The brilliance of the second sunrise contrasted sharply with the day’s first dawn. My cell phone rang before 7 a.m. with a message from my wife that my father, who was valiantly battling cancer, had taken a sudden turn for the worse and was slipping away. The iron skies over London barely lightened as I packed; a friend drove me to the airport through thick, sepulchral fog. It was a typical December day in London, one in which the sun climbs meekly into the southern sky for a few hours before beating a hasty retreat from the bone-chilling cold and bluster.
Because my wife told me every minute could count, I intended to carry on my small backpack, my only bag. But it exceeded the airline’s six-kilo limit, and despite the urgency of my situation, the gate agent refused to let me carry it on. After getting seated my frustrations mounted: we’d be delayed forty minutes due to the fog, the captain said. Forty minutes later he said the delay could be two hours because so many planes were stacked up waiting for takeoff.
That’s when I began to sweat—I knew that if the delay became too long our pilots would be disqualified because they can only work so many hours. With an 11-hour flight to San Francisco, we had to go soon or we could lose this crew. If the flight canceled, I probably wouldn’t be able to leave London on any airline until the following day.
The captain said we’d been scheduled to take off at 1 p.m., exactly two hours late. We inched up the runway, and with every inch of progress I breathed a bit more easily. Two minutes before 1 p.m., I heard the engines rev. After rolling over the length of several football fields we left the ground.
As the anxiety of the delay ebbed, I recalled a trip my family—my parents, grandparents, brother and I—took to Venezuela when I was ten.
When my mother attended summer camp in the late 1940s, she’d befriended a girl named Chata from Caracas, and they had stayed in touch over the years.
A generation later, seeking an escape from the New York winter, my family accepted Chata’s invitation to visit Venezuela. After a few days in Caracas, Chata and her clan took us to their vacation house in the jungle. They’d warned us it was remote, which I thought might mean no television. Yet it was more exotic than I could imagine: never had I seen pigs sauntering down a dusty main street, never had I slept in a hammock draped by a mosquito net, and never had I observed an emerald snake slither silently into the shrubbery.
Chata told us we’d be going to one of the country’s most beautiful beaches. But to get there we had to navigate through a horseshoe of sea caves. When we arrived at the caves’ mouth, about two feet high and ten feet wide, the adults huddled and seemed agitated. Usually the water is about knee-high inside the caves, Chata told us, but the tides were high and the water would be above everyone’s waist. We had enough young men in our group of 20-some people to form a human chain and pass the kids through the deepest water, Chata said. My grandmother and mother stayed behind.
I boasted that I could swim through the caves, but when we got inside I realized the severity of the challenge: It wasn’t just that the water was deep; it was that the tides could yank out to sea anyone who lost their grip. The concussive collisions of water against stone created a thunderous roar that reverberated inside the caves. As my father held my hand, we walked into deepening waters.
We gripped the caves’ walls and stepped tenuously towards the chain of young men. My father reluctantly released his grip. In seconds I was passed from body to body, then steadied myself. Through the knee-high horizontal exit, a sliver of shimmering beach opened into a broad crescent of fine fawn-colored sand as the sea stretched into shades of turquoise, azure and lapis. No one else was there. It was a postcard made real.
Soon my father emerged and we lounged in the sand, talking about whether Walt Frazier and the Knicks would win another championship—they would three months hence—and whether the Yankees would ever get good again. The sun warmed us. Despite the moderate surf, the ocean beckoned. As we plunged into the tropical waters, my father told me to stay close to him. I floated on my back, stared at the cottony clouds, and let the waves ride me up and down, up and down.
“Michael!” my father shouted, shattering my reverie. Behind me, I saw him and the biggest wave I’d ever witnessed, both zooming towards me. My father grabbed my hand — we were too far out to beat the wave to the shore. After a few terrifying seconds, the wave began to curl over us in slow motion and enveloped us with unrelenting force. The surf spun us around like driftwood; my father’s grip tightened. As the wave slammed us into the scabrous ocean floor, he held on. And when the undertow began to suck us out to sea, his grip remained strong as he swam us—with his one free arm—towards the shore.
As I reflected on that thirty-year-old memory, I knew I’d make it home in time. I could feel my father holding on, across the dwindling miles. And I felt assured that despite the pain the cancer was inflicting on his body, his spirit wouldn’t let go until we embraced one last time.
ichael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place. He has biked through Cuba for The Washington Post, celebrated Holy Week in Guatemala for The Dallas Morning News, and floated down the Mekong River on a Laotian cargo barge for an online travel magazine. His work also appears in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and several national magazines. Some of his stories are archived on his web site, www.nettravel.com. This story appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2005.
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