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When I think of him now, I see him at dawn, driven from his bed by the sun and headed down to the ocean for his morning dip. But having never actually witnessed it, I find it odd that of all the images I hold of him in my head, this is the one that returns most often. By the time it had become part of his daily routine, I no longer lived at home, and when I visited, I was never up at that hour. Still, it makes a certain kind of sense that this particular ritual should come to mind. Swimming in the morning was something my father did alone, for the specific purpose of being by himself, and I always think of him that way — alone and apart. He was away a good deal of the time, and even when he was among us, he was a solitary man.
In my mind I see him on this morning a few years before his death. He has pulled on his running shorts, grabbed a towel from the bathroom, and, without showering or shaving, is ambling barefoot down the stairs to the front door. Exiting onto the porch, he pauses for a moment. His bony hand rests on his hip as he stares off at the ocean horizon and loses himself in the arrhythmic clank of the rope and clasp against the town flagpole, still flagless at this hour of the morning. The scavenger gulls screech at one another as they hover and descend over the boardwalk, fighting over a loose scrap of garbage. A few other gulls loiter nearby, taking furtive steps, staring sidelong and gangsterish.
The house fronts Ocean Avenue, which as the name implies runs parallel to the beach, and from the porch you can see across the road to the boardwalk, the beach, and the ocean beyond. It’s late September, the official best time of year in my family. The crowds are gone, and the air is cooler, cleaner now. The light has a special clarity that seems to intensify all colors: the blues of sky and ocean, the green of the small patch of grass in front of the house, the yellow sandstone road. This makes for a disarmingly pretty scene, even as the town itself shows the creeping signs of disrepair. The boardwalk, gray now, has begun to warp along the edges. The pier seems to dip in mid-span, and at the far end, an old fisherman’s shack lists leftward, threatening to topple into the water. The beach itself has begun shrinking at an alarming pace, the ocean’s advance now within a hundred feet of the boardwalk.
Like many shore towns, its best days now seem consigned to the past. Still, you sense that an infusion of yuppie cash and sweat could make it into a postcard scene once again, a scene not far removed from the one depicted in the hand-tinted photo from the 1920s that my mother has framed and hung in a bathroom upstairs — minus, of course, the parasol-carrying ladies in full-skirted neck-to-toe dresses. The lower right-hand corner of this bit of tourist memorabilia bears the caption: “The Seashore at Ocean Grove, New Jersey.”
I never lived in Ocean Grove — I was on my own before my parents moved there — and when I visited, I would generally have gone to bed only hours before my father’s sunrise swim, most likely to sleep off another late night of drinking. And yet I see him in my mind’s eye as clearly as if watching from a bedroom window — his spidery frame treading lightly across Ocean Avenue, mindful of bits of glass, treading lightly across the boardwalk, mindful of splinters, and down that small flight of wooden steps to the beach. He has a peculiar, almost feminine waddle to his walk, and in the sand it’s even more pronounced: chest out, shoulders back, arms and hands dangling loosely behind him. With the sun still barely free of the ocean, he saunters to the edge of the wet sand, and for a moment he ponders the ocean’s chaos of blue and gray, his great unending theater.
He has never been conventionally good-looking, but even early on, he had a kind of Bogie-like handsomeness. His teeth have always been crooked, and he has an overbite, so when his lips purse, he looks a bit odd, like a fish. The weak chin is countered by the great hawklike nose which juts from his face like the blade of a hatchet. When he was younger it sat squarely in the middle of a soft, pudgy face, but as he has aged, his face has grown strikingly angular around it. His face has wizened. The lines have deepened, accentuating his blue-gray eyes. A certain Irishness has broken through, and his look has grown kindly.
As he walks into the shallow white water, it’s as though I am walking alongside. Instantly, I feel the cold with him: the shock of it repels and invites at the same time. I can see him grimace, all teeth and squinty eyes, as he wades in waist-deep, and I hear as he hears the repeating crash and withdrawing snore of the waves. Raising his arms above his head, he strides into the deeper water, then plunges under the first wave available. As he invariably did, he lets out a yell of frigid shock upon his reemergence. “WooooooHoooooo.” The faint echo of it bounces off the Victorian guesthouses along Ocean Avenue, and the row of facades stares impassively back. The morning silence returns except for the sounds of gulls and waves. He dives deep, and then deeper still, searching for that even-colder water that rushes blood to his head and every limb.
To know him at all is to know that he loves the water — loves the feel of it and loves the smell. Even here. Even though there is something distinctly Jersey about it. The tar, perhaps, or maybe some hint of gas or petroleum. Even at its most pungent, it doesn’t bother him, because he knows it keeps others away. And it puts him in mind of what Emerson meant in his one-sentence assault on perfectionism: “Everything God made has a crack.” One of his favorite, and oft-quoted, quotes.
He is a quoter of dead philosophers, an intrepid searcher of usable quotes. He scours books for them like a prospector panning for gold, and when something quotable gleams back from a page of black and white, he plucks it out and stashes it with the rest. They pepper his articles and talks, and even in conversation he drops a half dozen within the first five minutes. He has a particular fondness for a quote he attributes to William James. It went underground for a few years but has resurfaced at the time of this scene I have conjured so vividly. “The strenuous life tastes best.” It describes this morning and many mornings like it. There must be challenge, and if there is none, challenge will have to be created.
