Climbing Back Up

I sank to the kitchen floor, sobbing, unable to open the can of formula to feed my son. I looked around the townhouse I had just entered. It was completely empty but for the lone bag of groceries sitting on the counter.

How could I have forgotten to buy a can opener?

Drying my eyes, I realized I had much to be thankful for. My two young children were safe upstairs in the master bedroom. I was glad they thought sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags was a fun adventure. Their childhood innocence obscured the implications of the barren room.

That morning I had finally left my abusive 18-year marriage. I had walked away from the marital home to this empty rented townhouse with nothing more than my clothes and books, the children’s clothes and toys, and my father’s legacy:  the gift of fearlessness he had given me.

* * *

Living near the Atlantic Ocean during my entire youth was a blessing. On hot summer Long Island Sundays, my father would drive our family to the beach at Point Lookout. After parking the car, we would unload the lunches, the jug of lemonade he’d made, and the beach paraphernalia — folding chairs, beach blankets, pails, shovels, and our multi-colored striped umbrella. We’d hike across the concrete onto the beach, where I’d wiggle my toes in the white soft sand, delighting in the immense freedom from the constraint of shoes.

After marking our spot close to the water’s edge, Dad would set up the chairs and plant the umbrella pole, pushing and pulling it back and forth – first north to south, then east to west – until it made a hole deep enough to support the umbrella against the strongest wind. My sisters and I would peel off our shirts and shorts, hang them on the umbrella’s spokes, and run as fast as we could into the ocean, giggling with excitement.

Dad would methodically remove his watch, baseball cap, and well-worn beige moccasins, placing them carefully under the umbrella. He would hang his little transistor radio on the arm of his beach chair so it would be ready when the Yankees game began. Then he would place the business section of The New York Times on the seat. Only when everything was set to his satisfaction would my father come into the ocean, wearing his trademark beige bathing trunks.

The ideal beach day for us was when the waves rose higher than our shoulders and showed foamy white caps before they broke — the kind we could ride all the way into the shore.

My favorite activity was jumping into the waves using my father’s shoulders as a diving board. Dad would crouch down in the water, his back to me, and raise his hands for me to hold. He stood six-foot-two with a thin frame. But he was strong — a strength gained from moving and delivering furniture in my grandparents’ store, and from his weekly racquetball and softball games.

Steadied by his confidence and his gentle hands with their firm grip, I’d place the arch of my right foot onto his right shoulder, then slowly lift my left foot from the ocean floor and place it on his left shoulder. I would pause there long enough to revel in the kaleidoscope of colors formed by the beach umbrellas stretched as far as the eye could see. I could feel the gentle breeze brushing against my face and smell the salt air coming off the water. Ten feet off the ocean floor, I could see the larger world – the one beyond my own beach blanket, where the ocean and sky met and blended into one enormous space. In those split seconds, I felt like I was queen of that expansive world.

“Ready!” my father would shout above the roar of the ocean. It was both a question and a statement. All the while I would wobble, struggling to maintain my balance.

“Ready!” I would shout. Then, mirroring the spring of a diving board, he would straighten his knees and stand upright, balancing on the thin legs that would later earn him the nickname “Stilts” from his golf buddies. He would push on my hands as he let go, tossing me into the cold, salty ocean and teaching me to be unafraid.

No matter how rough the waves, or how badly they bounced me around, my father stood steadfast, his arms outstretched, waiting patiently for me to climb back onto his strong shoulders.

* * *

My father’s constancy made me believe that I could always rise back after I took a dive. Even after I got too big to use him as a ladder to the sky, the vision of him smiling at me, creases radiating from the corners of his eyes, his arms reaching out to lift me up, imprinted itself on my brain.

Despite his disappointment at the breakup of my marriage – the first in our family – my father’s financial and moral support gave me the confidence to finally break from my husband. “Remember those wonderful days in the ocean,” he told me. “You developed the resilience and fortitude to withstand rough waters. I have faith in you.”

The distant sound of my son’s cry brought me back to the empty kitchen, and I pulled myself up from the linoleum, just as I had from the ocean floor all those years ago. In my mind I heard my father’s voice again, “Climb back up now. You can do this.” I gathered the courage my father had instilled in me. I would stand tall, unafraid. Aloud, into the empty room, I said one word:  “Ready!” It was not a question. It was a statement.