by Robert P. Barsanti
When they went to the beach for the first time this year, the waves were rolling. Waist high breakers staggered into the steep beach, collapsed, and then rolled back out and tangled the feet of the next wave. The tide curved the waves into the beach, and then swung them back out.
The air hung close. The band of cooling water that kept the heat waves from washing over the island had weakened this year and the hot southern air slipped up and pooled over the island. Everything sweated. Everything stuck. Everything chafed. The boys stood in their sweat and heat looking at the water.
There was a pair of white sharks spotted in Chatham. They saw that on the news. There were seals out in Madaket and on Tuckernuck. Sometimes you could see them as they swum through the waves along the beach. Sometimes.
Dad saw this as well. He saw the waves that seemed to rumble and roll from three directions at once. He saw the tide trailing the foam out to the east. And he, too, thought of the seals and the animals that eat the seals. Last year, he had thought the same thing as well, when the waves were larger and the tides stronger. Then, the boys leapt from wave to wave like circus riders. They rolled under the crushing waves to pop up behind them. They had been the Princes of Summer and Lords of the Foam.
Then Winter had closed in. Football and soccer left them on the bench in the rain. Arithmetic and Algebra passed them by. Their lives had skateboards, bikes, and lacrosse sticks suspended from them. Much was expected from them. Much was demanded. Like summer reading, the winter paced and preyed on boys.
So they stood, as they had stood at football games, lacrosse tournaments, and chalkboards. They weren’t sure. The waves looked big. Seals could be out there.
Dad took his shirt off and tossed it onto the beach chair. He kicked the sandals off and dropped the sunglasses into the sand near his towel. His knees hurt. His belly hung. He walked forward.
The outwash chilled his feet. The next wave hit him at the knees and staggered him. The water raced down the beach to build to one huge wave. He stood up and looked at the top as he grew. For a moment, he thought about bracing himself for it. Then, he dove under the toppling peak and popped up on the other side. He floated on his back. His feet and his belly popped through the surface of the water. Three waves floated him up, and then slid him down. He, too, was a King of Summer. “See,” he said. “It’s not cold. Come on in.”
The boys sloughed off their shirts and their winter. They followed slowly in their fathers footsteps, then, with almost-forgotten grace, they leapt over a tumbling wave and got sucked back out under the next one. In the space of a moment, they rode into the beach, spun back down the sand, and floated up regally behind the breaking water.
Summer dawned. The Princes wore their seafoam crowns and the season of sand and salt, candy, and ice cream had begun. Dad slipped out of the water, toweled himself off and sat down in the chair.
Everyone wants to go second. Everyone wants to let someone else poke their nose out and perhaps get it nipped off. Everyone needs to be reassured that it is safe, that it is warm, that there is no seaweed, and that everything will be okay. And that is a parent’s job. We lead the ducklings across the road. We go first.
Character is what you do when no one is looking. Courage is what you do when everyone is looking. The water is cold, the waves are uncertain, and the tide is omnipresent, but you have to dive in. When you leave the boys on the sand, full of doubt and apprehension, you plant a cancer in their minds.
Now prudence has its place as well. No one would dive into storm waves or a raging riptide. Throwing beach balls at a harbor seal gets you to the Emergency Room quickly. The line between fear and judgement has been drawn with a gray highlighter. When you stand on a sandy dune and judge the rolling surf, you can walk right up to and over that gray line. You make the best call you can. On the day that you say “yes,” the first day of summer rises. When the waves beckon with icy fingers, Mom or Dad dive in.
Off the beach, the parents go first. We go to school, go into a career, go into marriage, and go into childbirth first. We learn the unspoken and unwritten things first. Keep an extra pencil in your bag. Don’t drink too much wine. Use good paper for the resume, get the epidural. They went first and tested the water. As adults, we learn fear and doubt; but we have to make it look good for the next generation. We swallow our fear, hope for the best and dive under the wave.
My father died almost two months ago. The tide of dementia had pulled him far down the beach. His slow passage came without his knowledge or awareness; I had control of everything that the world connected to him. I controlled his money and his doctors. He was more mine than my sons are.
Yet, in those last months, he still preceded me; he went first into the waves. He went with a smile for the nurses and a handshake for the other men in the wheelchairs, and a comment about the food. In his final silent days, when the Red Sox game shone in his face and the morphine dripped in, he slipped off into the waves. “See,” he said in all but words, “It’s not cold. You’ll be fine.”