Look, Dad, No Hands: Coming to Grips With Letting Go
Monday, June 11, 2007
Piping plovers skitter over the dunes in the hot July sun. Offshore, a jet ski hums, tossing up a rooster tail of mist. A salty tang fills the nostrils.
Every summer for nine years, our family of four belonged to a beach club, with wooden cabanas propped on stilts along an Atlantic barrier island. For all nine of those summers I took my daughter, Caroline, out for walks along a jetty about half a mile from the cabana. The jetty jutted out at least 300 feet from the shore, a stretch of boulders no more than eight feet wide, the ocean on one side, a tidal inlet on the other.
"Let's go out on the rocks," I urged Caroline, who was 6 years old that first summer. "No," she said. "Michael does it," I coaxed, referring to her brother, five years her senior.
Off to the jetty we ventured, Caroline in her pink Little Mermaid bathing suit, barefoot, hair pulled back. We stepped up on the rocks, a steep rise for her, and she faltered, clutching my hand tight. I hoisted her aloft. We now stood some six feet above the sand, still inland.
I took short, slow steps, Caroline keeping pace alongside. The giant rocks clustered at cockeyed angles, some higher or lower, others tilted left or right, with ledges here and crevasses there. It felt like mountain climbing, only horizontally, and on a tightrope.
Caroline tugged on my hand, wanting to go back. I reassured her: This will be fun. You'll see.
As we headed farther out, the surf got louder and waves crashed against the rocks. Caroline, surprised at the sudden splashing, gasped. She hated it, she told me. "That's what Michael said, too," I assured her.
A sea gull landed and pecked at an overturned horseshoe crab. Caroline nearly slipped on the wet rocks, and though my grip on her hand kept her from falling, she cast me a scowl anyway.
We approached the tip of the jetty, thrust like a ship's prow out into the Atlantic. A few fishermen had settled there, surrounded by tackle boxes filled with all manner of hooks.
A few more steps, the rocks now angled sharply and slicker still, and we came to the end. Here, we were almost level with the ocean, and the surf splashed louder and higher around us. See, I said, we made it. Caroline looked around, her mouth open in amazement.
The next summer, Caroline joined me for weekly walks on the jetty without the slightest protest. She stepped faster than before across the rocks, her strides longer, more certain. She held my hand less tightly.
Summer after summer, I took my daughter out to that jetty. And summer after summer, she grew taller and stronger, ever ready for the challenge, now welcoming the ocean spray that once left her gasping.
In our sixth summer there, it was Caroline who invited me to join her on the jetty. No sooner had we clambered onto the rocks than she did something I never expected.
She let go of my hand.
I wanted to do nothing more in the world at that moment than to grab her hand again. After all, as her father I had to guide her and protect her from falling into the surging sea.
But off she strode, a few feet ahead of me now, clearly getting her sea legs. My eyes never leaving her, I asked if she was okay. Of course she was.
Caroline even took to wearing sneakers so she could bound from rock to rock like a mountain goat. Now it was I, heart in my throat, who felt tempted to gasp.
That's how it's supposed to be, really. The little girl, little no more, decides yes, she's ready to let go, ready to stake out her independence, to navigate any slippery rocks in her path. The father finds he is more onlooker than participant, given no choice but to leave the past behind, back there on the ever-receding shoreline.
Caroline let go. As for me, at least in my mind, I'm still holding on for dear life.