Safe Harbor

Far from home and family, a newcomer gives guided tours of the city over the phone.

By Roger Brooks January 14, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Fifteen hours into my great Seattle adventure, I found my haven. The spot that would serve as my calming refuge and as my father’s window into a city he would never see.

“Just look for the stairs,” said the friendly voice on the other end of the phone. The woman I had traveled to meet, the woman who would soon be my boss, seemed very sure of her instructions. Standing on the corner of First and University, though, all I could see was a giant hammering man and a strip joint. “Just continue down University,” she assured me when I told her there was no stairwell. Sure enough, there, cascading toward the Sound like water, sat the Harbor Steps.

Seattle in spring is a beautiful place, especially if you come from Texas, where the average April high temperature rivals the Emerald City’s warmest summer day. As I descended the stairs, catching glimpses of the blue-green water behind the explosion of cherry blossoms, I knew this was a place I could stay. It was a picture-perfect moment at just the right time of day. Sure, over time, I began to see that the area was in constant need of repair, that too many stones were loose when you stepped on them, that the new fountains never seemed to be on at the same time. Through all of that, though, I always saw the Harbor Steps as my own personal welcome mat. A good first impression means everything.

Just one day before the moving truck pulled out of my Dallas driveway to take me back to those steps, everything changed. My father learned he had terminal cancer. I prepared to turn down the job even as my dad pushed me out the door.

Upon arriving, nothing in Seattle made sense to me. The trees were all different. The flowers bloomed at different times. You could actually recycle your plastics and newspaper in bins on the street. The constant bombardment of new information made me dizzy. But on the Harbor Steps, I found a little piece of home.

Every day, Monday through Friday, I retreated to the steps. On lunch hours I called home to catch up with my parents, learn what the doctor was saying, and hear my father’s voice. Mostly, though, he just wanted me to talk, to show him Seattle from where I sat.

“What’s to see today, Roger?” he asked one afternoon. “Well,” I said, looking toward the Lusty Lady as a Cheshire smile broke over my face. “I see a marquee that reads ‘The Chronicles of Nudia.’” He laughed, marveling that Seattle offered a world-class art museum, a hundred-year-old farmers market, and a peep show, all just a stone’s throw from where I sat. It sounded like his kind of place.

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As summer wound down, I spent more and more time at the Harbor Steps. My father’s voice had grown hoarse from the chemotherapy treatments, so I did almost all of the talking. I showed him the viaduct, Columbia Tower, and the squawking gulls with the funny red tips on the ends of their beaks. I showed him the oddly dressed teenagers, and the bike commuters who rolled up one pant leg. I showed him the Olympics, rising up past the shimmering water. From his backyard, more than 2,000 miles away, my dad saw it all and fell in love with Seattle. He and my mom planned a visit for September so he could see it for himself.

One early August day, I walked over to the steps. Alongside the fountains and elegant cherry trees lining the steps grew a collection of summersweet bushes. The dark, waxy leaves retreat to the background for most of the year; there’s really nothing remarkable about them. That is, until the bushes bloom, when their little white flowers spray the air with a fragrance people either love or hate. The perfume of the summersweet plant that day was overpowering. It smelled sweet, yes, but peppery, as well. And something else—it smelled like home. I dialed my dad, asking if he was on the back patio, as usual. “Yeah, I’m watching the birds,” he said. “Is that bush in the corner still blooming?” I asked. “Oh yeah, still at it. Little white flowers all over.” I told him to go stand next to it and close his eyes. Imagine looking out at the water from the steps as the gulls cry above, I said. “Can you smell the bush, dad? That’s what Seattle smells like today. You’d be right at home on these steps.”

Not too many days after that, my wife called me from Dallas. She asked me to leave the office and go someplace private. I went to my favorite corner of the Harbor Steps. “You need to come home,” she said. “There’s not much time.”

I returned to Seattle a little more than a week later with nothing left to fill up my lunch breaks. I went to the steps anyway, though—every day. I sat underneath the summersweet, wondering why I’d left my father in the first place. No longer a safe haven, Harbor Steps became a painful reminder of everything I’d lost.

I left Seattle less than a year later. The stain left on the city was just too much to bear. But now, some months removed, I don’t think about the pain I went through there. I think about those Harbor Steps and how they allowed me to connect with my dad in a way we never had before. Upon arriving at my new home in Pennsylvania, I planted my own summersweet bush next to my patio. Its peppery scent fills my nose with memory and my ears with the sound of my father’s voice…and the cries of far-off gulls.

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