You always loved the water. I remember the fish tank you spent hours watching while fish darted and the filter spewed bubbles in unpredictable patterns. You poured baby powder into the tank. It settled to the top in a chalky film. The fish died.
The summer before last, you laughed with abandon as you rushed past the other swimmers at Delta Lake to reach the most distant buoy. I remained at the edge while Dad followed. Standing at the shore in mountain pose, pressing my toes into sand, as gentle waves tried to tease me from my watch.
The laughs and shouts of everyone else blended into a singular sound, yet I heard you yelling with clarity. You are fifteen, strong, and beautiful. The deep water has passed your shoulders, well beyond your Dad’s comfort zone. He tries to guide you back. But you are adventurous and independent. Of course you want to swim past the boundary.
With water over your head, you can only manage an ineffective doggy-paddle. Dad coaxed. I feigned leaving as I turned my back and walked several yards from the shore. I needed you to come back to me. But the days of easy parenting tricks and bribes were over. We realized this at the same time.
We all ended up chest deep in water. You were in danger and angry. I wanted to keep both of you safe. You were like a dolphin, slippery and lithe, as you tried to break free from our hands. It felt like an impasse. But we slowly inched toward the shore.
You dropped to the sand screaming as the sounds of the others silenced. Mothers ushered their young children a safe distance away and teenagers formed a circle around us and stared. You are stronger than us and don’t get tired. It takes everything we have to hold you back. Our struggle with you is like shadows struggling against unrelenting sunshine. Dad and I realize we will soon have no strength left to keep you safe. Dad somehow managed to get you to your feet and into a headlock. He forced you inch by inch across the sand.
It was at the spot where the sand ended when the struggle stopped being about your dad trying to keep you from running back beyond the buoys. I was trying to help and got too close. My hair was long and you grabbed and twisted it to the scalp with impressive speed. You tried to bite my head like an apple and I felt something wet weaving a trail from the spot. I worried you had knocked out your tooth. My knees left little red pools on the cement.
The three of us were an island as we struggled on the path which had become ours alone. The distant chatter in the sunshine became sporadic hisses. I was in child’s pose with my head tilted slightly to the left. I saw two dark skinned feet approach and an invisible hand held one of mine where it was trying to loosen your fingers. The woman was crying. She asked if you were my son. She asked your name. Connor. I told her you had autism. She talked kindly to you and asked you to please stop hurting mom. You bit her hand as she held mine on the top of my head.
Dad and I were afraid. Not of you, but a 911 call which could result in police and firearms, or a person at the beach who, thinking they were helping, might seriously hurt you. Dad had to choke you. To literally cut off your air for a moment to get you to let go.
Two young lifeguards stood in shock from a safe distance holding a plastic first-aid kit. I realized the feet and hands of the stranger were attached to a body with tear stains on her cheeks. I tried to thank her, to apologize for the bite, but she disappeared too quickly. Out of hundreds of people, she was the only one to help with kindness. She told you she knew you were a good boy and that you wanted to stop. I never learned her name.
The struggle at the beach lasted fifty-five minutes. You had my hair twisted for thirty. Once in the backseat of the Jeep, I felt the back of my head. Long blonde hair had been replaced with two dreadlocks close to the scalp. The stray hair in front was a little bloody and standing on end. For the first time, I rode in the back seat and the top down without reaching for a ponytail holder. It was the kind of bad hair day that a five minute drive with the top down couldn’t make worse. You looked back at me from the passenger seat and touched one of my knees with concern. You looked so sad and said, “Mommy’s got a boo-boo?”
Your dad and Mema spent hours trying to loosen the dreadlocks. They tried olive oil, conditioner, and several Google searches. Nothing worked. Your dad smiled at me and said it was time to embrace the idea of having short hair. Very short hair.
The stylists stared in wonder when I walked in and asked for a haircut. The young girl assigned to my case asked what happened. She was quiet for a moment, then asked advice from her manager who conferred the only solution was to chop the tangles from my scalp and cut it Peter Pan style. The girl pulled out a bottle of oil from a drawer and four sizes of combs. She asked if I had a few hours to spare. She was nineteen, fresh out of beauty school, and about to disobey her boss. She refused to cut my hair and saved much of it by working strand by strand, for three hours. She charged me ten dollars for a conditioning treatment. I gave her fifty for a tip.
The hair has never really grown back. The back of my head, hiding under the longer pieces, feels still like peach fuzz. I have a compulsive habit of running my hand through the back of my head and each time, I remember Delta Lake. That love is stronger than anger, that compassion is stronger than fear, and courage is never possessed without love and strength.