Phil Matejczyk 1937 - 2018
My father wasn’t athletic, or even interested in sports—anything involving a ball would compel him to pick up a book, and I’m not 100% sure he knew whether the Chicago Bears was a football team or a baseball team—but he did like being outdoors. He was the type of man who conquered knots. He used them to string backpacks up in trees so bears couldn’t get them and hold a sailboats in a slips so they wouldn’t rub a dock in a storm.
The infamous bowline: Bunny comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back into the hole. It’s a good one to know. The greater the pressure on the line, the tighter the knot gets.
My father and I weren’t close; he wasn’t very affectionate, but I did know he cared about me—recently, I’ve even heard he’s bragged about me, which is pretty fabulous to know. I’ve heard that men grow softer as they age and he did. I hold a very unscientific theory that with age, (and all of its attending troubles), people tend to grow either softer or more bitter. He grew softer. It’s what I’d hoped would happen and I’m glad it did.
He also liked to take pictures; not interesting ones – close ups of flowers and pictures of hydroelectric dams. When he showed them to me he’d explain each one and I thought I was going to jump out of my skin I was so bored. The pictures would float around the house for years. In bowls on the coffee table, drawers, some of his favorites hung on the walls. My mother’s still trying to put them into albums and I’m still trying to convince her to not bother.
And he loved binoculars. There was always a pair around his neck.
On vacations he would look across quiet, expansive lakes. When we were canoeing in the boundary waters he’d peer through them until he found an inlet we were supposed to be headed for. He would have his compass and laminated map spread out and look through his binoculars until he was satisfied we were heading in the right direction.
Sometimes, after we’d set up camp, he’d use them to look across the water, and if he saw a loon and I was close by he’d hand them to me and point to where I should look, and if it was still enough I could hear its 2 step call—a mid-range, breathy, low to high sound—that felt like it came from eternity and was going back to eternity.
I now own 3 pairs of binoculars and 2 cameras. His hand me downs.
I have a Canon A-1 with a broken mirror and grains of sand in the crevices. I took that one to Africa with me. I also have an Olympus OM-1 with likely exposed film still in it. I can’t imagine what’s on it—maybe a tulip, or a crocus.
The first pair of binoculars he gave to me had lenses the size of jelly lids. They were enormous and heavy. I used them from time to time, which I enjoyed, but my arms got sore from holding them up. The second pair was great, and the third pair was greater. Now, sometimes I sit in our backyard in an Adirondack chair and look through the trees and it feels like I’m in some kind of green and uncontained Netherworld.
From a distance and with the bare eye—although you might not realize it—things appear 2 dimensional, as though the trees are a mush of flat green, but through a good pair of binoculars the images become layered. A tree in the distance is clearly in front of a house, and so forth.
It’s a fascinating precision we’ve been able to manufacture for ourselves with these binoculars, but when you start to see birds through them it blows your mind. I know every bird in our backyard, what they look like and what they sound like. For awhile I called myself a birder until I found out real birders travel to South America to see obscure birds barely anyone’s ever seen. When a real birder sees a rare bird it changes their lives. They live on a different plane after that.
I discovered the birder thing late in life, after my father gave me his binoculars.
Although he often seemed more interested in his hydroelectric dams and knots than me even when I stood right next to him, I’ve come to believe his affection was there, only the way he expressed it was by pointing out a loon or showing me how to tie a bowline. He wanted me to see what he saw and isn’t that the way people connect?
I was standing beside him. He wasn’t looking at me, but he was aware of me and wanted me to join him, be a part of his life.
One of the most precious things for me these past few years has been to see him become interested in what I’ve been looking at almost my whole life, what I’ve been focused on, as though now he was taking the binoculars hanging around my neck and searching for what I was seeing.
And I’ve been staring at birds. But I’ve also been staring at Christ. For years.
I’ve been staring at God, through Christ, and I’ve seen the wonder of his love and his grace and the ways he takes things that are dark and horrible and flips them around so that they become bright with truth. I’ve experienced the miraculous wonder of growing familiar with his voice across the waters of my life and studying his ways with me. Discovering his love in the tiniest things.
The last few years of my father’s life, he began to see what I’d been focusing on for so long and because of that he began to know me better, he began to care about what I care about. He began to see God’s love and mercy.
And now I’m going to commit—especially for a writer—the sin of all sins and insert a platitude in this remembrance because it serves me well and I want to: I believe that my father is in a better place. I’m sure that now he sees more clearly than I do the grace and love and relationships that are found in God through Christ. I’m sure he wants me to know all of it, I’m sure he wants me to see what he sees.