CJ Kaplan finds out what it takes to be both a father and a brother to his son.
My little boy is at sea in every sense of the word. I stand beside him as he dives fearlessly into the rugged surf that pounds the shoreline of Gloucester’s Good Harbor Beach. It is one of those rare, precious days when the North Atlantic reluctantly grants elevated water temperatures in concert with the warm, summer air. This is a day that we will recall wistfully in January when winter is tearing at us with its icy fangs. And yet, despite the ideal conditions, my youngest child is adrift.
Eric has been in a semi-funk ever since his older brother left for overnight camp in New Hampshire two weeks ago. Alex is Eric’s hero, although even that lofty moniker seems grossly insufficient to describe their relationship. Eric worships Alex. Blessedly, Alex is the best kind of hero. He returns the love in equal measure.
Though Alex is ten and Eric is not quite six, they are a peer group unto themselves. The two of them spend nearly every second of free time with each other. When Alex gets together with his friends to play ball after school, Eric joins them. When Alex flips on the TV, Eric squeezes up next to him on the couch until the two of them are essentially occupying the same space. When Alex is invited to a sleepover party, Eric packs his pajamas and tags along.
Alex and Eric. Eric and Alex. They are a package deal.
When Alex decided to join his older sister at camp this year, we knew it would be a bumpy transition. I spent many summers at an overnight camp in Maine as a kid, and I was a big advocate of my children doing the same. My wife, who never spent a significant period of time away from home until she got to college, was a tougher sell. But, after seeing how much our daughter Samantha enjoyed the experience over the past two years, she was less reluctant with Alex.
So, a week after school ended this June we packed Samantha and Alex into the minivan and headed north. On the way there, Samantha did everything you could want a big sister to do. She told Alex about all the great things he’d get to do that summer. She placed special emphasis on all the sports he’d surely be playing, even though she herself favors the arts and culture side of camp. She even assuaged his fears about being away from home, saying that every night was like “a giant sleepover with your best friends.”
But, Alex still looked worried. Not about himself, as I guessed and later confirmed. But, about Eric.
We’d left Eric in the care of my mom that day. She took him to day camp in one car while we left with Samantha and Alex in the other. We figured it would be much easier to say goodbye at our house in private than in front of Alex’s new bunkmates. There were tears, but we got through it. Later, as Alex struggled with his own emotions while he watched us get into the minivan and leave, my wife voiced what both of us were thinking.
“How do you think Eric will be?” she asked.
The answer turned out to be mixed. Eric reveled in the undivided attention he suddenly commanded. There was always a parent available to play ball or make lunch or read books. He didn’t have to wait for anything. He’d even taken great delight in micromanaging the remote control to the point that he never had to watch a second of anything that didn’t interest him.
Then, there were other moments. Like recently, when I was writing to Alex and Eric was playing nearby.
“Is there anything you want me to tell Alex in my letter?” I asked.
“Tell him that I miss him so much that I cry sometimes,” replied Eric without hesitation.
Redacting like Viet Nam-era Army editor, I wrote: “Eric says that he misses you, but that’s he’s having lots of fun and hopes you are too.”
In hopes of helping Eric pass the time happily, I’ve fashioned myself into a surrogate Alex. I play all the games that Eric usually plays with Alex, including the ones that they’ve made up themselves. I sit and watch all the TV shows they enjoy together. I even try to match Eric’s enthusiasm for the Red Sox like Alex does, even though the team itself refuses to show any enthusiasm for the game of baseball. If nothing else, I am a physical presence that approximates Alex. I am a 43-year-old man pretending to be a 10-year-old boy.
And despite all that, here we are, standing in cathartic tides of Good Harbor on this impossibly beautiful summer day. And my son is still floating.
“Hey, Boo Bear,” I say as he dives over another wave. “You wanna learn how to bodysurf?”
“Sure,” he says.
I show him how to anticipate the break of a wave and then to dive ahead so you can feel it lift and carry you toward shore. At first, he is hesitant. But, gradually he trusts the waves and himself enough to succeed.
I applaud as he goes further and further with each attempt.
“Does Alex know how to bodysurf?” he asks as we wait for another swell.
“Yeah, I taught him a couple of years ago,” I reply.
“I can’t wait to show him now that I can do it,” he says, smiling.
At that moment, my wife wades in to join us. Upon seeing Eric catch a wave and ride it a few yards, she cheers.
“I can see Daddy has taught you everything in his bag of tricks,” she jokes.
“Yeah, I was copying him,” boasts Eric. “That’s how you learn. From copying your Daddy.”
That may be so. But, sometimes you also learn from copying your son.
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