At night while lying in bed I could feel the phantom
undertow of the ocean: pull and release, pull and release, pull and release.
We would sleep with the windows open and listen to the ocean crash in the distance never knowing if the sea would be calm or rough the next morning and never understanding or questioning why. It simply was. My brothers and I would wake early, eat our breakfast as quickly as possible, wait the obligatory thirty minutes mandated by my mother and then run down the boardwalk from our rental beach house and through the still cool powdery sand.
Hesitating for a moment, one of us would then take the lead and run headlong into the cold water and the rest would follow. We would float in the sea like bell buoys occasionally shouting out “This one looks like a good one!” and quickly paddle either towards or away from the wave. If it turned out to be promising we would turn towards shore and swim to catch the swell and ride on top of it, millions of tiny air bubbles fizzing around us. The excitement of the ride was tempered by the realization that a wave could suddenly become too strong and plunge us underwater rolling us head over heels along the sandy bottom and causing us to inhale the burning salty water through our noses. And so as a child, I became the ocean’s flotsam and jetsam for a week every summer on the outer banks of North Carolina.
One of the last visits to the beach with my father stretched from one week to two. His intent was to shield us from the wave of publicity back home surrounding his disbarment as an attorney. Just as I could not see the wave behind the current one, I did not see the financial ruin of our family on the horizon and my father’s name splashed across the newspapers.
I did not know or understand the science of waves as a child. That a disturbance created by the air brushing against the water from as far away as one thousand miles could create a wave that I could not see until it threatened to topple me.
When I became a father I tried to teach my girls how to ride the waves. When they were little, I would pick them up and hold them close as we ventured into the water. They trusted me then, as I used to trust my father to never let go.
But a wave is circular. It wants to return and if you are not prepared the undertow created can pull your feet from under you and with your arms so full it can be impossible to maintain your balance.
My beautiful daughters are college age now and looking down from the crest of a wave in the same ocean I see that they have survived; best to stop pulling them towards me now and learn how to release.