The minute I took off his gym shoes, he leapt from the sand, hanging painfully from my neck.
“No, Mommy!” he screamed, kicking wildly.
I was afraid he was going to pull me over, but I knew if I put his feet back down the meltdown would begin.
“It’s just sand! Just sand, baby!” I said. “It feels good!” I was using my happy-happy voice—the one I use when I’m trying to talk Mikey into anything new.
“NO!” he yelled, yanking harder. Mikey has some big lungs: other beachgoers started turning towards our noise.
“Just put his shoes back on,” my husband said quickly.
We had started prepping Mikey for this little beach morning a few days before.
“We’re going to the beach on Saturday!” we announced. We’re a normal, happy family!
“I don’t want to go to the beach,” said Mikey.
We expected this.
“You’ll love it! It’s great!” By now, we were masters of fake confidence.
“I’m not going to the beach,” Mikey said.
We repeated this conversation about seventeen times over the next three days.
The morning of, it took 30 minutes of crying and arguing before the swimsuit was finally on, so when he wanted socks and sneakers instead of water shoes, we gave in fast.
When we got there, Mikey fought the sunscreen, walked gingerly in shoes on the shifting sand, complained more.
But slowly, slowly, he started to enjoy himself. Mikey and Simon kicked balls, Sam dug with a plastic shovel.
I watched other kids bury each other in the sand, play dive-tackle and Frisbee in the lake. I wondered if any of them had fought putting on a bathing suit, or begged to just stay home instead.
Maybe my problem is that I always press my luck, but I wanted him to be like them. I wanted him to feel his feet in the sand, just once.
Mikey was my sensory avoider. Crumbs, dirt, grass, rocks—anything unfamiliar on his skin was like a little wailing siren that his brain couldn’t turn off.
In OT gym each week, he avoided the sensory bin like the plague. Dirt, play doh, water beads, homemade gak—nothing was dirtying his fingers. Last week I had looked at the OT in frustration.
“Water” she said. “Water is always the way in. Start with water and eventually he’ll touch all of it.”
And I was reminded of the quote from Isak Dinesen: The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.
And here were his tears, and my sweat, and this little lake—our sea.
“Baby, you can do this,” I whispered in his ear, trying to shift his grip on my neck. “It’s cold, and it feels funny for a minute, but you will get used to it. You will be ok.”
I held my breath. Either this would work, or I was pushing too far and triggering a meltdown that would send us home.
Slowly, so slowly, he put a toe in the water. Yanked it back. Down again. Now the other. The water lapped at him, waiting, gentle, like a puppy eager to be friends.
“See, Sam is in the water,” I said, pointing. Sam was up to his chubby chest now, and pulling hard against my husband’s grip to get deeper. “If he can do it, so can you!”
Mikey slid one foot carefully down. A little wave lapped in and suddenly—moment of grace—a smooth pink rock appeared under the surface. In that flash, he wanted it enough to forget his protests. As he reached for it, both feet went down, and suddenly he was ankle-deep in the chilly lake.
Simon and I looked at each other. We knew not to cheer. If we brought his attention to this big moment, he would jump right back out.
“There’s another cool rock,” I said, pointing, feigning nonchalance.
“And this one,” said Mikey, his little hand darting under again.
Five minutes later, he was up to his calves, picking up rocks and throwing them. And for the next half an hour, he stayed that way.
He was laughing. He was happy. He was every other kid at the beach, and we were every other family—except we knew the invisible hurdle he had overcome.
We knew his salty tears before, and the quiet achievement of his small, sandy toes after.