When I was just a toddler, maybe 3 years old, Dad and Mom took me to the beach in the summer. We rode in the big car for hours, dragging a pop-up camper behind. There is a black and white photo of tiny me in my toddler sunsuit complete with ruffled shoulder straps and no t-shirt underneath, sitting up on one of Dad’s shoulders. Dad is looking tall and young and handsome and proud. His eyes are squinted into the sun; I am shading mine with my hand. We are on the beach, gazing out at the water.
I have only little snippets of memory from this trip—the hot sand with sharp shells that burned and pricked my baby feet; the rickety wooden fence that we walked by on the path from the campground to the beach; the interior of the pop-up camper with its two big beds on either side; the green metal camp stove that Dad set up under the canvas canopy outside the zippered door and the smell of bottled propane and food cooking on the stove; climbing up into a brightly-colored folding lawn chair and the discomfort of my legs sticking to the woven plastic seat straps; smiling and laughing and running with my father on the cool, soft, smooth sand where the water breaks.
One memory does stand out and has affected me to this day. While Mom and Dad were setting up our beach oasis (consisting of an umbrella, a large blanket or towel, and two folding chairs), I had ventured out bravely, toddling down to the edge of the water alone. I was proud of my accomplishment. I turned part-way around to look at my parents; they looked so far away. I smiled and laughed and pointed at a wave that was just rolling in. In retrospect, it wasn’t really a wave, just a swell of water.
As the water washed around my feet, I giggled at first. It was cool and tickly. But as it receded, I felt the sand under my toddler toes disintegrating. The roar of the ocean and the rush of the water frightened me. I had gone too far, and now the water had come to wash me out to sea. I was frozen in place, surrounded by water, feeling myself being pulled. If I took a step, the water would take me and I would never see my parents again. I began to wail and sob. “Daddy!” I cried, but the ocean was so loud he didn’t hear me. I twisted my body and reached my arms toward him, my feet and toes clinging to the little mounds of remaining sand under my feet. Another wave was ebbing. “DADDY!”
My mother pointed at me and my father looked up, dropped whatever it was he was holding and immediately came running to me. Would he get to me in time? I reached for him. He scooped me up in his strong arms and saved me from the vast ocean that had tried to claim me. He stroked my hair and coo’d calmingly. Through my sobs I clung to his neck, and I understood that he was the bravest and most capable man in the world.