A Father's Small Hope
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
One night, after an hour of ritualized groveling to get Luke to sleep, I collapse on the couch to watch the tube. Spinning the dial, I happen upon a profile of a man named Izzy Paskowitz. A goateed, lion-maned surfer who was a longboard champion in the early '90s, Paskowitz runs a bustling surf camp on the beaches of San Diego with his wife Danielle and several of his eight siblings. He and Danielle also founded something called Surfers Healing, a series of traveling one-day surf camps for autistic children. He has a kid so afflicted himself, a boy named Isaiah whose development was normal till he woke at 18 months "changed totally." His language was gone, he became agitated and began throwing tantrums that were hard to quell.

Paskowitz, whose father was a champion surfer and who planned on passing the mantle to his son, handled the situation badly for a time. He went out on tour and stayed there for months, living the hang-ten high life of 12-foot waves and too much to drink. Returning from the road, he found his wife at wit's end and his young son "lost, a different person." At the beach one day Isaiah was throwing a fit when Izzy had a bold idea. Grabbing his board in one hand and his four-year-old in the other, he jumped in the water and paddled out. Riding his first swell straight in to shore, Isaiah grew calm, then exultant. Over days and months of riding point on Izzy's board a different boy emerged from his cell of symptoms. He began again to talk, his mood improved, and his frustration lessened; clearly there was something tonic about sluicing through water on a shim of fiberglass and foam.

Surfers Healing, born from that eureka moment, has grown into a bona fide movement. This year, its sixth, it's staging 12 free events in surf towns across the continent. For some kids, it's a one-shot day at the beach; for others, the beginning of a long-term connection to the ocean and its liberating charms. My first thought, after I blot tears with my sleeve, is to track down Paskowitz's private number and take Luke to San Diego for a week of lessons. But Elaine quite rightly will hear none of it, having flown Luke cross-country before. "It was nonstop hell," she says on the phone. "He slipped out of the seat, screamed, and threw up. It lasted the whole flight back. Either fly the guy here to New York or have him meet you in Florida, but two hours on a plane is Luke's limit."

Alas, it is April, and the Atlantic is the temperature of rigor mortis. As far south as Virginia it is penguin cold, and according to the scuttlebutt I glean online, there are no waves in Miami. I put in some phone calls that I'm looking for someone local, an experienced surfer who has worked with special kids and will have the fortitude to handle Luke's freak-outs. He abhors being touched by people he doesn't know and is acutely fearful of new experiences, which is commonplace among autistics. Add to this the fact that Luke is frightened by waves, and whoever comes along will be sorely tested trying to manage this young boy's terror. To say nothing, of course, of mine.