I love the ocean. It’s my place of solitude and reflection. It’s where I go to decompress.
As I look out over the sea I think of God’s supremacy and the enormity of his grace. I contemplate the incredible truth that I am able to sit with my feet soaked in even a few small drops of His powerful presence.
Our family has gone to the same beach for summer vacation every year for more than 30-years. My wife came here as a child with her family. Our children, now grown and gone, built sand castles and surfed the waves and chased crabs at night with flashlights. Sunburns, sand, and shells have always been a sign that we are in our place of refuge.
Even my son, Jake, with all his disabilities, loved the beach. He would sit in the shallow pools of the ocean and feel the sand between his fingers for hours. It is here where he learned to walk at age 3. We wondered if he would ever walk by himself. I bought him a little toy lawn mower, stood him up, and placed his hands on the handle. It was just sturdy enough to hold him up. After only a few minutes of guiding him, I let him go. And off he went! He mowed miles and miles of sand that summer, and many summers after, as he wobbled behind that little mower, smiling and squealing and staggering with delight.
It was hectic and noisy and messy and fun.
I miss those days.
There were hard times here also. As Jake got older he became more sensitive to light, heat, noise, and water. He spent most of the day in the condo, so Kim and I would take alternating shifts going to the beach and playing with the other kids. We took turns resting, but I’m not sure we ever really relaxed. For many years, we rarely sat and enjoyed the ocean together. But we still made the most of every family vacation.
Now I sit on the beach quietly, unhurried, contemplating, watching other families with small children. I sit in the shade of an umbrella and listen to opera music and sip on cold drinks. My 24-hour-a-day parental responsibilities are over.
My walk through the valley of disability is also different. Jake is now a grown man. Twenty-eight years old! The little boy behind the sand mower now has a beard. He lives in his own apartment with 24-hour care. Three shifts a day.
It’s a new season for me.
But I still have a strange, magnified sense for seeing disability. And if you look long and hard enough, you may see it too. Almost everywhere.
On the crowded beach this morning, there is a young teenage girl sitting in the surf letting the sand run between her fingers. She’s been doing this same repetitive motion all morning as her father stands guard just a few feet away. At first glance she’s just a typical pre-teen girl enjoying the ocean. But my glance is focused, and I perceive the repetitions. I recognize the tactile sensitivity and the emotionless look in her eye. I know the father’s stance and his protective attention to her every move. I understand the weariness in his posture and the accelerated age in his face. Over and over, every day I am on the beach I see them.
And I see more.
I happen to be listening to Andrea Bocelli singing “Nessum Dorma” this afternoon. The only time I listen to opera music is at the beach. There is a certain soothing in the emotional flow of the orchestra, the passionate singing, and the response of the audience--all in harmony with crashing waves and the sea birds in flight.
Nessum Dorma might be one opera piece you recognize, even if you don’t recognize opera. It’s from the final act of Puccini’s opera Turandot. It is also one of the best known tenor pieces in the world. Bocelli is singing it live in Central Park, and it might be beneficial at this time in reading that you listen to this piece of music. Even if the opera is not your thing, it might help you with the story that follows.
To my right, standing in the water, is a father scolding his son. I see the boy. His face shows the obvious signs of a syndrome. Sometimes disability is invisible. Sometimes it marks us cruelly and hard.
The father is bent over inches from his son’s contorted face. He’s holding a small fishing net, the kind you would buy at discount surf shop to catch minnows. The stick attached to the net has been severely bent, much like the boy’s face and neck and body. I take one of my earbuds out to hear the conversation.
“Why did you break it!” The father angrily barks at his son.
The child does not respond.
“Answer me! Why did you break it! I just bought it for you this morning. How could you tear it up so fast? Why are you so destructive?! You break everything!"
His questions are met only with silence and blank stares.
The father angrily tosses the broken net to the shore and walks away from his son to face the ocean. The boy stands alone. The dad stands alone too. His face is turned away as he stares out over the sea.
I put the opera back in my ear. I don’t need to hear any more of the father’s words. I’ve heard them all before.
I’ve said them all before.
Andrea Bocelli sings, the orchestra plays, the waves crash, and the wind blows the father’s harsh words away.
“Nessum Dorma”. It means, “None shall sleep.” A fitting piece for any parent walking with a child through the valley of disability.
I want to scold the dad with his back to the son, “You can replace the net—you can replace a thousand nets!”
But I know, deep inside, this has nothing to do with a broken net and everything to do with a broken life, a broken dream, a broken son, and a broken heart. I want to walk out into the ocean and put my arm around the dad and whisper in his ear, “Don’t give up. Your son is indispensable! He is so important! This season of your life is so significant. Take it in! Pay attention to the details! God is at work! I see you! I've been you!"
Instead I sit in silence, listening to the opera, watching the waves, and pretending not to stare. Like we all do when we see disability up close. But God will not let me turn away. “My power is made perfect in weakness.” He whispers over the waves.
Just then, as Bocelli hits his famous high note, the broken little boy walks up behind his exasperated father and softly takes him by his hand. They stand together silently in the sea.
Only a God called "Father" could write this masterpiece. The boy wraps his arm around the man's waste as if to say, "I'm sorry". The weary dad puts his hand on his son’s head and pulls him close to his side as if to say, "I love you no matter what". No words are needed. A prodigal comes home. They turn together and walk back towards the shore.
The crowd at Central Park roars with applause as Bocelli bows to accept their praise.
But today the famous Tenor is upstaged by a broken little boy on a beach with his dad. They are eclipsed in the Shadow of the Almighty, whose power is truly made perfect in weakness, and whose grace is as deep as the sea.