Unless you’re living under Donald Trump’s combover, you probably saw this week’s big story about a South African surfer who barely survived a shark attack. Twitter blew up, experts experted all over the morning news shows, and I experienced a little something called déjà vu, because four months ago, my five-year-old son was THISCLOSE to being an amuse-bouche for a bull shark.
As I sat sipping wine on the deck of a rented Florida beach house (thanks, mom) my son frolicked in the late afternoon surf with his cousins. I kept a casual eye on passing dolphins and talked politics with my aunts and uncles.
(Note: earlier that day, while lounging in the sun, I’d speculated about how I’d act if I saw a shark approaching one of my relatives. In my daydream, I was super heroic… sprinting in the sea, launching my sizable self–fists flying–straight at the shark, and then cradling the victim in my arms as I strode onto the beach, level-headed and calm as I shouted for assistance.)
(Alas, my thoughts were not prophetic.)
“What is that?” My dad was on his feet in a flash, one hand shielding his eyes from the setting sun. “Holy shit, it’s a shark!”
I leapt up, too, toddler in one arm, glass of wine cradled in my left hand. Jesus Christ, he was right. There she was, dorsal fin cutting through the surge, cruising purposefully toward my preschooler. Not to body shame, but she was bulky for her length. And damn, that fish could move.
“Get him out, get him out,” I screamed. My feet remained rooted to the floor. Fortunately, my dad was racing toward the beach yelling and waving his arms like a drunk air traffic controller. Time slowed to a crawl, and one thought ran on a loop in my mind: It’ll just be one bite. He’ll lose his leg but he’ll be okay.
You know it’s bad when a chomped limb is the story’s probable happy ending.
Good news: the shark didn’t bite my son! To my eye, she did experimentally bump against his thigh before angling back toward deeper water. By then, everyone on the beach was alert to the situation and my brother had swept my son into his arms (quite heroically) and back to the safety of the sand. The rest of us arrived to console the children–and ourselves. I can state without hesitation that I’ve never been so scared in my entire life.
Until the next morning. You see, all of that, everything you’ve just read, wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was summoning courage from an empty internal well and deciding not to let ThunderDrum (name courtesy of my son) scare our kids out of the water.
I love sharks. Loooooooove sharks. I’ve traveled the world to dive with them. I’ve read everything ever written about them. I wanted to name my firstborn Reef. (Don’t judge and don’t worry; cooler heads prevailed.) Most importantly, I want my sons to love sharks, too. If they develop a fear of the ocean in their formative years, I will consider myself a total failure as a parent.
Which is why, the next morning, I shimmied into last season’s too-small swimsuit (Land’s End tugless tank, how are you SO unflattering?) and marched my terrified ass down to the beach. “Fake it ’till you make it,” I muttered to myself. Grasping my son’s hand, I feigned breeziness and skipped purposefully into the breakers.
1. It’s not as if we’re born courageous. In fact, some of us are big chickens who live in fear of balloons and the clowns who inflate them. (Ahem.) Happily, parenting is the best courage boot camp available. I learned this a few years ago when a friendly volunteer at the local zoo extended her snake-draped forearm toward my child. ‘I have two choices,’ I thought. ‘Instill in my kid a deep fear of snakes or pull my shit together and enthusiastically stroke that snake.’ So I did it. (That afternoon, there was not enough Purel in the Great Plains to assuage my creepy-crawlies.)
2. Courage is infectious. We were all nervous about a repeat sighting of ThunderDrum. The morning after, the rest of the adults stayed fully clothed and the children approached the water on tiptoes. What the situation called for was one jovial dumbass who could throw caution to the wind and embrace the circumstances without any appearance of fear. That dumbass, I realized, must be me.
3. If you’re really scared, you might have to pee. In fact, you might pee your pants. If this happens, there’s no better place for it than the ocean.