Summer 2011 – our first trip to the ocean. The waves came crashing toward him. His anxiety level increased. The white tufts of the surf covered his feet, increasing his anger. “How dare you?,” he thought. And again the waves crashed, the surf covered his feet and pulled the sand around him toward the sea giving the false sense that he was moving. “Woah,” he said. I explained how the waves were taking sand away tricking him into thinking he was going to fall. “Oh, yeah,” he yelled. “I’ll get you.” He picked up large handfuls of sand, throwing them at the receding water. But the waves advanced again, undeterred by his threats. He screamed, “Oh, no you don’t!” part emphatically, part apprehensive giggle. Again, he threw sand at the receding water, anger flashing on his tiny face.
I hadn’t known what to expect but I wasn’t prepared for this intense response. I think I imagined that he would be in awe and love playing games of chase with the advancing and receding waves. Now, though it was clear he found the ocean to be a nemesis – something he needed to attack.
I entered into his world. The ocean waves which I assumed everyone found soothing and rhythmic produced a mighty and unsettling sound. Their inconsistency was overpowering to his auditory sense. And suddenly, mine as well. The surf crashing on shore and gently covering our feet became for him a bad guy trying to knock him off balance by its force and take away the very ground on which he stood. Did most four-year olds react with this much intensity to the ocean? Or was this yet again one of those things that made my child different? I put the thought away but knew all the while I needed to help him recover before the ocean pushed him too far. He needed a vacation from meltdowns as much as we did. “Do you see that tree near the sand dune? I’ll race you to it!” I said, drawing him away. And of course, he won the race.
As we headed back to our rental house, he didn’t simply walk down the dune as I might have expected. No, he did something that assured me he needed to be at the beach. He crawled that quarter mile, soaking up the feel of the sand covering him as he pulled and pushed his body through the sand. His ear-to-ear smile spoke to the joy he felt as he played in the largest sandbox he had ever seen. As I watched him engrossed with the sand completely ignoring the sound of the waves in the background, any desire I had to run away from his ocean nemesis melted.
Being at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, we learned to play in the calm waters of the Sound, where he could get in a much needed daily swim then to go the beach for some intense sandcastle building – attempting to create castles that would withstand attacks by his nemesis. Whenever a wave came near his castle but didn’t destroy it, he celebrated his accomplishment, teasing the wave, “Hah! I win!” It was a daily battle between him and the ocean. In the end, the ocean managed to take one of his shovels.
Now, two months later, he still talks about missing that shovel. That’s okay. It also reminds him of building castles, climbing sand dunes, crawling through giant mounds of sand, and swimming in the quiet waters of the Sound. And for the next two weeks after vacation, we all reaped the benefits of these activities.