Even during a beach vacation, I have little interest in plying my strength against the ancient ocean’s mighty blows or fending off the constant accumulation of wind-blown salt deposits on my eyeglasses. And so I remain quite content to live indoors with my books, or, if my wife gives me that sweet, sweet look and begs most heartily as only the world’s prettiest woman can, perhaps I might even venture out on the shores of the Atlantic itself (for a moment or two, though still with books in hand).
And yet...and yet I have a three-year-old son, who thrives in the sand and salt of Holden Beach, those selfsame substances that surround us and have grown quite fond of taking up residence in all our most intimate fleshy crevices. Henry does not yet truly understand his father, for he cannot fathom why his dad would choose the warm, dry comfort of a roomy reading chair or the gentle delights of Pat Conroy’s delicious dialogue and his delectable prose, over Henry’s preferred pastime of striding confidently into the attacking waves and inadvertently inhaling the dirty detritus of the world’s great shared toilet. And Henry’s lack of emotional understanding comes equipped with a firm confidence that Daddy’s way cannot possibly be correct.
Therefore, when he can longer stand to see me happy, he grabs my hand and pulls me out of the house and towards the roiling waves, his sandy, wrinkled hand swallowed up in my own large grip. “Let’s go into the BIG waves, Daddy!” he says, his excited grin the only visible feature not otherwise covered by his favored Spider-Man sunglasses.
It’s fear alone that pulls me, tide-like, from my comfortable literary perch; the fear of hearing Henry tell an investigative journalist twenty years from now, “I didn’t want to kill all those people and eat them; except that I needed something to fill the void inside me that existed from the moment my father refused to take me into the watery depths of Holden Beach.” And so I remove my shirt, hat, jeans, belt, socks, shoes, tie, jacket, and glasses, and then allow Henry to tug me down the lava-hot sand and into the warm water.
I can feel the cancerous UV rays of the broiling sun beating down upon my defenseless and lilly-white skin. No amount of sunblock can eliminate my certainty that sunshine is an entirely unnecessary component of the human experience, although my glistening arms and neck evidence my diligent attempt to do so.
Slowly and inexorably, I’m dragged by this tiny human male into the crashing waves. I could halt my progress at any time, I suppose, but he looks so cute in his amphibian-themed puddle jumper that I can’t bear to disappoint him in his valiant efforts to drown me. So he leads me to my doom, and I reluctantly follow.
I quickly learn my sole fatherly purpose as soon as the first massive wave comes charging towards us. “Hold me, HOLD ME!” Henry orders, a note of panic in his voice as he braces his small frame for the watery onslaught.
Standing behind him, I grab him under his arms and float him up over the waves, allowing the surf to pass harmlessly underneath him with just enough of a hint of danger and force to elicit a squeal of glee from his happy and sunburnt face. And so my lot is cast and my duties established henceforward. For the next phase of my life without end, my existence consists solely of zooming Henry up and down over the rolling waters around us. Henry is a stern master and brooks no breaks from his parental chattel, chiding me none-too-gently when I lose focus and allow a wave to catch him full in the face and leave him spluttering in fury.
After fifteen minutes or twelve hours (at this point, time has become a flat circle, and no human being can ever again pinpoint the exact time), my back is aching from leaning over to hold him, my eyes are burning from the salty foam, and my arms are taken by a sea of troubles. I know the time has come for me to make my escape...or die. So I must begin the delicate, intricate dance of disentanglement from my oceanic predicament.
“Well, son, it’s time for me to head b—“ is all I’m able to get out before a keening wail fills the air, sharp enough to pierce the most callow of fatherly souls (but not mine). “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Henry shrieks, bitter in his disappointment and fury at my betrayal. “I don’t WANT you to go IN!” His brow furrows and both lips pooch out.
Even as the ocean continues to abuse us with its watery torments, I try reasoning with my son, try to explain to him that death comes to all people, even children, and that our time on this earth is infinitesimally minuscule in the eyes of human history, which means we must spend each moment we’re allotted with great care, before our bodies fail us and we’re thrown haphazardly in a shallow, quickly-forgotten grave while people who didn’t like us much in life show up to continue the exercise of that feeling even in death. But he does not grasp the true fickleness of life as I’d hoped.
“Nooooo!” he continues shouting at me and at his own encroaching mortality. “You have to stay WITH me!”
I consider a response that reiterates my earlier point about humanity’s constant death throes, but instead I simply ask, “For how long?”
He puts out his hand and pops out 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 fingers, one after the other. “For FIVE minutes!” he proclaims, which is the longest time period he know at this point, having heard from his parents on many occasions, “GO UP TO YOUR ROOM AND STAY THERE FOR AT LEAST FIVE MINUTES BEFORE I DO SOMETHING I REGRET, LIKE HAVING KIDS INSTEAD OF TRAVELING EUROPE!” He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to five minute increments of time, for those five minutes are really more like an hour because we lie and tell him every time he asks, even 55 minutes in, that it’s only been thirty seconds. I regret nothing.
“So,” I respond, seeking to establish any essential terms of this agreement, “once those five minutes are up, you’ll allow me to head back inside without any weeping or gnashing of teeth?”
He nods confidently, his previous tears mixing with salty droplets from the sea. “Mhmmm.”
The contractual terms agreed to, we shake hands, with an implied promise to formalize the agreement in writing later so his lawyer can review it. With that, we plunge back into the maelstrom for three hundred seconds, no more, no less.
At the close of a real five minutes, I again try to take my leave, but Henry breaches the contract immediately. “Nooooooo!” he wails again, despair flooding his heart and echoing out into the open water. “You can’t go, Daddy! Don’t leave!”
“And yet I must, my boy,” I say, “though it pains me,” which it didn’t. I lift him up and begin carrying him towards the distant shores. “I hate to leave this aquatic wonder behind, with all its wetness and fecal particles and so forth.” I look down at his trembling lip and tear-streaked eyes, and I feel no guilt, for I see freedom before me upon the beach and in the house beyond, and so I cannot be shamed. “I’ll treasure the times we had together, son,” which I will, “and I’ll dream fervently of the next time we can engage the ocean in liquid fisticuffs,” which I won’t.
Henry says nothing in response to my empty words, instead hanging despondently in my arms as we approach the shoreline. Once I deposit him on the ground, he harrumphs at me and then races over to his mother. “Will YOU take me into the big waves, Mommy?” he asks sweetly.
“Of course!” Mommy says, “because I love you in a way that your father never could, enough to forgo my own selfish pursuits in order to ensure that my children have the best memories of their summer vaca—“ blah blah blah, I didn’t hear the rest, I’m sure it was great, I’m already in the house with my book, take some pictures for me, please.