, Terry, and I rushed to his side, relieved to hear him say something, anything.
“Penfile.” Dad’s eyes opened, “A stencil…a pencillll…”
Struggling to sit up, he pointed to a small table across the room next to the patio doors mumbling about needing paper. We were so glad he was moving again, we helped him over to the table and brought him a pencil and paper.
Dad stared out the patio doors into the snowy fields that went on for acres. Then he turned to us. “The boat…it’s going to be thirty feet long with a full kitchen under the main deck.”
Terry mouthed, “Boat? What boat? Ma and I shook our heads and shrugged our shoulders.
“I need my books,” Dad said, waving at the bookcase across the room.
I walked over to the bookcase. He must have meant, The World’s Best Sailboats. I had given it to him years ago as a birthday present. It was in an instruction book on how to build a sailboat. I took the book to him and he started thumbing through it.
Dad waved my brother over to his table. “There’s some things I have to find out about jibs and riggings,” he said. He scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to my brother. “Could you go into town and do some research in the library?”
“Sure Dad,” Terry said, rolling his eyes at me.
Ma motioned for Terry and I to go into the hallway.
“Is it the tumor that’s causing this crazy boat idea?” she whispered.
“Ma, don’t worry.” My brother shrugged it off. “Dad can hardly hold a pencil. He’s not going to build a boat.”
The next day, sitting at his table again, Dad asked my mother, “What kind of kitchen would you like in the boat?”
Ma threw up her hands and motioned us out into the hallway again.
She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at Terry. “How much would this boat thing cost?”
My brother thought a moment. “Probably ten thousand dollars,” he whispered.
“What!” my mother said.
“But that’s not going to happen.”
“We’ve got hospital bills to pay!”
I chimed in, “Maybe we could help him build it.”
“Help him?” Ma’s fists leapt to her sides.
“But it’s not…” Terry said.
Ma swung around to Terry and threw up her hands. “Now she’s siding with him? Now she thinks he should build a ship in our backyard?”
“Hey, both of you.” Terry said. “Even if Toby and I helped him it would take ten years to build this thing.”
“Ten years?” I said.
“Listen, Terry.” Ma grabbed his shirt sleeve. “This is important. We don’t have much money. This boat would cost us our life savings.”
Terry said, “But Ma, he’s not going to build it.”
Ma took a deep breath. “Okay, okay, he’s not going to do it!”
We followed Ma back into the bedroom just as Dad pointed out the glass patio doors and said, “I’m going to build the boat right out there in the cornfield.”
“Terry! You said he wasn’t going to do it.”
That’s when it hit me – that Algonquin boat I saw carved into the boulder in the park…
“The magical canoe is used by the Shaman… to search for and try to return the missing soul in order to cure the sick person.”
My father was building a solar boat. I was sure of it.
I turned to my mother. “Ma, remember when you got cancer you began reading the Bible again and praying? I don’t remember you praying before.”
Ma shook her head. “What Bible, what are you talking about, Toby?”
I shrugged. “Well, maybe in a crisis we can see things, know things we couldn’t know before. I’m just saying, why would Dad chose to do a totally impossible task unless something told him it was necessary to do it?”
Weeks later, Dad had the radiation and his brain tumor shrank to where it was hardly visible. He started eating again, working on his Chevy Van in the garage and adding up the monthly bills in his head without using a calculator. And he stopped talking about the boat.
After lunch one afternoon, I walked down to the stream where Dad was holding a stick in his hand, trying to free some leaves caught in the ice.
“Hey, Dad,” I called to him. “When are we going to start building your boat?”
“Oh, that,” he smiled and said, “I guess we won’t have to build that boat anymore.”