He has found the strenuous life in running, and more specifically in running marathons, an activity that’s about as strenuous as it could be without being downright masochistic. Having run more than fifty marathons and written about each one, he has become the recipient of improbable fame, imploring others to live strenuously and to taste of life rather than endure its passing. Even now, on this morning. Even though he can run no more marathons, he won’t give up running, and he won’t give up these early swims. His body, so recently asleep, is now completely alive. The smells, the screeching gulls, the salt water around his lips — on an empty stomach, he’s tempted to drink it. Afterward, he’ll swear he could taste it. “Fantastic,” he’ll report.
It’s not that he’s ever been any kind of swimmer. He is not. In fact, he’s never been able to swim more than a few laps in a pool without swallowing water. Despite his great love of the ocean, he is forever drawn back to the land, keeping his forays within fifty yards of shore. He’s never been a fisherman, and, ex-navy man that he is, his brief fantasy of buying a boat sank quickly, scuttled by his fear of machinery, seasickness, and nautical incompetence. He excels, however, at the one water sport of bodysurfing, the art of riding waves without a surfboard. And although he has never taught me, or anyone else in my family, how to do much of anything, we all learned how to do that by watching him. From the beach, we’d watch him — just as I seem to watch him now — as he swam out just past the breaking waves and treaded water, craning his neck to scan the horizon for the next large swell. As it mounted, he’d swivel and begin swimming shoreward.
It’s all about timing, bodysurfing. If you can get inside the swell of the wave just before it breaks, it will lift you and throw you out in front, hurtling you toward the beach. Once you catch the wave, your work is suddenly over. The wave simply takes you. The sensation is one of gliding; you glide on top of the flat water stretched out before you, rocketing headlong toward the beach. Weekenders never seem to get it. Even those who manage tend to ride the incoming waves with their arms thrust out in front, like Superman. My father, by contrast, cuts the water like the figurehead of an old ship, always riding his waves with his arms at his sides. He dips his head into the flat water before him, and, shaking it off with a quick flick, he yells, “WaaaaaaHoooooo.” For him, it’s play: the highest of all human pursuits. Play needs no justification. It is the thing itself. The laboratory of all creativity. The chance for greatness.
The ocean kicks up in September. The waves, often big and well formed, offer long rides, even thrilling ones. On this day, however, two rides are enough, and at the end of the second he stands up in the shallows and trudges up the sandbar to his towel. He falters as he leans into the slight slope of the dry sand. His legs, thinner now and spindly, shimmy under his own weight. As he falls to one knee, he braces himself with an outstretched arm. He has lived a strenuous life, and he is determined to live the rest of it as strenuously as possible. But now he has cancer, and it is making new rules. It’s spreading through his bones and coursing through his blood, curtailing his movements and shortening his hours. There can be no telling when the end will be, only that it will come too soon. “Carpe diem,” he says of late. And I wonder if that’s what he’s thinking as he stands there. “Seize the day.” For a moment, as he looks down at the drops of ocean water falling from his trunks onto the sand, it’s as though I too am looking down, staring at his knobby feet as if they are my own. Together, it seems, we look up at the waves.
Along with a talent for bodysurfing, my father somehow passed to me his susceptibility to the ocean and its hypnotic snare. Now I watch as his eyes fix on the ocean, following the ebb and flow of the waves in infinite permutation. Never twice the same. Trying to scan it all, he’s held in a kind of trance. There was a time when he might have looked out over the breaking waves, thinking himself master and owner of this particular piece of beachfront. One of the rewards, perhaps, of success, fame, and money. No more. He looks at the ocean now, and he is humbled by it, and he is happy to be humbled. “The proper response to life is applause,” he often says, quoting William Carlos Williams. And it seems that in his morning swims he found that purest, most natural form of celebration. A realization that all days should start with a kind of ovation for creation.
Wrapped in his towel and dripping into the sand is where I picture him last, stuck on the sun and water, frozen in place, reluctant to turn and walk back inside. He is reluctant to say goodbye, because he has a hard time imagining that any kind of afterlife could measure up. In the years before he died, he would say goodbye to everything he loved — the ocean and the morning, his friends and family. Still, the more he said goodbye, the less he wanted to go. I see him standing there, so distant and yet so close, and I seem to be able to think his thoughts and to feel his longing.
I can hear him asking himself the questions: Why all the anger and the angst? Why all the hurt people? Why did it take so long for him to find his right place, his right size? And why now, when he seemed to find these things, would they all be so fleeting? I see him standing there, and I realize he is no longer there. He is as he has always been — distant and yet close. I seem to inhabit his body as he sometimes seems to inhabit mine. I feel his questions, and I feel their ache. I know his questions are mine. I know his struggle is my own.
Outside of my family, my father wasn’t at all known for his bodysurfing. He was known instead for his running. In defining himself, he would always start with that word: “Runner.” Perhaps tellingly, it always preceded other words like husband, father, or doctor. He was, after all, George Sheehan, also known as the Runner’s Guru, the Running Doc, the Runner’s Runner. The running sage of hundreds of thousands of runners. The running everyman.
The act of running had transformed him as a human being, and its attendant fame and money had recast his life. So forever after, in most of his waking hours — in conversation, interviews, and his writing — he performed a kind of obeisance to the sport, praising its every virtue. Once, he facetiously defined life as “those annoying spaces of time in between races.”
In the late 1980s — the same period he was taking those morning swims — he stopped running marathons, because of his cancer’s quickening advance. He would still run the shorter races, albeit less frequently, and when training he trained at a slower pace. Still, when I went out running with him, he wasn’t so slow that I didn’t have to struggle to stay abreast of him while holding up my end of one of his long, wandering conversations. So it was on a clear and blustery March day, during a long weekend home, when he and I went out for a five-mile run that stretched into nine miles.