The green flag meant conditions were favorable to swim. A sand bar on the shore looked like a long glass table as waves spread seawater thin across it. This is the day to get my boy on the water, I thought.
He’s a cautious kid who prefers to take imaginative risks. When he challenged me to a sword duel, I began to lure him in.
“Only the bravest of knights will join me in the water,” I said, one arm at my side, the other pointing a coffee-stirrer-sword at my son. I dropped my tone to imitate the villains from our audio books.
The water was calm. Each wave dried up, resembling latte foam by the time it reached my feet. My boy insisted on keeping the higher ground.
After half an hour, I came to him and asked, “Why don’t you want to come in the water with me?”
He put his hands into his mouth, his go-to move when a question probes beyond his emotional intelligence.
“You can hold my hand and I’ll stay with you the whole time.”
“You’ll never let go?”
“I’ll never let go.”
We stood in the easy surf. I showed him how wet sand is great to make footprints in, and if you stand in one place, you’ll sink as the waves recede. We went wooahh whenever water raced past our feet.
“Was that a big one daddy?”
“Sure was bud. You’re doing great. Can I let go of your hand? I’ll stay right here close to you.”
When the next wave came he started waving his hands in fear.
“It’s OK. You got this.”
His confidence grew. I was even able to walk up the sand bank, pull up a chair and read a little. I remarked to my mom, “If this is all he does today, it is a win!”
Then new plans starting hatching. I’ve always had trouble idling. A part of my addictive nature will always want to push a little more, stretch the joy a little thinner, even when I have ample proof that I stretch it until it snaps like a rubber band.
But after all, there are only so many green-flag beach days, only so many opportunities to get him in the ocean at this age, so many days that he is willing to take the risk—
I picked him up. “Let’s go see these waves.”
“No-no-no Daddy—I don’t want to get my head wet.”
His fear of getting water in his eyes is known to all brave souls who have dared wash his hair.
“I’ll hold you the hold time.”
“You won’t let me go?”
“I promise I’ll never let you go.”
I hoisted him up. His legs wrapped around my waist. Waves came and crashed at my knees and hips, spraying water all over. Swimmers bobbed over the top of each break mid-conversation.Woaahh we said. “Was that a big one Daddy?”
“That was a big one bud.”
It was when I was ready to submit my claim for father of the year—getting an ocean-timid toddler from the sand to the breaker—that a wave twice my height appeared two parking spaces away. Swimmers dove underneath it. 2 options came to mind fast.
I could either force him underneath or take my chance over the top. I stepped forward. Water sucked us into the wave. As I left my feet, it crashed straight down on our heads. It felt like that trick where someone kneels down behind you while another pushes you over them, only with the force of a 12 foot wave.
I held on to him as we drifted weightless underwater, my feet flailing to find bottom. I never let go. He gasped for air as I walked him back to umbrella shade. I tried to laugh it off like it was everyday excitement. He kept moaning.
“We got pummeled bud.”
“Yeah, pummeled. But did I ever let you go?”
“No.” He was shaking. “Daddy? Sing me a song.”
I started one.
“No-no-no. Daddy, sing me the song you sing when I was a baby.”
“Yeah, Mistah Tambo-wean man.”
I didn’t know he remembered that I sang that song to put him to bed every night when he was an infant. Poor guy. Traumatized by the wave and now wrapped in a towel, he reverted back to that infantile comfort.
You never know when the big wave will come.
I was raised to stand on my own. If my father didn’t foster independence in me, I may not have survived the bigger waves that pummelled my life—the waves of addiction and powerlessness over alcohol. I’m all too eager to pass on that independence to my son. I want him to be able to brace for life’s adversities on his own.
And that desire got us both in over our heads.
As my son fell asleep in my arms, I was renewed in the appreciation that I still get to hold him as the big waves break. One day I’ll have to let him go.
Just not today.