I serenaded my family on the way in. Somehow we ended up listening to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack as we rolled through Ohio, and I performed “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes” to my horrified captive audience.
What I didn’t realize was we were heading toward the movie set.
Austin Lake Park opened in 1946. It’s still owned by the same family; the current president swims laps in the lake every afternoon. He greeted us late Friday night as we pulled in, barefoot and smiling. The camp has a PA system that chimes four times before an announcement about the rabbit petting zoo or the bingo game that’s getting ready to start. (Do you remember the announcements from the school office in Grease? Every time the PA system chimed, I expected the Pink Ladies to appear.)
The park is huge. Nestled in the Ohio River Valley, in the hills of the Appalachian Mountain range, there’s no cell service or nearby restaurants. You’re in the middle of nowhere with endless things to do.
The lake alone could keep you busy for a week. There are pedal boats and pontoons, obstacle courses and fishing. There’s a beach to build sandcastles on and a dam you can ride an inner tube down. There are canoes and kayaks, paddle boards and tubing. There’s a raised platform in the middle of the lake where you can pick your poison: a five foot jump, a ten foot jump, or a twenty foot jump.
We sat on the beach and watched as a man jumped off the tower for hours.
Climb the ladder.
Walk across the platform.
Remove his hat.
Hold it in his gloved hand.
Walk off the ledge.
Fall eighteen feet.
Near the surface of the water, jerk his feet out.
Plunge into the water.
A pause underwater.
Break the surface.
Put his khaki hat back on his head.
Swim to the ladder.
Again and again and again.
The first day we spent at the beach, we watched as he climbed and jumped for over two hours. He was still jumping when we left.
The next time we saw him, Chris said, “I wonder what he’s paying penance for.”
We all know that feeling, when the demons and the guilt get too loud and you do whatever you can to quiet things: Drink. Shop. Control. Run. Avoid. Jump.
We all want to punish ourselves, to make the stuff that happened go away if we just do the thing often enough. It’s a score—a balance sheet—and if we just do enough, the scales will be tipped back in our favor. We’ll forgive ourselves. We’ll forgive others. Others will forgive us.
“Maybe I should ask him if he’s okay,” Chris said eventually.
My husband knows the ache of wanting someone to ask if he’s okay. When he was a kid. When he was drinking.
Sometimes it’s easier if someone asks. It helps us tell the truth. We can’t just say it first. Going first means we may never go at all.
I was at the lake that day with men who went first. First in their family to say no more drinking, no more secrets, no more quiet at all cost, no more hiding, no more pretending everything is fine when it is all on fire.
Austin Lake Park opened in 1946, when our grandparents were young, when the rest of their lives were in front of them, when their foundations were being laid. I think about those beginnings a lot. How they led us here—both in good ways and not so good ways. How we carry family legacies, whether it’s the slow walking or the flaring nostrils or the trauma. How we keep repeating the past until we turn back to look at it and say no more, until we learn better ways. Until we see we don’t have to keep jumping off the same tower and expecting different results.
At some point, we learn we have to stop jumping.