HEARTBEATS AND HURRICANES
My father claimed that each of us is allotted a certain number of heartbeats at birth, and, therefore, if we were wise, we would not use them up too quickly. Even as a child, I suspected he was joking, but it was true: he didn’t exercise. That wasn’t a thing yet, back in the 1960s when I was a kid, although I remember my mother watching Jack Lalane do calisthenics on TV. I knew my father’s bad knees had kept him out of Vietnam. Whenever he played a pickup game of touch football, my mother, watching from the sidelines, would make a crack about the injury she expected him to sustain and another, her laughter tailing off, about the burden this would put on her. Even as a child, I suspected she wasn’t joking.
Despite my father being tall and rangy with broad shoulders and long-fingered hands that spoke of physical confidence, I never thought of him as athletic, and I wonder if those few stories shaped my perception, despite the conflicting evidence of my experience. He could deliver my sisters and me safely to the bottom of a rutted, tree-scattered sled hill. All we had to do was stretch out on top of his long back—my older sister first, then me, then my younger sister on top—and hold on as he guided the Flexible Flyer around the worst of the obstacles and over the rest. At the local pool, even if he was just fooling around, he would dive in from the edge like a racer, his long body stretching after the arc of his hands, a last-minute pike move keeping his body close to the surface of the water, which he would slice through with clean strokes and a satisfying base-note of froth at his feet. Bad knees or not, he was an excellent swimmer.
One summer, when we were vacationing at a beach in North Carolina, a school of porpoises came to romp just beyond the breaking waves. My parents interrupted our body surfing and hauled us out—not because they were afraid but because they didn’t want us to miss the sight. The next day, the porpoises returned, but they stayed much farther out. After the first cry from another beach-goer, my father glanced in the direction of the man’s outstretched arm, grabbed one of our inflatable rafts and ran into the churn of the surf. The red raft bobbed over and disappeared below the crests of the waves. A second man followed my father out, also on an inflatable raft. His was blue. When the colored specks finally converged, it was hard to tell if the porpoises were still out there. The two men stayed out for an interminable amount of time—much longer than the half hour my sisters and I were required to take every day at lunchtime to choke down a sandwich and a Dixie cup full of lukewarm milk.
I got bored waiting for my father to come back and returned to my own agenda of trying to replicate that one perfect ride, the one where the wave didn’t just propel me along but lifted me. Where it didn’t just drop me from its full height and then elbow me up along the coarse sand with no thought to where my head was in relation to the rest of my body but, instead, gentled me to shore, transferring me to the cradle of earth so softly that I didn’t know the wave had receded until I felt my own weight once more.
One of those waves—I have no recollection whether it was a kind one or indifferent—brought my father and his raft in. He washed sideways up the dark sand and stayed there, resting on his elbows. After the water pulled back, little pockets of air bubbled up and popped in the sand, leaving tiny holes, like a cooked pancake. Another wave broke and rushed in. The water caught my dad’s legs and swung the raft around, but the wave’s strength was spent by then, and it sighed itself back out. My father heaved himself up onto his feet, tucked the raft under his arm and jogged over to where we had our towels laid out. He hadn’t been exhausted, lying there. He’d been lost in thought. He had still been with the porpoises.
He tossed the raft to the side and flopped down on his towel. My mother closed her magazine and put it in her lap—she was sitting on a low folding chair. My sisters and I squatted in the sand, dripping, not wanting to commit to our towels, waiting to hear what he would say. He was up on his elbows again. With one thumb, he swiped across the palm of his other hand repeatedly, as if he were paging through a book.
“That’s what _____ (the guy who followed my dad out) was doing when he got out there,” my father said. “He was pretending to look through a guidebook, saying, ‘Porpoises. Porpoises.’” My dad laughed at the memory of it, his stomach lifting off the towel.
“But why?” one of us asked—my younger sister, Brooke, most likely. Dana, my older sister, about ten years old then, would have gotten the joke. She always did—or maybe she just pretended that she always did. Older sisters: they’re clever that way. I, eight years old, didn’t get the joke, but I would have been too embarrassed to admit it. No one expected my younger sister, Brooke, about to turn six, to get anything, a situation that, later, would infuriate her.
“Because,” my father explained, still chuckling, “if they were sharks, we were in big trouble.”
“What were the porpoises like?” That would have been me, but I’m not sure if I said it or only wondered it. I’m not sure if I already had a tendency to keep my thoughts to myself. I have an image of the porpoises—several—in my mind, so he must have described them.
He had been scared. The porpoises had swum farther and farther out, and my father kept paddling, determined to catch up with them. Finally, he had to admit that he had lost them, that he had, on looking over his shoulder, gone way farther out than was, strictly, a good idea. The water was languid. The ocean breathed. Each swell lifted my father and his little raft. Except, the waves didn’t lift him. The ocean confirms, if nothing else, how inconsequential we are, how we are not, in fact, the direct objects we consider ourselves to be. We are there, and things happen.
