A Father's Small Hope
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
For the next couple of days I scarcely know my child. We go to the park and play for an hour, or what he usually spends there in a month. He makes eye contact longer, seems calmer in his skin, and best of all, initiates the roughhouse games that end in hugs and kisses. I call up Zuckerman and book a second session, and one for me. If my son can brave the water in the middle of April, then his dad can cowboy up and wade in too. Here, just maybe, is the thing I've pined for: a chance to engage my child at play and develop something we can do together. I've no experience with balance sports, unless you count the times I tried to downhill ski, tumbling like a drunk in a whiskey barrel going over Niagara Falls.

What begins as a charitably warm mid-spring day turns blustery and damp when we reach the beach; no sooner are we in the water than it starts to pour. "Ignore it," shouts Zuckerman over the wind-whipped waves. "Just do what I tell you and you'll have the time of your life."

He pushes me out to where the sets are forming and turns me around toward shore. "Remember," he says, "come up in one motion! Just pop to your feet and spread 'em!" And with that I'm away, skimming a wash of white foam at what feels like warp speed. My brain yells, "Stand!" and I gamely try to, but my feet yell, "Go to hell!" With Samsonesque effort I get to my knees, and suddenly find myself five feet under, sifting the ocean floor for pretty stones. There is plenty of time to do this, because as soon as one wave lets me up, another right behind it knocks me down.

Zuckerman, however, is unmoved. "I just now told you, no knees," he rails. "You wanna start praying, go to church."

He sets me up with a baby wave, letting several curlers pass us by. Again I get about halfway up when the board and I part company for creative reasons. Over the next hour and change I fall in every conceivable way, including several rarely seen by orthopedists. Zuckerman shakes his head and barks tough-love encouragement, and as I once more succumb to the laws of gravity and their sadistic pranks on new surfers, I imagine him saying to himself, "Now which one's disabled again? The son?"

Still, when I clamber out, wring the ocean from my lungs, and collapse on the rain-dark sand, I can't stop grinning. I've never had such fun being an abysmal failure, and want nothing more than to rest a minute, then go back in the water and take my beating. "Is this what you mean by surf magic?" I ask.

"Well, usually you have to surf to feel the magic," he says, "but, yeah, it's something like that."