The Summer of 1978 had arrived. The wafting salt air filled my chest and the warm summer sand caressed the bottom of my feet. I had been paroled from a long winter sentence and I began my charge towards the shoreline to wake the dormant ocean from its long slumber. With the gulls screeching an invitation from above, I sprinted towards the water’s edge. The waves rhythmically crashed one after the next. Despite my youthful ignorance, I could sense the raw and pent up power that the ocean possessed.
The first wave struck me and hobbled my imbalanced feet in the shifting sands. I reached out to steady myself and felt the freezing water receding across the back of my knees. “Hey Kiddo, don’t go out any farther,” my father called. I looked back and gave him a wide grin, the kind that says I hear you but I’m going to do whatever I want. The next wave came in with virtually no force at all. It petered out before it even made it towards my ankles. Feeling emboldened, I went further out into the water and turned to look around. And then… SPLOSH! A giant wave that had been lying in wait behind its weaker predecessor blindsided me. I was instantly knocked over and enveloped in the salty brine. Water filled my lungs. My prone body was being dragged by an inexorable force. I was submerged in murkiness and subsequent waves landed additional blows to my fallen body. Suddenly, my flailing arm was snatched. My arm stung for a moment from the sheer force of being yanked by the invisible hand, but I was too busy coughing up seawater to recognize the pain. While I lay on the sand I held tightly onto that hand. It seemed like the incident lasted for hours. In reality it was only a handful of seconds. That hand, my father’s hand, sat there with me on the beach, squeezing my hand tightly. We did not speak a word. I didn’t want to let go.
Many summers have come and gone since that day. And I can hardly remember that feeling of my father holding my hand anymore. While I have grown and become a father myself, the unrelenting press of time has been unforgiving with my father’s health. The same strong man that would take us on an early morning swim in the Ocean now struggled with the basic activities of daily living. The change was sudden. And like most proud people, he had grown increasingly stubborn and resistant to medical care. That is, until one wintry night, after days of sharp pain and bleeding, I coerced him into accompanying me to the emergency room in the middle of the night.
1 AM in the ER was otherworldly quiet. The only sounds that could be heard were the rings of the monitors doing their monitoring. When at last a male nurse appeared, he matter-of-factly explained that he would have to catheterize my father. There was a look of horror on my father’s face. He wanted to leave but I assured him that everything was going to work out fine. We sat mostly still and quiet together. Occasionally, we made inconsequential small talk and then silence would fall upon us again. We both pretended like it was just any other day but silently I was wishing that I could magically fast forward this scene to the next day. But we seemed to be permanently stuck on pause.
A doctor finally appeared. He was patient and exacting, firing numerous questions in a staccato intonation. My father tried to delay the diagnosis by distracting the doctor with random questions about the state of our healthcare system. But the doctor artfully dodged his obfuscations and kept a laser focus on delivering his medical soliloquy. The doctor explained that my father was facing a very serious condition. Acute Kidney Failure. My father, who usually minimized all things health related, was stricken. He suddenly looked wan and worn. The doctor explained his medical options and treatment and departed from the room. A complete silence set upon us again.
In those early morning hours in the empty emergency room, waiting for a hospital bed to become available, I sat quietly next to his bed. My father, weakened and shaken, was blindsided by this wave. He never saw it coming and was slowly being dragged out to sea by this unrelenting, inexorable force. I reached out and held his quivering hand. It was my turn to reach out and grab hold. And he in turn took my hand and clenched it. Not a word was spoken between us. Sitting there on the coarse hospital sheets and under the warm lights of the Emergency Room, I could almost feel the sand and sun from the Jersey shore all those years before.