LET HIM GO

A fa­ther and his 12-year-old son are swept out to sea by a rip­tide. As they strug­gle to stay a oat, the fa­ther is forced to make an ag­o­nis­ing de­ci­sion to give them a chance to sur­vive.

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - COVER STORY - WORDS JUSTIN HECK­ERT PIC­TURES JOHN LOOMIS

THE OCEAN AT night is a ter­ri­ble dream. There is noth­ing be­yond the wa­ter ex­cept the pro­found dis­cour­age­ment of the sky, ev­ery black wave an­other sin­gu­lar mis­for­tune. Walt Marino has been float­ing on his back for hours, the ocean on his skin, his mouth, soak­ing the curls of his gray­ing hair. The wa­ter has cracked his lips, the salt has stuck to his con­tact lenses, burn­ing the edges of his eyes. A small sil­ver pen­dant of the Vir­gin Mary sticks to his col­lar­bone on a link chain. He can no longer see the car key float­ing be­low his stom­ach, tied to the string of his flo­ral swim trunks. The wa­ter licks against his ears. Ev­ery fa­mil­iar sound is gone.

He arches his neck, con­tem­plates again how far of a swim it might be to shore. He tries to con­vince him­self he might be able to make it back to the beach, to the rock jetty from which he was swept out to sea. He starts dog-pad­dling, but af­ter about 30 min­utes his arms give out, his back tires, and he de­cides that he’ll die if he tries. In the dark, he can make out only the out­line of his hands. He can see a faint glow in the dis­tance, like a small fire, what he guesses to be the ho­tels and con­dos of Florida’s north­east coast.

He won­ders if some­one in a liv­ing room watch­ing TV could look out far past the shore and see him float­ing there. No, he de­cides. That’s crazy. Even if they were looking through binoc­u­lars, they could prob­a­bly see only the wa­ter, and maybe the rip­ples be­neath the stars. Even the res­cue he­li­copter hadn’t been able to spot his head stick­ing above the sur­face, as it traced a search grid just be­yond where the tide of Ponce de Leon In­let emp­ties into the At­lantic. Be­low the he­li­copter, pa­trol boats and jet skis had gone back and forth like sharks in the dis­tance. He had waved his arms and screamed un­til his throat cracked, un­til the blue search sig­nal and the light of the beam had thinned and dis­ap­peared. He now won­ders if he’ll ever need his voice again.

That was hours ago. When Christo­pher was float­ing be­side him. Christo­pher, his lit­tle boy. When the two of them, fa­ther and son, were still to­gether in the waves.

The ocean was al­ways one of Christo­pher’s fa­vorite places. The shal­low wa­ter near the jetty rocks of Ponce In­let, pale and green at the curve of the beach – Walt took him there as much as he could. Like a lot of autis­tic chil­dren, Christo­pher was drawn to wa­ter. By the sen­sa­tion of it, by its sounds, its placid­ity – Walt could only guess. Christo­pher could never ex­plain the ocean’s hold on him, could only put on his swim trunks and stand bare­foot on the wooden floor of the house, or find the car keys from the ta­ble and try to place them in Walt’s hand, or just wait im­pa­tiently at the door of his con­vert­ible. As his son grew up, his main com­mu­ni­ca­tion turned out to be the sounds of his laugh­ter, his hands slap­ping at the tide foam, his giddy squeal as he climbed onto his fa­ther’s back, swim­ming for hours un­til it was time to go home.

On Septem­ber 6, 2008, a Satur­day, Walt took him to Ponce In­let late in the af­ter­noon. It was his week­end with the kids. As he did ev­ery two weeks, he picked up Christo­pher from the group home where he lived, then picked up An­gela, his 14-year-old daugh­ter, at her mother’s house in Oviedo, and two of An­gela’s friends. It was a per­fect day to go to the beach. They stopped at McDon­ald’s, Christo­pher’s favourite, on the way. Christo­pher ate his dou­ble cheese­burg­ers slowly, mad­den­ingly, ex­actly same way he did ev­ery time. He took off the top bun, held it in his hand, and ate the pick­les. Then he ate the let­tuce. Then the top bun. Then he ate the meat. Then the bot­tom bun, then each french fry, one at a time. He chewed vig­or­ously, with his mouth open, loud enough for Walt to ask him to stop.

As Walt watched Christo­pher eat, he tried not to think about the meet­ing he’d had ear­lier in the day with his ex-wife Robyn and her hus­band Ed. Walt had split with Robyn eight years ear­lier, and when­ever they spoke any­more it was briefly, tensely, and only in re­gard to the kids. Dur­ing this meet­ing, they asked Walt what he planned to do with the kids that day. “I don’t know,” Walt replied, though he did know.

They ar­rived at New Smyrna Beach about 6.30pm. The Ponce In­let Light­house was the one thing, long and or­ange, that rose above the sparse land­scape in the dis­tance. The girls ig­nored the signs posted and be­gan slid­ing down the backs of the white dunes. Walt and Christo­pher watched for a while, then put their bags and tow­els down on the hard sand. Christo­pher, in flo­ral trunks like his dad, took off ahead, and splashed in. The tide on the pro­tected side of the jetty looked serene. Walt waded in to get Christo­pher, un­aware that the tide had be­gun to go out, or of how strong it was. Robyn and Ed had re­peat­edly asked Walt not to put Christo­pher in any sit­u­a­tion that could be danger­ous, and they asked him in par­tic­u­lar not to take Christo­pher to the beach. But Walt didn’t lis­ten to them. He was cer­tain that it made Christo­pher happy to be here.

