We’d been sightseeing San Francisco for a few days when my dad suggested we visit our favorite beach. It was December and a stormy one at that, which thrilled our drama-seeking bones, so we took to the car, pulled into the lookout spot, and trundled out to sit on the sea wall. We sat on salt-blasted stone, enthralled, as Rorschach clouds skittered overhead and steel foam bubbled on top of wave after wave.
It was nearly 1983; I was a freshman in high school and a strange mix of timid and ready to take on the world. I soaked up everything: places, people, things, and held a firm belief I could be anything at the same time. My involvement in activities was legend: softball, yearbook, chorus, basketball, newspaper, you name it. If I had an interest, I went for it, and yet that was junior high. High school found me more reluctant to show myself and give things the old college try, even if the eternal optimist lurked within.
Still I knew nothing of fear. I grasped hope like a mountain climber on a cliff, always looking up, never down lest a troubling sense of “I could fall” circled my heart; an iron-weight sensibility I didn’t want to carry, ever.
It was that way that day in late 1982. A family trip to Northern California, my first real love, from our current hometown of Chicago. The pounding, exceedingly high ocean waves we watched from our perch matched my soul’s epic ebbs and flows during that time in my life, and I watched rapt as the sea crept ever closer.
My dad and younger brother decided to adventure down the sea wall’s stairs to stand on the beach and run from the heavy ball bearing waves. The rest of the family, my sister, baby brother, and mom, opted to watch from our point high above and we collectively made the decision that the beach was safe and posed no threat to those we loved the most.
But you know better, don’t you? This 1982 brought tumultuous storms to Northern California and destroyed sea walls and coastlines alike. The roiling sea captured our imagination, but it was no place to draw nearer to, not this day. Yet we let my dad and brother go, because nothing could happen, would happen; this was our beloved town, our sea, our silly belief.
The wave hit hard and fast, but we saw it coming. Isn’t it funny how that slow motion, impending-death sensor works? From our spot high above, my mom, the kids and I, watched the wave build and knew it wouldn’t be good for anyone not on a mountain or in a tree. We shouted to my dad and brother, “Come up! Run! Come here! Run!” So my brother did, out of instinct, and almost made it to us before the wave swept up the sea wall stairs and swelled over the embankment into the highway.
I recall holding out my hand, grasping onto what part of him I could to repel the sea from swallowing my brother. I remember clamping onto his little fingers and willing the wave to recede and leave my brother there, on the steps, with all of us.
The water spared him, barely.
We didn’t talk for several long seconds and ten minutes. My brother crumpled before us, drenched. I looked down the steps covered in webbed sea foam and sand, and wondered at the water that came up to claim us. Then, the moment when we remembered my dad, down below the steps, far from the concrete protection and the safety of our outstretched hands.
Again we didn’t mouth a syllable, and moved through molasses. We stared dumbly at the ocean and no one screamed for help or ran down the steps. We still couldn’t believe something bad had happened. We were holding onto the cliff’s edge, not looking down.
Until out of the best and cheesiest action-adventure movies, my dad emerged from somewhere, I don’t know, and trumped up the stairs toward us, laughing and dripping with rotting kelp. He’d held onto the concrete sea wall, he said, fought the wave’s attempt to absorb him into the sea. Most surprisingly, he seemed non-plussed and unconcerned; and we still hadn’t uttered a shocked sentence.
It was exactly then that I entertained the barest smidge of the idea that everything might not be all right, and most certainly couldn’t; and quite possibly my lack of fear was a ridiculous dream and shouldn’t be allowed to persist. And on that precipice, when all could go wrong and askew and change your life forever, I made the split decision that I’d rather run on the beach and return with seaweed in my hair and sand in my eyes than stay on the seawall and cower from the pounding waves.
It’s been that way ever since, and for all that heavy and risky sentiment has brought me, I’d still never stay on that sea wall, because nothing much ever happens up there.
Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo, Futoshi Hanashiro / AP