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Volume 37 Issue 18 • August 23-29, 2007
now in our 37th season

The Gift of Water

by Robert P. Barsanti

I didn’t work this summer.  Instead, I went to the beach almost every day, hung out in the water, played with the kids, and picked up a great tan.  I gave myself the gift of time.  As my friends say, “it must be nice.”

It was. For most of the last three decades, I have been taking someone’s dime in the summer.  I have caddied, sliced deli meats, tended bar, painted houses, tutored, taught summer school, ran a radio station, and filled in as a prison guard.  Recently, you would have found me at the windmill grinding corn or at the Whaling Museum performing the Hunt lecture.. When I wasn’t pulling in a paycheck, I picked up a graduate degree and polished the classroom materials. My parents, flawed though they were, raised me under the dictum of St. Paul: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

I started my first job in sixth grade, at Bear Hill Golf Club; I became a “C” caddy.  I looped 36 holes on Saturday and Sunday; first with one bag, and then with two.  At its worst, a caddy is a poorly paid four-hour drudge for the petulant, spoiled, and rude.  Luckily, I rarely saw it at its worst.  Bear Hill was a middle-class private club, where I was likely to carry the bags of salesmen, backyard inventors, carpenters, and doctors.  Most of the golfers I worked for had also been caddies; they saw their role as both boss and teacher.  And, occasionally, club-hurling moron.

My family were also members of the club.  After carrying golf bags for four hours, my brother and I would go to the dining room for lunch and then return for another round.  If not, we would go to the pool for the afternoon. 

We had gone to the pool since we were toddlers; its rhythms were deep within us.  We swam for twenty minutes during kid’s swim then abandoned the pool to the adults for ten minutes, before returning with a leap at the sound of the whistle.  During those ten minutes, we played four square, built tents from our towels, or pestered our mother for cookies from the snack bar.  Later, I spent the “above water” afternoons reading paperbacks on a lounge chair, while I spent the “below water” time in the cool, striped silence of chlorinated water.

I didn’t work this summer; I parented.  For as long as they shall have me, I have two boys; one is six and the other a year older. At this age, they are still boys.  They are the princes of the apple towns and the kings of the Lego people.  The wolfpack of friends has yet to lead them off.  To them  girls are neither fascinating nor icky.  They don’t go to camp, to work, to practice, or to the Strip.  They still like me and are still small enough to throw a good distance over the water. 

Both Rourke and Beck love the water.  They run down the sand path to the beach, kick their shoes off and wade right in.  Our games involve splashing, throwing, or riding Papa’s shoulders until they leap off.  To Rourke, in particular, water gives one great, shuddering shock that sends him leaping and splashing until his legs are sore.  After an hour in the water, he is the host of the beach.  He helps out with sandcastles, leads kids over and under the kayaks, and builds roads.  After several hours of riding, being tossed, and hosting the other children, Rourke will float on the water with only his father’s hand and the love of salt water to support him.    

Unfortunately, everything else terrifies him.  Truck sounds, shirt labels, wet clothes, buttons, and zippers vex him. The challenges of a first grade classroom, with all its voices and demands, confound him. Facing these terrors, he will run, lash out, and smash. 

When the doctors put him on the spectrum, we didn’t know what that meant.  To us, Rourke was quirky and eccentric.  He will only eat fruit and Something Natural Oatmeal Bread.  He wears his underwear and shorts backwards.  He sings the same songs over and over again; we all know the “Car 54, Where are You” theme song cold.  Then, this spring, his world became more menacing.  His classmates were trying to shoot him, the school nurse was poisoning him, and he began to imagine “A Day There Was No Rourke.”  To him, autism doesn’t speak, it screams. 

Then, he lost the water.  Sesachacha Pond had been his favorite.  It had no kelp, no big waves, no scary sand fleas, and a good smooth bottom where he could stand.  One morning, he went to the beach and found small clumps of mud floating in the water, and it was going to poison him. 

So, we visited the beach several times until we came to a day when there was no “seaweed” and he could swim.  Since then, he has made his peace with the beach.  Frequently, I have to haul his hundred pounds into the air and carry him over the seaweed.  He will take his suit off underwater and show it to me.  He likes burying his goggles in the sand.  When he sees the seaweed, he points at it, and I fling it away. 

This cannot last.  Already, he fears the flecks he sees in the water.  He also weighs almost a hundred pounds and is rapidly approaching his father’s maximum throw weight. Or he may find himself among a wolfpack of friends and a schedule of camps.  The only thing certain is change.

He will never have my childhood.  He won’t caddy or golf, he won’t play four square, nor could he lie for hours with a book. I find, after much was given me, I have little to give him.    So, I didn’t work this summer, instead I gave the gift of water. 

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