The Seventh Wave: a Father's Dignity

Rio Mar, Nicaragua
Rio Mar, Nicaragua

The Pacific was anything but. It was that time of the day in the tropics when the gravitational pull of the setting sun and the rising moon are at their most fierce. The idea that the seventh wave is always the largest is a myth of course; but there is to the surf a stubbornly predictable, horrible rhythm of violence and surcease. The sheer tonnage of seawater thrown against the Nicaraguan coast can crush you like a rag doll if you’re caught at sunset between the water and the lava cliffs.

It was February 2015, and Enrique Bolaños, the affable right-winger whom I had met at a party in 2007 was out. In the interim, Daniel Ortega had returned. He had thrown up statues of Bolivar and Chávez here and there, built homes for those Managüenses who had been living in Las Ruinas, accepted a treatment facility from the Germans to decontaminate Lake Nicaragua, began coming to terms with La Cheureca, and begun paying people to pick up the garbage around the highways. Closer to our little house, talk had finally given way to definite plans for the restoration of the Casares oceanfront, devastated by the 1992 tsunami. The road from Diriamba to Casares had been paved; the Chinese had fixed the one that ran south. There was even talk of running a municipal water pipe south to the Hotel Lupita, just to the north.

One evening, as my son and I walked northwards along the beach, his small, strong hand—as seven-year-old boys’ hands must—began writhing wildly to get free. He was desperate to run into the Pacific, to throw himself into the incoming surf, and tired of his father telling him to be careful. Rendered breathless by the intensity of his own emotions, he cried, “Let me go, Papa. Let me go!” I gripped his hand all the harder as the seventh wave begin to rise to the west, Leviathan-colored, majestic, and awful. “Ow, Papa,” he said, pulling away.

I lost my footing, fell, lost my grip, and he dashed into the water in pursuit of his flip-flop. He dove for his shoe just as the undertow was strongest and slingshotted seaward like an arrow, arms extended, head down, somersaulting like driftwood. My heart exploded. There was nobody around to call out to, no time to damn myself for being over 50 and out of shape. I pushed up from the sand and stumbled into the surf just as the next roller, horse head high, broke over him. God, take me and not him was my only thought. I was about six feet from him when the wave hit me head on and brought me to my knees. My arms were extended before me like a priest’s arms to a congregation, half a broken Host in each hand. Water still up to my neck; I heard the roar of the wave breaking on the beach behind me.

Suddenly, my son appeared before me, tossed skyward like flotsam by the wave, clutching his lost flip flop, a look of wild triumph on his proud, beautiful, magnificent face. The ocean threw him into my arms and I grabbed him, hard, and held him for dear life as my heart burst a second time. How could any Father ever look on as his son drowned, I thought. Right? There was a knot in my throat, and a hot iron behind my forehead. Death has slapped me on the back and bought me a Toña, I thought, aware that I was going into shock. “Run up the beach,” I told my son. “Get inland.” With a passing, quizzical look, he did as he was told.

A father’s dignity comes, Lord, from the fact that one of us will (and has a right to) completely forget that they were saved today, but the other will not, I thought. A moment later, I caught up to him and, together we continued up the beach. I could scarcely breathe. He had no idea how close we had both come to drowning. I watched him from the corner of my eye as—happy—he pointed his strong chin into the wind. After a while, whistling, he slipped his hand back into mine, and together we returned to the little house. “Want to watch Pelicans roost?” I asked, knowing that he would say yes.

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