This is the story of two men, two fathers. They didn’t grow up on the east end but they came to love it. They both married the woman of their dreams. They were good men. Honest. Caring. Hard-working. They each found themselves at the ocean one beautiful summer day. The moms didn’t come. They had errands to run. The beach was littered with laughter, screams of joy as the kids taunted the waves. Or maybe it was the other way around. Each dad had a son, the first-born. The only child. Both dads went down to the shore, just to the edge. Each boy was a year and a half old. The boys loved putting their feet in the sand and watching as the tide pulled the sand away. One dad tossed his son up in the air and a wave rushed in and caught him. Just like that he was gone. The father dove into the water again and again. No one came to his aid at first because it happened so fast no one had even seen it. When he finally yelled out lifeguards did come. They dove into the surf. They searched and searched. The beach got quiet. The father yelled out his son’s name. As his screams got louder and more desperate mothers started to cry, fathers held their own sons and daughters close. The lifeguards kept diving. The dad kept calling out his son’s name, tears rushing down his face. He began to punch the water and curse the waves. His curses turned to pleas to God for some kind of intervention.
Everyone had gotten out of the water by this point. They stood on the beach in a silent vigil. Eventually the lifeguards joined the others, their heads down. The Dad could not quiet his screams. He started to run out into the ocean. The lifeguards pulled him back. He begged them to let him go, to let him die. He said he couldn’t go on. Slowly, he gave up the fight, resisting less and less until his body went limp. The lifeguards gently lowered him to the sand. He sat there, staring out at the horizon in disbelief. The little boy never surfaced.
At another beach the other dad threw his son up in the air and a wave came in and caught him but this dad lunged forward just in time to grab a foot. He pulled his son back from the clutches of the wave and dropped to his knees in shock and gratitude. With his son wrapped in his arms he left the ocean, never to return. He knew he had been spared. He told his wife of course and they both felt lucky. But did she really know how close they had come to a different destiny? Probably not. They played with their son that night. They had friends over. They laughed and drank and went to bed blissful. He bought a house on a lake, had more children. Did he live happily ever after? Not really. He had struggles. His wife died young. Business faltered at times. But he didn’t lose his son that day. His life didn’t change in an instant.
A shark being to blame would have, in some ways, been easier to come to terms with. At least there would be a villain. The only villain here, in his mind, was him. He didn’t catch his son. He let himself be thrown back by the wave. He didn’t react fast enough. His wife broke down of course. She couldn’t understand. It didn’t make any sense. She drove to the beach. She ran into the ocean. She called out her son’s name. People stared at her. Some probably thought she was calling out a lost love’s name. She fell to her knees and cried. Her nails clawed at the sand. She threw handfuls at the waves. But they continued their relentless rhythm. Mothers gestured for their children to stop playing near her. Someone approached to offer assistance. She could not be consoled. But as she turned her face lit up. She jumped to her feet and ran down the beach to a bright red umbrella and bent down to scoop up her son only to find that it was someone else’s son, a more fortunate mom’s son. Same age. Same light blue bathing suit. Same dirty blonde hair. But not hers.
They had a small funeral. News spread fast. Fathers secretly thought that would never happen to them. They would have been able to save their child. It was discussed in whispers at barbeques and cocktail parties. He was a football player. He was a big guy. How could he not catch his kid before a wave did? How could he get knocked down? They went into therapy but what could a therapist say or do, give them a book to read, remind them that life is not fair. The marriage fell apart. Perhaps it was harder for the mom as she didn’t see it happen. Or maybe she was the lucky one. But she never remarried and never had any more children. He did remarry and had three more children. He still goes to the ocean and stands at the shore and stares out at the horizon and will never forgive himself for letting his son down.