By Jennifer Hull
My sister Elena thought he was dead. His skin had turned so white that it looked like he was slathered in zinc oxide. His body was slumped in a beach chair. Friends from the neighboring cabanas at the beach club had gathered to help. Two pressed icy beer bottles (Corona Lights, I later found out) against his wrists. One, a man my sister later admitted to having previously dismissed because his wife is named Muffy, wrapped a cold, wet towel around his neck and held the back of my father’s head in his hands while talking reassuringly to him. My dad had stopped responding. My sister held his hand, told him she loved him, and cried while waiting for the ambulance she had called.
My father, who looks at least a decade younger than his seventy-eight years, had taken his new beta-blockers with a cup of coffee on that sweltering, humid Memorial Day weekend morning before heading down to the beach and tennis club. He holds the post of the club’s beach manager, an appointed club member position that he approaches like a full time managerial and manual labor job. Last summer, for instance, he dove deep into the water with an anchor and thick metal chain, in order to secure the floating swim docks. He is approaching aging, like most things he can’t bend to his will, with a mix of defiance, criticism and excessive work. The son of a perfectionist alcoholic, my dad has always been a bit of an overachiever. He is not, however, accustomed to taking medication and it turns out that the ToprolXL and Diovan HCT he was recently prescribed for an “irritable heart” exacerbate one’s chances of dehydration and heat stroke. Much to my mother’s chagrin, my dad hadn’t had a glass of water since the day before, and had worked steadily all day on various projects around the beach until just moments before he passed out in the oppressive heat of the late afternoon.
When the paramedics arrived, they said his pulse was weak but steady. He revived in the ambulance, with the help of IV fluids. By the time I found out about the incident and called him on his cell phone, he was at the hospital. My mercurial father was cheerful and chatty, and talked about how much he was looking forward to my family’s time at the beach club this summer.
When I was seven years old, I dove into the neighbor’s crystal clear pool through a small toy inner tube. My feet got stuck in the tube, and I panicked with my head and body below the surface of the water, silently struggling to escape. My dad, who was sitting poolside with my mother and the neighbors, jumped into the pool with all of his clothes on and rescued me. Startled and relieved, I continued to play and swim in the pool with my sisters and friends, and my parents finished their glasses of iced tea at the table.
When I was a few years older, I went swimming in the ocean with my dad. My parents liked to take us to Cooper’s Beach, where they first met and near where my Great Neck born dad had shared a summer beach house with a cast of character with names like Buzzy O’Keefe and Jerry McGuire. He can still recall every detail of a blur of parties that constituted his glory days in theHamptons. His stories generally begin with flight attendants and nurses who he calls “girls” and end with someone “falling asleep” at the wheel and crashing into a telephone pole alongDune Road. When he met my mom, a beautiful biology teacher fromLevittownwith a Polish last name he couldn’t pronounce, his extended bachelorhood came to an end. It wasn’t long before they were towing three daughters along to the beach with them
As usual, we determined the ferocity of the day’s waves at Cooper’s by the color of the flag that lifeguards had chosen to raise. Red meant very rough waves and strong undertow, green indicated relatively mild surf and blue fell somewhere in between. This was a red flag day. My dad had taught my sisters and me to dive into the biggest waves if we couldn’t ride to the surface of the swell before they crested and crashed. He warned us to always look out at the ocean when we popped to the surface, not towards the beach, so we’d be prepared for the other wave that rose in rapid succession. He instructed us to swim in front of the lifeguard stand. I can still see the look in his eyes when one particularly ominous, sharp edged wave crested above us. As I began diving into it, I felt my dad grip me. He continued to cling to me as we dragged across the bottom of the churning sea floor, sand scraping my teeth. For better or worse, his protective instincts had not allowed him to let go of me. We were spit out together at the water’s foaming edge.