Soon we’ll be by the sea again.
Like pilgrims we come each year, my wife and her son and my daughters and I. It’s a family tradition for our sometimes-family. Each summer, for a week, for seven days to which our coming gives a shape, we live together by the sea, giving to our oddly separate yet intertwined lives a shape. A family we are, here to have fun, before saying goodbye to the waves and the summer and each other: Jaime going back to his father in New Jersey; Mara and Sara going back to their mother in the mountains; Norma and I going back to an unencumbered life which full-time parents sometimes envy, but not as much as we envy theirs.
What is there to envy, though? We think we understand someone’s life but we never understand; our joys and griefs can’t be compared. Only from a distance, and through the haze of ignorance, do we judge and praise and condemn.
See us walking along the beach, on a hazy morning, a family on vacation, Dad and Mom and the kids.
My arm is around Norma’s waist; the curves of our bodies fit. The children are lithe and healthy-looking. They search for shells; they watch a gull skimming the waves; they’re happy here.
We walk, I talk: about something I’ve just read or am worried about. I’m on vacation, but not from myself. Norma half listens, wondering why I tax my mind so, wishing I were more fully here with the sky and the sea. She bends to pick up a shell — dark, wet, nearly perfect — and hands it to me.
The children want to show me their shells, too. I look at each one of them, marvelling at their strange beauty, with the waves breaking and roaring nearby and the water hissing around our feet. I think, for a moment, how important Norma and I and the children are to each other, yet, in this vast landscape, how insignificant; how loved we are and how lonely; family and speck. There’s an old Hasidic saying that a man must have two pockets in which he can reach. In his right pocket, he must keep the words, “For my sake was the world created.” In his left, “I am dust and ash.”
There’s another paradox for me in being at the sea, less cosmic but more compelling, spiralling like a conch shell from an event nearly forty years in my past. Like the sea, ever-changing and never-changing, I come back each year different but the same; the fear is the same, so old it seems a part of me, like my hands or my face. The paradox is that I love and hate the sea — that I’m drawn to it with a passion, but won’t go in above my knees.
Silly, isn’t it? It’s like having a beautiful lover you won’t talk to or kiss. It’s like sleeping without dreaming. The thing is, I never learned to swim.
I nearly drowned as a child, or so it seemed to me. What really happened since my father is dead now — will always be a mystery.
The family was on vacation, at a lake in the country surrounded by trees. In the middle was a raft, one of those old-fashioned, wooden, weather-beaten things. One day, my father hoisted me on his back and swam out to it with me.
He was a fat man but a strong swimmer; I loved the way he moved, the feel of him beneath me, the long, powerful strokes. At the age of four or five, I loved everything about him, though.
The raft, when we got there, was already crowded. He treaded water, his arm around me, while he and the other swimmers talked and joked.
Suddenly, he let go. It was unbelievable, like a dark door appearing out of nowhere, opening and then shutting behind me, leaving me in a room of water without ceiling, walls or floor. I was astonished, terrified. I started to sink. My thrashing brought me up like a buoy. I gasped for air; I started sinking again; I thrashed some more.
I don’t know how long this went on, but I remember vividly the panic, the helplessness, the disbelief. What had happened? Did something distract him? How in the world could he have let go?
Hands reached out for me; to this day I don’t know whose. Maybe they were my father’s, lifting me out of the water, but they felt like a stranger’s hands, comforting me, not sure where I belonged. By this time, I was crying hysterically. I heard my father’s voice, and looked up, and he was holding me. Between sobs, I pleaded with him to take me back to shore.
I was still crying when we got there; my mother asked what was wrong. It was “nothing,” he said. Someone had splashed me and I’d “panicked.” I looked at him dumbfounded. “But Dad! You let go!” He shook his head. He said I was “making a big deal out of nothing,” and told me to stop crying. Something sank in me then, swifter than my own body in the water, down to the bottom of my heart, where it settled like a stone.
I still don’t fully understand what happened that day, either in the water or between us as father and son.
His story was implausible, less convincing than a fairy tale, but it was frightening to admit, even to myself, that he might be telling a lie. To be unable to trust him was as terrifying, in its way, as drowning. As children, we need to believe our parents; it’s impossible for us to understand they’re still struggling with childhood fears of their own.
The dilemma comes when we have to choose between them and ourselves — between their “truth” and our reality, their idea of what “love” is and our injured heart. Something we know, some feeling we have, who we are, isn’t acceptable to them. The pain of that is enormous — for a small child, it’s too great to live with. So it’s buried. We build up a defense against it. We assume a false self that fits in with their beliefs.
For me, being afraid all these years of the water was safer than being afraid of my father, of acknowledging the pain of his betrayal, his unwillingness to be honest about a mistake.
How many of our fears are like this. How much pain there is in all of us, in the wounds we received as children from parents themselves too wounded to give us the love every child needs. We grow up. The wounds scab over. But life picks at the scabs; for me, it happens every year at the sea.