The waves lifted themselves. Sunlight tripped across the water’s surface, and shadows. Dozens of shadows. Porpoises. Each one sped towards my father’s raft, diving and flying. My father knew they were playing, he said, but they seemed a lot bigger up close. He was acutely aware of the roughness of their skin, and he wondered how the vinyl of his raft would hold up to continued sandpapering. It was a long way to shore.
At that moment, the other man had paddled up, flipping through his imaginary guide to marine animals, “Porpoises. Porpoises…” A back-up raft took the edge off their fear, and they stayed for as long as the porpoises did. While my sisters and I were being washed, rolled and scraped up the beach—over and over—our bathing suits, our hair, our mouths and noses filled with sand, my father drifted among more graceful creatures whose joy was no more palpable or immeasurable than ours.
There were no porpoises to be seen the day my father took my older sister and me into the ocean during a hurricane. It was another year. I was nine. Dana, eleven. We always visited the same beach in North Carolina and stayed in the same ramshackle motel, always for the last two weeks in August, right before school started, right at the beginning of hurricane season.
That year, a hurricane was expected to make landfall south of us. In the morning, the winds were high and unsteady, ripping beach towels from laundry lines. The plastic grocery bag had not yet come into being, so there were none wrapped around the salt-crusted fence posts and none caught, flapping, on the barbed stalks of the sea grass, but anything that wasn’t heavy or well-rooted was on the wing. Except birds. There wasn’t a single one in sight. While the rest of the motel occupants hunkered down, playing card games or watching daytime TV, my father decided it would be a good day to go for a swim. I don’t recall whether my mother, who stayed at the cottage with my younger sister, protested on our behalf.
When we took a beach vacation, we went for the beach and only the beach. By 7:00 a.m. at the latest, we would lay out our towels on sand still damp from the night air. We would set the cooler down in the long shadow thrown by my mother’s beach chair and then swim until lunchtime, when, with sullen faces and long-suffering sighs—“No, my lips aren’t blue,”—we would come back up onto the by-then hot sand, the breeze raising goose bumps on our skin, and we would sit down for that most tortuous half hour. The cooler would be opened, the sandwiches distributed, the milk poured, and we would wait. And wait. And wait, until—time’s up! Our feet would churn the dry sand and then slap the wet sand and then high-step into the breakers’ wash, and then, finally, we’d launch a dive into the relative safety beneath the next moving barrel of wave. We might construct sand castles or dig out a bathtub at the high water mark, but the majority of the day was spent in the water. Before dark, we would pack up—always the last family to go—and we’d climb over the dune and walk back to our cottage, where we would take showers and hang our wet suits and towels on the porch while we waited for supper to be ready. After we ate, we went back to the beach to watch the sunset, the sandpipers, and the teenagers, who came together in mobile groupings and then scattered, much like the birds.
My sisters and I existed as comfortably in the ocean as we did in our bodies. We had experienced our share of rough and tumble. We had come up crying and gasping, sinuses aching from a saltwater power-washing, skin scraped raw on broken shells, and we had always gone back for more—“No, my lips are NOT blue!” But the ocean was a different beast on the day of the hurricane. No one else was on the beach. The sand felt colder than the wind. The sea grass shimmied and then bent over flat, as if stunned, before it shuddered back upright. The sky loomed closer than ever. If I expected its heaviness to exert a calming pressure on the ocean, the ocean wasn’t having any of it. The waves were black. Hungry. Unfathomable. Perhaps what frightened me most was not their size but their lack of rhythm. There was no pattern of build, break, rush and sigh. If you know anything about swimming in the ocean, you know that timing is everything: gauging when the next wave will come so that you know when to breathe and when not to, when to dive and when to pray.
My breath fluttered inside the curvature of my ribs. The skin along my spine pinched. I knew—my body knew—that the ocean was truly dangerous that day. But I had no language for my fear. I had no way to formulate an actionable thought. No context from which to speak. My father had been my language, my only truth, until then.
Overnight, the heavy seas had carved out a ledge in the sand. We stood on the edge of it, the three of us, the long bones of my father’s legs separating my sister and me. I tried to hold my hair, already knotted with salt spray, away from my eyes. I could see no way into the water and no way out. I waited for Dana to say that she didn’t want to go, to speak for me, so that all I would have to say was: “Me, too.” I looked to her to be brave enough to admit that she was afraid. But maybe she wasn’t brave. Maybe she wasn’t afraid. Maybe, like me, she didn’t want to disappoint our father.
