Long before the official one, at the back of the platform in front of the small crowd of Cornerstone Baptist, I had a childhood baptism. It held no spirituality for me at the time, but I feel like Jesus enjoyed it it as much, and likely more, than the scheduled and pristine and prepared-for ceremony. What better example do I have, after all, of childlike faith than that of a six-year-old plunging into icy waves, eyes screwed shut even as she thrashes (equal parts joy and terror) away from one set of arms, sure despite her senses that another one waits for her?
(Geez. Seriously, I could unpack that all day.)
It's the only "first" I remember my father being around for. I'm sure he was there for first steps and words, but afterwards would he perhaps feel the reality of his absence most keenly in those missed moments? I can still hear his voice--cannot see his face because I doubt I turned to look at him--imploring me to read to him on one of my visits, but what had been a showboating skill even weeks before had faded to a certain commonplaceness, and with the efficiency of a child I assured him I didn't need to.
But on this day, after months of splashing-but-clinging to adults, to docks, to floaties, this I remember. In his eagerness, perhaps, to witness at least one last first, he shamelessly bribed me with a Gifford's brownie sundae. With such a prize, the dozen feet of frothy waves between my brother and him seemed still noble and fearsome but worth the risk. We took a few more steps out, so there could be no element of my boosting up from the sand, and then: the sharp cold, even in summer, turning my skin to steel; the sound of distant gulls and unintelligible urging words and gurgling earfuls of water; briny, chalky sea finding ways through my mouth and nose; the simultaneous feeling of surging forward and barely maintaining float. And then another set of arms. Cheers. Laughter. Triumph.
Of course I don't really remember most of this. I remember the bribe, and a blurred Polaroid-memory of the two men and me and the sea. I don't remember the sundae so much as a dim, not-good feeling having to do with my mother--what an older me would identify as guilt, that I had done this great thing without her, most important in my life.
I can easily imagine the rest of those sensory vestiges and more: how the sweet ice cream would fight with the salt still on my lips and tongue, or sitting in the back seat feeling the wind twist my wet hair into a stringy sculpture. I can feel all these things because, after everything else--after being left and wounded and only receiving words of pretended normalcy--this is where I have settled. Such a strange thing, life is: I moved here because he had left it for yet another state, but the longer I stay the more I find connections back to him. For eight years to the day I have carved a home here on the very surf where my smaller self fought for breath and control and found her father's arms.
And that was not a first but a last.
I find myself wondering if he held that memory carefully, polishing it with his palms like a stone, keeping the dull blur of time at bay. I hold this same stone, and while a younger me would have skipped it into waves or laid it at his own carved stone, I press warmth into it until I can hear the surf and the laughter.
These are a different kind of firsts, of triumphs--to take the shards that might have cut us and wear them smooth with our hands.