My kids mastered the beach for the first time this year. They waded out into the water and stood there while waves broke over them. And they didn’t always get knocked down. “Knees bent!” I’d yell over the surf. “Lean in if there’s an especially big one. And remember the rule: there’s always another wave coming.”
That last part is especially key. If you’re under the water, about to come up and find yourself thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if there’s another wave coming,” the answer is always yes. And if you forget that rule, you’ll come up to gulp a blast of refreshing air and end up with a lung full of saltwater. Salt water tastes good on your lips. It feels good on your face at the end of the day, but you do not want that water in your larynx. Trust me.
I watched this happen with my six-year-old. He went underwater to look at a crab. He came up and smiled at me, a huge six-year-old melt-your-parents’ heart sort of smile. He wasn’t looking at the mammoth wave coming behind him.
And down he went. I watched his blond curls tumble as the wave spun him over like a towel in the dryer. He ran from the water sobbing.
“I hate the beach! I never want to come back!”
I explained to him what had just happened. “You’ve been trashed. You’re in. It’ll happen again. It’s even fun in a weird way. Just hold your breath and it’ll be fine.”
He nodded, tearfully, and rejoined the ocean.
How do you teach children to respect and love the ocean without terrifying them? If we told them the whole truth, we’d tell them about the kinds of riptides that drowned my brother’s guitar teacher in high school. When they asked about sharks and the whales, we wouldn’t say they’re way out on the horizon, past where we can see. We’d admit that such creatures could come closer. Yet if you relax, if you ease in, if you respect the water, it will bear you up, it will sustain you, it will become a place of refuge.
My other son, Sam, is more of a daredevil. He followed my instructions maximally, keen student that he is. He bent his knees, stretched his arms toward the waves, and shouted over the din, “I have this mastered!” His arms gestured toward the threatening waves in a sort of parody of me—all the more funny because it was out of admiration, not satire. And sure enough, when the biggest wave of the day came, he was not trashed. He was covered up, like Moses’s burning bush, and was not consumed.
And I felt gratified. My advice was followed and the dutiful son was rewarded. What about later, when I don’t have advice? When I’m not nearby to go running to when they get trashed? When they have to make it up as they go? What about when I give advice that they follow and suffer for it? Why bring children into this thicket of risk?
My Sam was on my lap once while I checked e-mail. In an instant, in the twinkling of the eye, he was gone, tumbling from my lap, his head hitting the computer, a gap opened up between two sides of a wound, blood pooling on his blanket, his face contorted with sadness and confusion. We went to the emergency room, Sam clutching his bloody blanket and sucking his thumb, the ER people asking me over and over, “You say he hurt himself while you were e-mailing?”
They stitched him up while he watched Finding Nemo. In this case I knew how to help him—this is the ER, we have health insurance for this, here’s how you operate in a hospital. But I hurt him.
“This won’t hurt,” they said, and they meant it—needle technology has improved, he was numb before the thing even went in, and he was too unaware of what was coming to be afraid. But he cried out, and he was brave, and it was my fault.
Amid small talk, the ER doctor told me about the local beaches. “Oh, yes, people do surf on Lake Michigan. There are waves up toward Wisconsin that make North Carolina waves look small.”
Back at the beach, my third son, Will, sat in my lap in the surf. It took two waves and cries from Will for me to see that I was essentially waterboarding him. My body created a sort of dam that kept the wave from going past and shot its current up in the air, into his face, into his nose and mouth. He sputtered and roared. Am I even safe with these guys now?
My brothers and I went to the beach with my father when his father died. Freud said that the most important day in a man’s life is the day his father dies. I don’t know what Freud meant by that, but I know my dad had lost his final chance to talk to a father who never took time to talk to him. We walked on the beach at Sarasota, Florida, famous for white sand and retirees. I asked my dad if we would ever come back.
“No, I can’t see why we would,” he said. And he started sobbing, crouched down in the sand, as if something deep down in him couldn’t get out. I didn’t know what it was at first. None of us did. And then we covered him with our arms and let him heave.
A year later, a patient of his had a dream. She dreamed that an old man with old man’s glasses was sitting on a bed looking sad. She proceeded to describe my grandfather, whom she’d never met, in detail she couldn’t possibly know. In her dream, she asked the man why he was sad.
He said, “My boy Jimmy is sad, because of me, and I can’t do anything about it now.” She cried with him, prayed with him, and woke up. At her next appointment, the patient didn’t remember the dream. My dad thinks his dad was sending him a message, saying “I’m sorry” in the way an altar-call-going, full-immersion-dunked Baptist could do—through a psychic in a dream Freud would love. Do with that what you will.
Another time I went to the beach with friends. I went not because I wanted to be with friends but because I wanted to be at the beach. I left them at the house and walked to the sand; I fell on my side and plopped down, face first, and slept. It was the end of a first-year internship in seminary and I was not only exhausted—I was “she’s-not-going-to-marry-me-and-I-don’t-want-this-life” exhausted. So I had a little bit going on.
