Chapel Hill: Opinion

July 11, 2014

Carol Henderson: A final swim

The retreat group was packing up on Sunday – beach rental check out time: 1 pm.

The retreat group was packing up on Sunday – beach rental check out time: 1 pm.

We’d had breakfast and a final writing session. Now, the women dashed around the house, emptying trash and fridge, stripping beds, thinking of everything the way women do. I finished my chores and packed my car.

“I’m going to take a quick dip,” I said.

The women, all busy packing, just nodded. “Be safe.”

Earlier in the week a rip tide had claimed a victim nearby. Helicopters still hovered up and down the coast searching for signs of the body, but by now, the tides had calmed.

It was almost noon, but only one group occupied the beach, a mother and father sprawled on a blanket, and a boy, probably around 10, hopping up and down in shallow water. Good, I thought. I won’t exactly be alone.

I did what I always do – dropped my towel and ran straight in, diving into the first substantial swell. I made sure to stay close to the little boy, near enough so that if his parents were watching him they’d have to see me too. A buddy system, of sorts.

The waves were perfect riders, smallish with a sharp curl as they crested – not soft rollers with no edge or so huge they could crack your spine. I caught a good one, my body gliding magically through the foam.

After being delivered onto the sand, I jumped up and raced back in. The little boy squealed as the surf crashed around me on my next ride. Heading out, I noticed him, following me, up the beach a bit. We both caught the same wave and rode in, parallel. He stood up and yelled with joy.

I understood.

Neither parent lifted a head. Clearly, nobody was going to save us if we needed help. But we didn’t care.

That day, like every day of my life, I could have spent hours riding waves, somersaulting, backstroking and floating. But I had to say goodbye, spare my sensitive skin from the sun’s ravages, and give one of the women a ride back to Raleigh.

On family day trips to the New Jersey shore when I was a child, my older sisters and I were required to wait an hour after lunch, digesting, before going back in. I would spend the endless time digging furiously in the sand, like a dog after a bone.

And we weren’t allowed to swim unaccompanied. My parents never swam for long, and my two sisters often wanted to get out and sunbathe. I couldn’t imagine anything more tedious and hovered at the water’s edge, hoping somebody in my dull tribe would heat up, need to cool off.

Sometimes my parents were lax, maybe asleep, and let me stay in by myself. When it was time for the hour-drive home, they had to drag me out, blue-lipped and shivering. I could never get enough.

I still can’t.

On my mother’s last trip to the sea, she was in her mid-eighties. She and I walked slowly in knee-deep swirls. I coaxed her out, up to her waist, holding her frail frame in a firm grip. She could no longer dive into the swells, her capped head popping right up like a loon’s. She would always then flip onto her back and kick her long legs.

“Want to tread water, Mother?” I asked.

“Yes, sweetie, but I can’t.”

We didn’t stay in long.

I couldn’t linger that last day of the retreat. As I toweled off, I looked out at the horizon, thanked the sparkling ocean for being there, and made a wish – the same one I make every time I swim in the sea – that I’ll be lucky enough to return, again and again, to dive, ride, kick, float, and allow the salty water to heal me.

Carol Henderson is a writer and writing teacher. Contact her at

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