Dad, Overboard

Most fathers want to be heroes. And the more mythically noble our actions, the better. But we seldom measure up. For that maybe we can somehow forgive ourselves. Ideally our kids will, too.
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Before we even pulled away from the port at Oak Bluffs, a wave surged high and broke over the ferry, briefly tipping the bow upwards. The sudden spray drenched the front deck. Some passengers cried out in alarm, but almost as if in awe at an amusement-park ride.

My wife, son, daughter and I were headed from Martha's Vineyard to Falmouth on Cape Cod. We'd just spent a few days in a house with our friends from Connecticut. It was to be the first leg of our trip home to New York City.

The show of oceanic force took us all by surprise, even though we really should have anticipated it. This was in 1995, in mid-August. We'd already gone through one big storm after another -- seven in August alone, a record at the time -- and felt duly battered. Now came Hurricane Felix.

Our family members were avowed landlubbers, no more nautical than your average native New Yorker. That left us unaccustomed to being buffeted by waves and lurching violently to and fro. Unsure what to expect we feared the worst, namely drowning at sea.

Our kids, then 12 and 7 years old, looked scared. My wife looked scared, too.

Hey, I thought, this could be good. I saw an opportunity to play an important role here. I would be the steady hand at the wheel, navigating my frightened family through this ordeal. After all, I was the father. If I'd learned anything from movies about families in dire straits, it was that the father might as well be the hero.

Except for just one little hitch: I immediately started to feel nauseous. Whatever sea legs I might once have possessed had long since disappeared.

The ferry plowed along its seven-mile route, listing up and down. The sea heaved all around us, the waves slapping the hull. Every few minutes, a surprised passenger let out a yell. Now, my stomach fluttering more insistently, I broke into a cold sweat and felt dizzy and wobbly.

Nothing about my condition should have caught me off-guard. I've long suffered from motion sickness. I get light-headed on airplanes and in buses and cabs. I once actually got quite woozy on a seesaw with my son.

And so, facing this predicament -- and wishing only to prove myself equipped to handle the assignment of herding my family to safety -- I promptly staggered to the railing, leaned over the side and barfed my brains out.

In short, instead of coming through in the clutch for my family, instead of fulfilling my fantasy as a stalwart seafaring old salt, I turned out to be unfit for duty. Out there in the throes of a wild, whipsawing storm, my son and daughter got to behold the spectacle of Dad losing his breakfast -- mostly blueberries, as I recall -- in the roiling Atlantic. A humbling moment indeed.

My wife huddled with the kids some distance away, on a bench at midship. "It's going to be all right," she kept saying, as if repeating the words enough would convince her to believe it. She took care of business, while I, of course, was no help at all.

Nearly an hour later, we reached our destination intact, but with me particularly the worse for wear. I came away feeling like a coward, even though my throwing up had nothing to do with cowardice. It was motion sickness, a common inner ear disturbance.

Even so, I've tormented myself for 20 years about the episode on that ferry. I've wondered how my kids perceived my inadequacy in that moment of need. Did they see me as a coward? I've calculated the likely damage to my reputation as a father.

As it turned out, that stormy ride would hardly be the last time I felt ashamed in front of my kids. I got laid off from a job. I've made bad career decisions and wasted money and had more than a few tantrums. And that's just for starters.

But I've also paid a lot more attention to my kids than my father ever had his. We've played sports together. I've rarely missed a chance to demonstrate my love. And yes, eventually I brought home the bacon. So maybe by now I've managed to redeem myself.

Then again, maybe the next time we all ride a ferry I should remember my Dramamine. And be grateful I have a wife -- and our children a mother -- who is, as ever, fully onboard.

Most fathers want to be heroes. And the more mythically noble our actions, the better. But we seldom measure up. For that maybe we can somehow forgive ourselves. Ideally our kids will, too.

Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in New York City, is at work on a memoir about his deaf parents.