Some college boys stopped by me. The sorts of college boys who make your life hard at the beach by staying up too late, being too loud, making you wonder if you should play the asshole grown-up and call the cops or not.
“Dude, you all right?”
I realized I looked like a fellow college brat who’d OD’d. I sat up, blinking.
“Yeah, sure, fine,” I said, lying to reassure them.
“All right, man, cool.” They moved on.
I brushed the sand from my face, careful not to get it in my eye, and walked down to the water—I dove into the first wave I saw, and floated there, like a flounder, flat on the bottom, hopeful the next bite of food wasn’t a hook on a worm.
I was back on another North Carolina beach not two years later. There was another girl now, one who loved me and wanted life with me and wanted it to start as soon as possible. We both knew what was coming. We had bought the ring together. There was no surprise about when I would give it to her. We would be on the beach, on a blanket, the wine drunk, the small talk over, and it would be time.
“I’m so excited I want to give you this thing now,” I said. We were in the car line snaking around the Biscuitville.
“Really? You want to propose to me in the Biscuitville line?” she asked. She has not let me forget this.
“No, I don’t. I just want to get this over with.”
So then there we were, on the beach, wine drunk, small talk over. It was time. I had done this before once. Offered my heart to someone and had it stomped. Even worse, she had said yes before she said no. I would at least ask the question differently this time. Before, I had asked, “Will you marry me?” in a forest, at the same spot we had met at as preteens, years ago. It was a romantic story, one she could tell to all her friends, but we only told a few people before it was over.
This time I would ask, “Would you be my wife?”
Right before it was time to ask I saw a flock of pelicans. Pelicans are ancient Christian symbols for Jesus. It was believed that mother pelicans would slay their young and then pour their blood on the young to revive them. Augustine doubted the zoological accuracy, but that was not the point. Christ has a motherly love for her church, he wrote. His presence is one that includes death to self and life for another. Do not be afraid. Marry the girl. I’ll be with you. It’ll be OK.
She said yes too. And she went on saying yes.
The reassuring pelicans were right. Good things require the risk of heartache, sacrifice, death even. And our Pelican God raises the dead to new life.
What is it about the ocean, about sheer masses of water, that brings up primal things?
St. Catherine of Sienna compared the beatific vision to the ocean—ever changing, ever the same, ever beautiful, ever new. This is a vision of God himself, who kills and gives life. God, who spills his own blood. God, who demands our affection like a needy child and gives humanity new life as a needy child himself.
I saw Catherine once. Her head is preserved above the altar at a side chapel in Sienna Italy. Her nose is gone, but for being 650 years old, she looks pretty good; her eyes are wide open, blazing blue, as if she’s seeing the beatific vision right now, as if all we have to do is look in the same direction as her.
“Does it look like the sea?” I wanted to ask. “Were you right?”
She couldn’t have answered—she had no trachea—but someday she will, and we’ll have all the time we need to talk about it.
I want my ashes scattered at the beach, Emerald Isle preferably, where the successful proposal happened. Some Christians in the communion of God’s saints would find this blasphemous, I know. They want us whole-body buried, feet toward Jerusalem, ready to pop up on the last day and face our savior. I wonder if they’re not a little paranoid. God blew life into us from the beginning, when we were dirt. Surely God can blow life back into the dirt we become when we’re ash. Surely cremation can witness to the resurrection of the body as sure as whole-body burial can.
Ancient skeptics used to wonder about sailors who fall off boats and are eaten by fish, which are then eaten by bigger fish—how will God gather you back into one whole body? You’re missing the point, Gregory of Nyssa would say. You’ve seen quicksilver, right? God made creation so that it could be rolled back up into one piece, even if it splits and separates by miles and miles. If God could do that with weak creaturely material stuff, what do you imagine God can do with a creation as strong as it was originally meant to be? With eighth day of creation resurrectional stuff, so infused with grace that the dead will rise and never die again?
Not clear? Good. It’s a mystery. We don’t understand it. The point is God does, and we trust God, and all will be well. Really.
And that brings us back to parenting in light of the resurrection of the body.
I’m told I’m going to have to let them go. Make their own mistakes. Incur their own injuries. They’ll call some, too much probably, for money or advice or, increasingly in the Facebook age, constant chatter. But mostly they’ll be gone. And then one day I’ll be gone. And I hope they’re there, combing gray hair to spread me on that beach together. I’ll tell them not to worry. Getting trashed is sort of fun. Plus, I’ll be ashes. It really won’t bother me. And when they lean into life, I hope they’ll think of me.
One member of a church I pastored in Zebulon County, North Carolina, was ninety-three years old when I last saw her. When she goes to the beach, she makes a point of walking right out to the sand, holding her arms up, and shouting, “Glory!” It’s not a bad response.