I have a morbid fear of the ocean. I am not now nor have I ever been (nor, in all probability, will I ever be) a strong swimmer. Also, I am unilaterally opposed to entering any body of water the murkiness of which prevents me from seeing my own feet or the subaquatic creatures most likely poised to wreak all sorts of mischief on my unshod, obscured tootsies. I do, however, love being near the ocean. I love the sound, the smell, the vastness, the mystery, the treasures it reveals as it lifts the veil of the tide again and again. When it came time for us to embark on our first family vacation, we headed to the Delaware shore.
I will take the liberty of assuming that you have never traveled close to five hours in a four-door sedan with three children under 4 years of age. To surmount such a journey without major difficulty, meltdown or severe psychological and physical harm to any party involved requires the following: Snacks. You must have an overabundance of snacks to throw at the people in the back seat. Put even more snacks in the trunk. In prolonged car seat captivity, the average baby human requires exponentially more snacks per hour than their counterparts free to roam in their natural habitat. Toys. You will need enough toys to occupy 20 children for a full week. The trick here is to take them out one at a time. Avoid those predisposed to being turned into projectiles, swords or means of escape. Clothes. Each little person in your entourage will require no less than three complete changes of clothing. Just for the drive there. I’ll spare you the gory details. You’ll have to trust me on this one. Diapers. Enough said. Boring grown-up words. Come up with a few key topics of conversation that are unfailingly boring to small children. Try talking about the Gross Domestic Product, the political history of Western Europe or the major points of contention at the Council of Nicaea. Avoid using the words princess, ice cream, playground, fun or hippopotamus at all costs. Careful use of this technique can result in prolonged napping.
All this is to say that planning, provision, and anticipation of all of the craziness that could possibly ensue is my particular parental forte. I like to be sure that everybody has what they need to feel comfortable and (relatively) happy. I like, in perfect Mary Poppins-esque fashion, to be able to produce from my bag whatever the moment requires. I like to keep tabs on everyone. I like to feel like the situation is under control.
So, when we finally arrived at the beach it should come as no surprise that I organized towels, snacks and drinks, busied myself with making sure nobody ate sand (or induced anyone else to eat sand), slathered every square inch of everyone in SPF 100 sunscreen, and gave a spirited address about the importance of NOT going near the water, which featured such toddler-friendly phrases as “rip current,” “rock jetties,” and “rogue waves.” Shovels and buckets were produced and castle building commenced. All was as it should be. And then there was Daddy.
One of the finest qualities my husband possesses is his ability, with unflappable charm and ease, to subvert my iron will for the benefit of all. One by one he picked up those children. One by one he led them to the water. One by one he carried them into the murky brine. One by one he allowed them to feel the cool Atlantic lap at their cheeks. One by one he held them in his strong outstretched arms as the waves gently tossed them. One by one he spoke quiet words of encouragement to them as they got their first mouthfuls of salt water. One by one he walked them deeper and deeper into the ocean as I sat nervously on the shore.
Watching him — this man I love beyond all reckoning — navigate the chop with our three little people in tow I came to something. Something big. Something that rearranged my insides. Somehow watching my husband holding onto our children as their tiny bodies bobbed and glittered in the sun I finally understood what it meant to call God Father. God is like a father who wanders out into the breakers with you, who holds on tight enough to keep you safe but loose enough to let you feel the rise and fall. God is like a father who, when you are scared and panting and struggling to keep your head above water, does not always pull you to himself for comfort but exhorts you to keep your chin up, keep kicking, keep trying. God is like a father who delights in you with rough joy and laughter. God is like a father who is trustworthy even when he seems to be leading you further and further into the deep. God is like a father who will bear you out of the cold murkiness when you are winded and drenched and deliver you into the warmth of the sun. God is like a father. Glory be to the Father.
(Previously published: August 2012)