NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY
by Chandra Hoffman
Author of the novel Chosen
I am coming to the end of my two week tour of the West Coast, primarily consisting of book clubs where I have enjoyed being the guest author, an appearance at Powells and more notably now, thirteen straight days of single parenting and taking our homeschooling show on the road.
Today we got to the beach in Oxnard as the marine layer burned off over the Channel Islands. A pod of porpoises came in to the final breakpoint and cut through huge breaking waves right in front of us and a sea lion cruised by, his eyes on ours, not ten feet away. Amazing. I was content to stand and take in the vastness of the ocean, the clear canvas of cool grays and blues, sea and sky with my pantlegs rolled up so the saltwater and sand could exfoliate three days of flipflops at Disneyland grime off my feet. But serenity was short-lived as I quickly found myself locked in a struggle to inspire healthy respect for the ocean in my fearless just-turned-nine-year-old who is starting to think he might know better than me in most areas, including water safety.
The surf was breaking loud and variable, huge cross currents converging in front of us and surfers, grown-ups in wetsuits, were being ripped off their boards which came at us, unleashed, in the shallow whitewater like broad javelins. I watched as one stand-up paddler had a wave double his full height swell and break over him and I got nervous. I looked around the beach for other swimmers, families, kids, and found nobody but the most die-hard surfers and a few dog walkers and fishermen. This was not Cayman with its mellow aqua water or the Jersey Shore with its ubiquitous lifeguards and their whistles.
But Hayden, who couldn't get enough of the Disney rollercoasters and thrill rides from his newly acquired height of 48 inches screamed an enthusiastic "YEAH!" and ripped his shirt off, throwing it back towards the beach in preparation.
I wished for J to be there, more experienced with the ocean when it was dark and ominous, a veteran surfer, windsurfer and kiteboarder, someone who had stared down waves bigger than these in Baja and out at the main channel. I wanted another grown up, my coparent, to assess the situation, to help me guide our son. I even thought briefly of taking a video clip and emailing it to him, then calling him for a bi-coastal parental consultation, because this is what being the giddy owner of a fancy new iPhone does to you...
"Just up to your knees, Haybes," I said lamely, feeling every bit like the nervous nelly dad Marlin in Finding Nemo with his suggestions that his son play on the spongebeds with the toddler fish.
And still Hayden jerked his bare shoulder out from under my restricting hand and plowed out into the foaming water.
"Haybes, wait," I faltered.
I looked to the only other adult nearby, a surfer about my age who was surveying the waves. I was preparing to ask if he knew the currents here well, and would he let his kid in the water, but he was already jogging ahead toward Hayden, yelling over the roar of the water for him to stop, and for this guy, Haybes did. He listened as this stranger told him that this area was too dangerous for swimming, that there were still decent waves but less current a few hundred yards off, down by the jetty.
Blushing from being spoken to by a stranger, Hayden sulked back to me and his younger siblings, their arms snaked around my thighs, giving me a grouchy thump with his shoulder as he passed, kicking up sand. I stood there equally chagrinned--how come I hadn't stood my ground earlier when everything in me was saying this was more surf than he could handle? The thing is, I want my kids to have fun--my backpack is crammed with a testimony of receipts to waterparks, themeparks, carnivals, zoos, helitours and science centers all to this end. And here we are at the largest ocean in the world! What could be more fun than the ocean?! Except, of course, when it looks and sounds like a hungry, roaring predator, anxious to swallow up my kids forever like Pinnochio's Monstro. (Sorry for the second Disney reference in one post--I was just 'experiencing the magic' for the last three days. Might need a brain scrub.)
So I thanked the surfer and shepherded my kids down the beach to the suggested place where the waves looked more like Cayman when a Northwester blows in, decent surf, but predictable, waves that come in straight, break and go out. I let the boys wade in and get tumbled in the chilly water. Max took a few spins in the break, got some sandburn on his shoulders and abandoned body surfing for beachcombing but Hayden stayed in until he was blue-lipped, shrieking with joy and taunting, waggling his surf-shorted bum at the waves that rolled in and summarily took him down.
I stayed crouched at the edge of the water, half my attention on Piper as she doodled in the sand behind me, eyes darting to Max drifting down the water's edge at a comfortable distance from the reaching fingers of the waves, but ready to rush for Hayden should he not surface quickly enough. Letting him bodysurf in the Pacific, build memories and feel that exhilarating pull of the water's power, trying not to think about all of J's aunt's stories about people who have drowned here at this very beach, experienced swimmers, kayakers, surfers, adults, children... Keeping these stories to myself because I don't want him to grow up afraid, but I also can't let him set all the boundaries.
As my kids get older, I feel like I am struggling between hovering and hands off, between choosing for them, and letting go. Last week on our Santa Monica beach ride, Max insisted on leaving the hotel room wearing flip flops instead of the shoes I suggested for bike riding. Surprise; as we pedaled along the waterfront he had to stop, exasperated, several times to retrieve a lost flip. I managed to keep the 'I told you so' to a mere two times. (Okay, three.) But flip flops vs. sneakers was a choice I was okay with letting him make. In Disneyland, Hayden informed me that my insistence that WOMEN on the restroom door meant "Moms and Kids" didn't fly, and he would be using the MENS room from now on. Okay with that one too... Sort of. Yes. Okay. He's nine. I'm right outside. It's freaking Disneyland.
But today, the height of the surf, the force of the water, that audible clap as waves broke--today I made the unpopular choice, and we found something that reeked of compromise. I never fully relaxed on the beach and Hayden's eyes kept drifting longingly down to the surfers and their rides on waves triple the height of his, you know, over here on the spongebeds. With his mom watching him. If you know Hayden, then you understand that the idea that other people are having fun, more fun than him, it's torture.
Today I think I made the right choice. Anyway, we're here in our cute little Mexican-themed motel room, him snoring safely away, his resentment receding like the tides. But I also know we will meet this situation with increasing frequency. Just me and Hayden, facing off in front of the dangerous bass thump and thrilling allure of something so much bigger than us both, no lifeguard on duty.