A Father's Small Hope
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
Two days after my talk with Elaine there is a call from a man who wants to take my son surfing. I have my doubts – I have nothing but doubts – but Elliot Zuckerman won't hear them. "Your kid will love this. Guaranteed. Never had a kid who didn't, and I've taught hundreds."

Zuckerman, 52, is an ex-pro surfer who grew up riding the chop near New York City. Just past the line where the borough of Queens ends and Long Island's suburbs begin, a sprig of land juts into the Atlantic, forming a sort of bivouac in the sea. Most of the men raised in these sandy flats have been dropping in on waves since they could dress themselves; Zuckerman is the unelected mayor of the beach. He has a frenzied day job as the director of building services for the New York Mercantile Exchange, then comes home at night and spends hours in the water, teaching outlanders from the city how to catch waves. His classes are so popular that a few of the townspeople have come to resent him, so he's tried to limit the size of his groups.

Today, however, this is not a problem; it's just me, Luke, and Zuckerman on the sand. There is a good reason we have the place to ourselves: The water is a blue-black 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Zuckerman, who's built like a Division II nose tackle, all chest and cantaloupe shoulders, has already donned his winter wetsuit. Now he has the task of putting my son in one. Luke, as I had dreaded during the drive out here, wants none of it. He kicks, sobs, and arches his back. As we struggle to pull the neoprene past his waist, he pierces me with a look of horror. By the time we get the shin-high boots on his feet and the frog-webbed gloves on his hands, I'm close to tears myself. "All right, Dad, relax," says Zuckerman. "The next time you see him he'll be blissed."

He picks my son up, grabs the foam-core board, and marches into the four o' clock tide. I hear Luke sobbing till they're 50 yards out, after which there's only the cawing of the gulls. The ocean, as luck has it, is small today, a lumpy blanket of threadbare waves, none of them taller than chest high. In order to get closer to where my son is bobbing, I run out onto a jetty. The rocks are abraded to a glassy finish and a couple of times I almost skid right off them. It is tediously slow going, and before I'm out there Luke has caught his ride. Both he and Zuckerman are on their bellies, barreling toward shore on a fat four-footer. Luke, whose expression is first stricken, then shocked, suddenly drops into a grin so big I see spray go into his mouth. He is chattering something that I'm close enough to hear, but the world, for some reason, has gone mute. It's a good couple of seconds before I figure out why: I am laughing and sobbing at the top of my lungs while hopping on the rocks in bare feet. There are several teens fishing for trout nearby, and they look me over like some six-toed frog that turned up on their hook. "Lukey's surfing!" I yell, still pogo-sticking. "My little boy is surfing!"

I start back to shore, thinking it's over and done with; Luke got his big ride and we can all go home now. This was a lovely idea and we'll definitely return – in August, when it's, you know, summer. But as he and Zuckerman reach the shallows Luke rolls off and stands up. "More!" he orders, pointing to sea, and to my utter disbelief, out they paddle. For almost an hour they chase waves, catching several good ones all the way in. My heart is in my throat the entire time; this man, a complete stranger, has my child in his arms and has worked some ocean voodoo on his mood. Luke's lips turn blue, then his nose and brow, but damn it all, he's not leaving. Finally, we get him out and peel the wetsuit off him. A huge, dazed smile spreads across his face. "Yay!" he crows, applauding himself. "All riiight!" he keeps repeating as I dry him.