[Published in the St. Petersburg Times as a “Sunday Journal” essay in 2010.]
How deeply the trauma of that particular day had penetrated my father’s psyche was not clear until the very end, when every pretense of clarity and control had been stripped away by the dual diseases of Alzheimer’s & Parkinson’s.
Staring with vacant, watery eyes, hands pressing frantically into plastic wheelchair handles, he kept muttering “So tired. Pushing. Tired. So hard.”
I had no idea what was haunting at the moment. I reached for his hands, a Dalmatian coat of brown and purple spots. They trembled in mine. He didn’t always recognize me but he always responded to kindness.
He labored to explain, “Just . . . ,” I had the feeling, for the millionth time, that the thoughts in his head were much clearer than his anguished communication; “Just . . . kick!”
And suddenly, I knew what he was remembering: we were back in the waves, his strong hand pushing my heel as I kicked against the raging green washing machine of hurricane surf off Pass-A-Grille. It was late August 1975. Hurricane Caroline, barely a category two storm, was making her way toward Alabama and we were at the beach.
There is unique excitement in a big storm. So often, the ravages pass by, leaving only the violent fringes. Live through the warnings a few times and you get cocky. The potential is too tempting not to indulge. Which perhaps explains why a 54-year-old mathematician and his 13-year-old daughter were swimming in a hurricane.
Pass-A-Grille was once lined with Australian pines. The tiny cones cut through the toughest bare feet with precision if you tried to run from the parking meters to the sand without flip-flops. Hurricane Elena finished off the trees when she came for a protracted visit over Labor Day Weekend in 1985. They were bending violently that day in 1975 but we ignored their warning. There were waves to ride – big, violent, glorious waves. My mother stayed on shore, admonishing us not to go too far, shrilly calling for caution.
Wading into the foamy surf, our legs pulled away with the rush of sand streaming from land. But the tempo was wrong: too much, too fast. The rip tide carried us straight out. We needed to get back.
Riding waves is half art and half physics. The angle of elevation (your body) and the angle of depression (the crest of the wave) must become an identity – in the mathematical sense – for the perfect ride to be realized. This union happens only for an instant, like the tennis ball that seems to hover magically for you to hit the perfect shot, if only you have the eyes to see.
Eyes to see.
He probably did it by single-minded determination. Eyes steady on the flat shoreline. His hand never far from my foot. I could feel his exhaustion and soon, his desperation. Gulping electric air. Salt water stinging noses and throats. Gagging and coughing. And the hand that kept pushing. “Kick!” the only command he could gasp, time and time again. “Kick!”
All at once, a shimmer of see-through green lifted us up and shelved us on the smooth sand. Our faces were turned toward each other. We were beyond breath, heaving like fish. I began to realize, dimly, how close we had come.
Truth is, I wasn’t scared until it was over, after that last wave deposited us on the beach. My father had his hand at my foot. That we were foolish I knew with certainty, but with his hand to push me, how could we be doomed? It took him much longer to recover and breathe than it did me. I do not remember a moment after we finally stood up; however, neither of us ever challenged storm surf again.
Through the years, he would occasionally refer to our misadventure as an illustration of foolish behavior. More rarely, he revealed it was a moment of extreme fear – this from a man who served 18 months as a submarine officer in World War II. But at the end, when all but the skeleton of his mind was gone, this experience emerged as a primary and principal horror.
While it seems cruel that this memory stayed when a lifetime of good ones had been erased, I do not regret that wild ride. I am grateful my father saved my life and grateful for the lesson learned. But I am especially grateful it was not my fate to stand on the beach at Pass-A-Grille and watch the near-drowning of my husband and my youngest, while the wind whipped the sand into shards and needles and Hurricane Caroline barreled toward Alabama.