Fin it to Win it
And What to Do When You Can’t Touch Bottom
James, Nicki, and I had been asking dad all week to get in the water with us, but we quit after he acted like he couldn’t speak English in response. All we’d ever heard him say was “God made the ocean for fish and the beach for people”, but really had no other explanation for what seemed to us like an unreasonable fear of any body of water.
Nicki said she’d heard him complain to mom after she yelled at him for not going in the water with us, saying, “I agreed to go to the beach, but never promised I’d actually go INTO the ocean. I don’t go where I can’t see the bottom, or where my feet can’t touch.” We all were in the bathroom “brushing our teeth” before bed when we heard him say something we’d never heard him talk about, but had known for quite a while.
“You know I can never step foot in any body of water again after what happened to Allen.”
Dad was the youngest of three and Uncle Allen was the oldest sibling. They had their first ever real vacation in the summer of 1988 in Myrtle Beach. Allen was 13 and Dad was 10 when it happened. Grandpa Jim and Granny had told them not to go in the water without them before they had all walked out to the beach, but Allen told dad they were being “too careful”.
Uncle Allen had gotten a skimboard for his birthday the week before they drove down from Grand Rapids and had been on it nonstop for the previous three days of vacation. Dad said he’d gotten “pretty good for a northerner”, and was an excellent swimmer as well. Allen liked to swim out to the sandbar with Grandpa Jim and wave back at everyone.
As Allen wanted, they snuck out to the water without anyone else, at 7:00 a.m. sharp, and Allen was convinced he could make it out to the sandbar and swim back before he got caught. He did make it there but his head went under on the way back. Dad thought he lost sight of him because of a wave but knew there was trouble after Allen screamed for help after getting attacked by a shark.
It was around 7:27 when the 911 call was placed and they fought hard to keep Allen alive, but he had lost so much blood, he passed away just before the ambulance made it to the hospital.
While dad had a legitimate reason never to visit the ocean again, mom reminded him of his therapists’ suggestion during the EDMRQst… sessions (or something like that). She quoted something he’d said to them in a session saying, “Try getting in the water at least once a day and every day a little farther than the day before.” Ultimately, the plan was anyway, he would swim to sandbar and back with the help of a professional scuba diver. Dad had got his left foot wet on the second day and then hung it up saying, “That’ll do for now.”
Mom and he were celebrating 15 years of marriage and wanted to have a nice little getaway but hadn’t been able to take a “real vacation” for the family in years. They decided to take us with them to the Outer Banks and it would be my dad’s first time back at the beach in 30 years. She had been patient but they had been picking at each other for the last couple of days because of dad’s reluctance to even come out of the beach house.
Mom is generally a nice and quiet person but knows how hard to push dad if he needs it. She had grown tired of hearing the excuses on repeat (we all had, really) and had made up her mind to do something about it. They loved each other madly but could fight like cats and rats. This anni-vacation was more than just another family trip to the beach.
The therapist had really helped dad through the trauma of witnessing Uncle Allen’s death and had agreed to the task of what the therapist called “fin-it-to-win-it”. The plan was to take on the task of swimming to the sandbar and back but with the twist of wearing a shark fin to take on the role as “the predator” who would actively look for a shark as opposed to trying to avoid the shark.
He made the mistake of telling James the tired “can’t see…feet don’t touch the bottom” line, when mom let out an exasperated, “And you won’t be getting any other kind of bottom either if you don’t get AT LEAST knee deep today!” We laughed so hard after hearing that, James choked on cheeto dust.
Apparently, it worked because on the last full day at OBX in the summer of 2018, dad got more than his knees wet by swimming with us where none of our feet touched the bottom…
for 27 minutes.