In the 1940s and early fifties my father worked as a lifeguard on Fire Island, New York. If you are familiar with Fire Island you will know that it's an audacious and foolhardy sandy spit of land off the coast of New York State. Like a thin and fearless welterweight going against Muhammad Ali it remains there, miraculously standing against all odds. Fire Island juts out into the violent and powerful Atlantic ocean and has no natural barriers. The fact that it has not been completely washed away since its official founding in 1825 is miraculous. Eventually in the 1970s, New York State built some jetties to break the ferocious rip tides that were threatening to erode Fire Island down to the ocean floor - where by all scientific reasoning it should be.
When I was a young child my father was an active alcoholic and I didn't have much of a relationship with him. In fact, I was afraid of him. Then he got sober at age 45 and when he stopped drinking everything changed. He came into my life as a stable and loving presence. Every summer he would rent a house on Fire Island where I would visit him. That was always my favorite time of year, going to that house in Fire Island. I had not been exposed to an ocean like that before and to watch it was awe-inspiring and somewhat hair-raising. Until, that is, my father started teaching me all that he had learned in his years pulling drowning swimmers out of its deadly swirls.
He taught me that the ocean must be respected always. That even on a calm day the ocean will be stronger than any swimmer who chooses to test their luck in the unpredictable surf. The house was so close to the beach that on rough days we could hear the waves crashing on the shore. Every day, no matter the weather, my father would go for “a dip". He would stand at the water's edge and contemplate the waves, the currents, the undertow and the tides. He would stand there calmly for several minutes, arms crossed against his chest in his faded orange swim trunks, and then suddenly, when he saw the perfect moment, he would run in and disappear. Like a raindrop falling into the ocean he would slide in and become one with it. Watching my father disappear into the churning water was extremely unnerving. I would stand there paralyzed for several seconds until he would miraculously reappear, beyond the breakers, and wave to me on the shore. A wave to show me that he was okay. He would then ride a wave back to shore and if the waves were not too tricky he would help me get in and past the breakers where we could jump over the waves at their highest point right before they would break. It was thrilling. Today, decades later, it is still one of my favorite places to be. In the ocean, jumping over waves. Although my father passed away in 2018, every time I'm in the ocean I feel that I am in communion with him, with his spirit.
My father also told me to never turn my back on the ocean as a wave could sneak up on you and smash you into the sand as you were trying to get out. A man had died that way on a neighboring beach when my father was a lifeguard. He was walking out of the ocean when a rogue wave hit him the wrong way at low tide, smashing him into the hard-packed sand and breaking his neck. Killing him instantly, right there on the beach. Keep your eye on it, my father would tell me. Exit the ocean the same way you went in, watching the waves, your back to the shore. There were times when the ocean would overwhelm even my father, a very fit and sober ex-lifeguard. I would watch him be swept out or out and sideways, caught in a rip tide, unable to get back to shore. I would follow his disappearing head down the beach as he seemed to drift farther and farther away from safety. He would be way out there treading water, maybe doing a lazy side stroke, keeping his eye on the shore, his head getting smaller and smaller and harder to see over the thundering waves. And then, slowly slowly slowly, I would watch him start to swim. Relaxed and steady. He would swim WITH the rip tide and the confusing currents, never against them. He would work with them until he was deposited - sometimes a mile away from where he had entered - back on the shore, safe and sound. I see now that the lessons I learned from watching him out in Fire Island were about ocean swimming but even more importantly about how to live. When he was overwhelmed by life he would not fight it. He would relax in the knowledge that eventually life would calm down and deposit him safely back to wherever he was meant to be. He didn't struggle during those times. He didn't complain. He didn't fight. He would accept the difficult times in his life with equanimity and with grace. Just like he approached the ocean. Secure in his knowledge that sooner or later things would settle down.
So I watched him and I learned from him and then, 60 years or so after my father’s lifeguard days, something miraculous happened. He was 80, and although fairly healthy he was somewhat frail after a series of strokes. He was in Fire Island and had gotten dressed to go to 5 o'clock Mass at the local church. As he left his front door he cocked his head. He could hear that the ocean was seriously acting up that day. Unable to resist the exhilarating pull of a potentially dangerous ocean swim he changed out of his church clothes and into his bathing suit. He walked up to the empty beach where he discovered a wild frothy ocean. How could he resist? He jumped in and got past the breakers and, to his absolute astonishment, what he found beyond them was a drowning man. Disappearing under the water, his ghastly white face barely reappearing above the water to gasp "Help me. Help me. Please help me." My father judged this man to be about 40, bigger and stronger than my dad, and he knew that if he got too close the man would pull them both down to their watery deaths. He yelled at the man to "Relax! Stay still. Stop thrashing. Relax, Relax! I'll get help." But the man was sure he was dying. He wouldn’t stop flailing and thrashing and splashing and all that crazy activity was making him weaker and weaker by the second. Finally my father was able to signal for help to someone who had appeared on shore. They called 911 and the lifeguards arrived almost immediately. They dove in with their rescue gear, secured the man onto their cot and floated him over the merciless waves to the beach, where he was immediately rushed to the hospital. He survived. My father had saved this man's life. But my favorite part of the story is this. When the young Baywatchy lifeguards had rescued the drowning man they screamed to my father "Wait here! We’ll be back for you! Stay still and tread water. Relax" My father was amused. "No worries" he said, "I'll just ride a wave in." And that is exactly what he did. He saved that man's life. Swam in. Walked back to the house, got dressed again and went to the later Mass at 7.
My father didn't even tell me that story. Someone else did. He was like that. When I asked him about it he sort of chuckled and said "Yes, I guess it was just meant to be. Him drowning. Me going for a swim. At the exact same time. Funny how things happen." I miss my father terribly. I probably always will. But I feel him with me. Whether I'm swimming in the ocean or attempting to deal with life on life's terms, I think of him and I try to let go and relax. Knowing that eventually life, like the ocean, will calm down and I will be deposited right back to where I belong. Right back to where I am meant to be.