He grasped our hands. We jumped down from the ledge and hurtled toward the wall of black water. The waves didn’t curl and tumble but rose, like thick lava at a boil, and then split open, revealing a maw of spit and foam. Those waves were engulfed by others, which came from every which way, from above and from below, as if gravity itself was confused and had lost its grip on the world. I high-stepped into the surge. My father had let go of my hand, and I struggled to keep my balance, knowing that I mustn’t fall down or I would be pulled underneath the breaking waves. I knew from experience that once I was caught in their vortex, I would lose all sense of direction. It would be hopeless to try to swim for air because I would have no idea where it was, and I’d have to wait—that’s where the praying came in—for the wave to spit me out.
Just as my legs buckled, I saw my father’s body arc through the air, his arms and legs stretched to their full length, his torso turned a little to the side. My eyes followed the birthmark on his stomach as he sliced through the wall of water and disappeared—just as another wall hit me square in the face, knocking me back and, mercifully, pushing me up the beach instead of pulling me under. I struggled to stand. My father rose from the miasma and picked me up by the armpits and set me back on my feet. He took my hand, and we ran again. He held my hand so high that my feet could barely get a purchase on the sand. When it came time to dive—“Now!” he cried—the surface of the Earth had already dropped away, shearing off into some other dimension, so my father dove for the both of us, and the sinews of my shoulder screamed for me. My head broke free, and, immediately, we had to duck down under the next wave. We came up again. The ache of my strained shoulder felt cold. The surface of the water—no, that’s not right: there were more than one—the surfaces pitched and heaved.
If a wave broke before us, we dove as deeply as we could beneath it. If a wave hadn’t broken, we rode up and over it and slid down into the trough behind. Either way, dive or slide, each wave drew us farther out to sea. In the briefest moment of rest between them, I glanced over at Dana. She was focused on the next wave coming, but she didn’t look tight. I felt shrunken and less buoyant in the cold water. My shoulder hurt. My legs were already spent. The temptation to give in to my exhaustion and stop treading water rose up from the depths and wrapped an icy hand around my ankle. I panicked and tried to shout but only managed to swallow water.
“I’m ready to get out,” I finally said, coughing and trying not to whimper, but that was not entirely true. I was ready to be out. It would take a rush of energy to get out, to fight the outgoing tide, to navigate the mélee of crosscurrents, to duck when we needed to duck, to turn back and dive when we needed to dive, and to swim like crazy for the shore when we needed to swim like crazy, but that’s what we did. We ducked and dove and swam like crazy.
Then my feet met sand, and my father’s hand steadied me once more through the vertiginous foam and slide of the retreating sea. Back up on the ledge, he squatted in front of me, wrapped me in my towel and rubbed vigorously, as if he were toweling off a wet puppy. His shoulders were so broad and his hands were so strong, I felt ashamed for having given up so easily. Dana’s teeth chattered at she shivered and laughed, “Ha-ha-v-v-v-v, ha-ha-v-v-v-v.” I copied the shape of her mouth, but I couldn’t make any sound. My belly clenched with cold and undigested fear. If they found out I had been afraid, would I be left at home, from then on, with my mother and my younger sister?
My father wrapped his towel around his waist and tucked in the end. Dana and I clutched ours under our chins. As we crested the dunes, an older couple in pants and jackets met us coming the other way. Their surprised and then horrified expressions encompassed the empty beach, the dark sky and the darker ocean. Clearly, my father had taken us into that water.
What kind of man does such a dangerous, reckless thing?
I ground my teeth together to stop their chattering and flashed a frozen-cheeked, possibly blue-lipped smile at the couple as I walked past them, my bare feet leaving small pockets in the sand, my hand, the only part of me that was warm, completely enveloped by my father’s. The echo of my heartbeat against my ribs might have answered their unspoken question: “My father does that kind of thing. Together. With me.”
Some years before, my father had been in an accident on the way home from his office. The car may or may not have come equipped with seatbelts, but in any event, he wasn’t wearing one when the vehicle came to rest on its roof. The officers who responded were surprised: my father crawled out of the wreck, stood up, brushed the broken glass off the sleeves and lapels of his tweed jacket and lit up his pipe. I can just imagine him saying, when they asked him to identify himself: “Bond. James Bond.”
“Who does that kind of thing?” I ask my husband, nearly fifty years later, but I answer myself: “An idiot. A fucking idiot.”
My husband, whose only truly reckless act was, perhaps, marrying me, says, “I believe the word you are looking for is ‘awesome!’”
Why did my father take us into the ocean during a hurricane? It was reckless. It was dangerous. The only answer I have: he thought he could do it, that I could do it. He had no doubts, and his confidence was as good as a fait accompli. He hadn’t used up a single extra heartbeat.
Lea Page is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, Krista Tippet’s On Being blog, The Establishment, Hippocampus Magazine and Manifest-Station, among others.