The Price of Independence
Only kids think holidays have happy endings.
By adulthood, we’ve learned that no matter how smooth the sailing, eventually the mast breaks and the sharks start circling.
So when someone suggested a sailboat outing for the Fourth of July, at least I knew enough to shut that down. I was boring. We did the same thing every year.
His all blue uniform made it seem like he coordinated for the holiday. In reality, he just liked blue. And uniforms. And fireworks. Food. People. Laughter.
Don’t we all?
My cheeks hurt from four days in the sun layered with laughter. I turned around, digging my heels in the sand and gripping the wagon handle tighter. If only my biceps were stronger. One more lunge to prove myself and the sand finally gave up the wagon wheels, but then it became a cushion for my backside.
The kids ran past me. At least they didn’t laugh.
The beach wasn’t very crowded. We didn’t like crowded beaches. Our son’s special needs made me nervous that he’d get lost in large crowds, so much so that I often wrote my cell number on his arm in black sharpie pen in case we got separated.
(I hadn’t brought a black sharpie on this trip.)
The wagon gave up its cargo and we set up our chairs perpendicular to the shoreline, facing south, joining the audience for a late, lighting show. We’d done this before, every July 4th for the last five years or so. Different beaches, but the drill remained the same.
A few drinks, a few snacks, lots of fireworks.
“Mom! Can we light sparklers? Those kids have sparklers!” I laughed, brushing off the sand from my wagon war, and collapsing into our claimed homestead for the evening.
Where were the sparklers?
Despite my youngest son’s special needs, he was very capable of enjoying himself on the beach. And could even hold a sparkler if I supervised. I supervised.
Just that morning, we’d built sandcastles and jumped waves in almost this very spot. I was impressed with his continued development of his own likes and dislikes, his growing independence of ideas and activities. His easy laughter rode the wind and settled on the sand as he tried to catch the whitecaps between his chubby hands.
We weren’t dressed for swimming tonight, but even so, the boys were drawn to the water, shedding flip flops at the chairs and wading into their knees. My husband called them back as we broke open the coolers and the layers of musical tastes began to float around us. We turned up our own selection, a mixture of Jimmy Buffet and 80’s rock and roll. Beachy and nostalgic. The adults relaxed.
The kids took turns with chicken and chips and stealing our chairs. As long as they didn’t burn us with the dang sparklers, we were happy.
Sweat still beaded as the heat of the day slowly ambled into evening.
The food was good, the music light, and we sunk into ourselves in the soft glow of a holiday sunset. It embraced us like a long-time lover’s arm slung behind us on the couch. It’s there and comfortable, but you barely notice it.
More chairs filled in as we edged closer to time for the holiday bing-bang-boom. The canvas overhead repainted from reds and oranges to a darker gray.
This was easy. A breath of fresh air, truly. The smell of salt, the grit of sand.
The sound of family.
Usually my awareness of the needs of my kids, especially my son with special needs, is like a hair trigger with a ready thumb. I’ve got it.
But somewhere that evening, I’d flicked on the safety. I got comfortable.
The sparklers were gone. And so was he.
I instantly regretted my careless laughter and idle talk. Was my gift of freedom only selfishness in disguise? How colossally stupid of me.
My chair abandoned, I looked like I was deep in thought on a determined walk.
All is could see was crashing waves. The dark, angry giant grabbing at the shoreline for something that wasn’t his to take. But my own salty tears joined the giant and dared him to take me too.
I screamed my son’s name. The panic rose in my voice but was drowned by the low buzz of laughter and the grasping of a wet giant. He knew better. He had to know better.
Sea of blue. Water. Shirts. Chairs.
Running back, I whispered in tense tones to everyone in our party. They fanned out.
Twenty seconds. Forty. Sixty.
What is the price of independence?
Should I have corralled him in a chair? Abandoned the celebration all together?
Lightening thoughts about an altered future battled against flashing memories.
My mental battle hung like wagon wheels in deep sand, reconsidering the balance among joy and risk and independence. My daily tightrope between freedom and fear.
The music never stopped, just played note by somber note in my mind.
Then the crowd parted like the Red Sea, kinder than the angry wet giant I had just confronted.
He walked out, slowly and surely, clad in blue. He smiled, because he never knew he was lost.
I cried, because I never knew I was either.
This story first appeared on MelissaHogan.me.