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The monstrous waves broke violently in front of Neanderdad’s offspring, half blocking the horizon, shaking the ground and causing the air to shudder. The children darted forward and retreated before the tumult, two tiny, shivering imps daring a beastly sea in flowered swimsuits. Behind them, forgotten, lay the warm, dry beach, their towels and Neanderdad. Despite his entreaties, the children eschewed him—and safety—to stand instead in the path of these seething, lunging mountains of ocean.
The children did not merely tempt the ocean’s wrath, standing as they did in its path. They provoked it. Neanderdad watched as the four-year-old boy threw his fist out in defiant insult to a particularly large breaker as he skipped in its churning aftermath. The six-year-old girl laughed mockingly at a procession of waves as she danced in their foamy wake. Neanderdad could say nothing to get the children to move back. They wouldn’t heed him. He only hoped to react fast enough to save them should they get into danger. The children, however, felt no fear. It was part bravery, which he admired, and part ignorance of the dangers, which he fretted.
How things had changed. There had been a time—it seemed like only yesterday— when just being near the ocean was too great a thrill. The children would rush back into Neanderdad’s arms at the mere sound of a crashing wave. Those younger versions of Neanderdad’s offspring had clung to him tightly on those beach excursions. Only with him firmly holding their hands would they advance to the point where they’d even get their feet wet. They had found greater comfort sifting through the sands of the upper beach, looking for shells, or playing with the dog. Those times were now gone.
“Look! Dad, look!” The boy called out suddenly as he waded out into the foaming remains of one of the wave-mountains. Then the sucking force of the retreating wave pulled at him, causing him to stumble. Neanderdad’s heart skipped a beat, but the boy struggled free with a grin.
“Aha! You can’t get me!” The boy then yelled at the retreating water.
“Yeah, stupid waves,” the girl agreed, kicking at the water with her feet, then wading farther out.
One of Neanderdad’s great fears as he watched them was that they would simply throw their remaining caution to the wind and plunge to deeply into the sea. From where they stood, the shelf that dropped off into deep water was perhaps only fifteen feet further out. Did they truly understand how close they stood to disaster?
Neanderdad had swum in the water at this beach long ago, before the children. He knew that rogue waves could break unexpectedly and sweep away the unwary. He knew that the water was also much colder when you were in it. And he knew that rip tides and cross currents lurked just under the surface, ready to prey upon the careless. The sea was impossibly powerful and the idea of fighting it really was only the game of a child.
It was after many struggles in this water that Neanderdad had found himself no longer interested in tempting these waves. The experience had at first been exhilarating, but it required a lot of energy and he found it less and less fortifying. Eventually he had found himself up on the beach, a camera in hand, or simply walking the dog. This was even more true with the arrival of his offspring. With them there was simply no opportunity for him to get out into the water. But now, his children were the ones migrating out into the waves.
“Big one!” said the girl loudly, as another roller bullied ashore. She grabbed her brother and pulled him back a little.
“Thanks!” said the boy, who paused a second, then went right back out.
Neanderdad remembered himself at this age, standing in the surf with his brother, yelling and challenging, with equal vehemence, his own set of waves. There was such joy in taking them on, he recalled, in getting hit by them and not falling. It had been exhilarating. He remembered the experience of having the sand sucked out from underneath his feet by the powerful waves, during those battles. He also remembered the times when he was a little older than his children were now and he had been too cocky, had gone out just a bit too far. He had found himself upended savagely, flung about by the surf and smashed into the sand bottom. Luck was really the only good explanation for how he had managed to stumble soggily ashore. As Neanderdad watched his two tiny wave dancers, he realized that they were only a few years away from such experiences.
Neanderdad could find some comfort in the fact that the children would reference him occasionally during their play, to make sure he remained nearby. He knew that even that courtesy would soon be gone. They would start to go out farther and not look back at him at all, becoming more confident in their own ability to deal with the waves. Neanderdad would then be left alone on the beach with only the worry.
“Back,” he said. He had been saying it all day. But he said it more sharply now, for they had wandered up to their waists in the whirling melee.
Thankfully, the children turned and retreated. He noticed that their shivering was more pronounced now and their lips a deeper shade of blue. He glanced at the towels nearby with the thought to take them out and wrap the children in their warmth. But the children’s call stopped him. They were both looking his way and yelling. He could barely make out their voices above the din.
“Join us, Daddy! Join us!” They were yelling.
Warm, dry, comfortable, vigilant Neanderdad paused for a moment to consider the hulking waves. Then he gazed into the faces of his two sirens; beaming, joyful and inspiring as they beckoned him. Then Neanderdad walked into the freezing surf to join his fearless children.