The cur­rent grabbed fa­ther and son al­most im­me­di­ately. They floated past the glis­ten­ing rocks, and then it pulled them faster, the sand dis­ap­pear­ing be­neath their toes. Within a minute, Walt and Christo­pher were

15m out, the ocean in their faces and ears. “Do you need help?” a fish­er­man yelled. “We’re OK!” Walt shouted back, giv­ing a thumbs-up.

He still thought he had things un­der con­trol. An­other two min­utes, 180m far­ther out to sea. Walt knew they were in trou­ble now. His heart thumped in his ears. “Don’t come in!” he screamed to An­gela, who was now star­ing out at them in fright from the jetty. “Call 911! 9-1-1! 9-1-1!”

One sec­ond Walt could see the beach, and the next he was be­low the hori­zon. He tried to fo­cus on Christo­pher’s head, the dark-brown hair wet and mat­ted, the only part of him above wa­ter. Christo­pher was about 10m ahead of Walt now, bob­bing and laugh­ing hys­ter­i­cally. Walt yelled at Christo­pher to swim back to the jetty with him – “Come on, let’s go, let’s swim!” – but they had been raked into the mid­dle of the in­let, where the cur­rent’s pull was even stronger. Af­ter 20 min­utes, they were about 1.5km out, at the mouth of the open sea. A green nav­i­ga­tional buoy bobbed there, tall and round, with a rusted bell clang­ing back and forth. Walt reached out to try and grab on to the buoy but strug­gled against the cur­rent. Christo­pher just kept laugh­ing, un­aware of the dan­ger, of the sit­u­a­tion, of the fad­ing shore and the strength of the cur­rent. As they floated past the buoy, there was noth­ing else to stop them from drift­ing into the sea.

Walt stud­ied Christo­pher as the sun went down. It was a game to his son, he de­cided, float­ing there without a care in the world. Far­ther out from shore, the light dwin­dling, the land it­self was less vis­i­ble. Walt told him­self to keep his eye on Christo­pher, to make sure his head stayed above the 1.2m waves. But his mind wan­dered to his own mum and dad wait­ing for them back at the house, to the girls left on the beach, to noth­ing at all. The only sounds to keep them com­pany were the lap of the waves and the slap of the fins of the small fish that jumped onto the sur­face. They had been in the wa­ter for two hours, he guessed. They were beginning to tire.

Christo­pher was no longer laugh­ing, so Walt de­cided it was time to give him a break. He dog-pad­dled to his son, grabbed his arm, and let Christo­pher climb on his back. Walt took a deep breath. Then he arched his back and dipped his head for­ward be­low the sur­face, arms slightly ex­tended from his sides – the dead man’s float. He lay face down in 30-sec­ond in­cre­ments, com­ing back up for air, wip­ing the wa­ter from his cheeks, spit­ting the ocean out of his mouth. Each time Walt rose to take a breath he ached more; af­ter only a few min­utes he came up again and clutched his stom­ach. Then he vom­ited. He dry heaved un­til his throat burned; he was scream­ing gib­ber­ish, non­sense, “Je­sus, God, help us. . .”

Small fish sur­faced in packs to feast on the vom­ited meal, and Christo­pher re­acted with panic. He be­gan to scream. He grabbed at Walt’s hair and tried to rip it out of his head. He was thrash­ing on Walt’s back, his weight push­ing Walt be­neath the sur­face. Christo­pher weighed about 55kg, and he was tear­ing at his fa­ther, dig­ging his fin­ger­nails into him, cry­ing at the top of his lungs. Walt pulled him off of his back, wiped his eyes, and croaked: “Please, Christo­pher, calm down. Please be a good boy.” Christo­pher looked at Walt, plead­ing with a pair of help­less eyes, as if to ask: “What are we go­ing to do, dad?” Walt had no an­swer. He couldn’t breathe. Christo­pher grabbed for him again, jump­ing out of the wa­ter to get away from the fish, splash­ing salt wa­ter into Walt’s eyes. Walt went un­der, gulp­ing a throat­ful of ocean that made him vomit again. Cry­ing, des­per­ate to breathe, he yelled at Christo­pher, at the sit­u­a­tion.

Christo­pher was scream­ing again, too. What could Walt do? There was re­ally only one thing he could do, for the both of them. He was forced to make a hor­ri­ble de­ci­sion: if they stayed to­gether, if Christo­pher kept clutch­ing his fa­ther, they would both drown. Their only chance was for Walt to sep­a­rate him­self from Christo­pher, to hope that his son could stay afloat on his own. It was the only choice that made any sense. He looked at his son again, then pushed him away into the ocean. WHEN CHRISTO­PHER WAS 15 months old, they knew some­thing was wrong. He didn’t pay at­ten­tion, didn’t make eye con­tact, didn’t cry. He would just scream and grunt. He didn’t say a real word un­til he was four. Af­ter Christo­pher was di­ag­nosed with autism as a tod­dler, Walt spent $20,000 on a cou­ple of mir­a­cle cures, in­clud­ing an in­jec­tion of pig hor­mones into Christo­pher’s leg.

He could say “good­bye,” “hello”, “thanks”, “wa­ter”, “hun­gry”, “candy”. He could re­peat the phrases “I love you” and “hi, dad” and “wow.” He ig­nored other chil­dren, mostly. He had so much en­ergy it was ex­haust­ing, and he re­quired con­stant su­per­vi­sion. He was fear­less and reck­less be­cause he didn’t have a con­cept of dan­ger. There was just a con­nec­tion miss­ing some­where. That was the eas­i­est way to de­scribe it.

In the cal­lous terms of the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders Christo­pher dis­played “markedly ab­nor­mal non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” To his fa­ther he was shy and cu­ri­ous, and some­times so quiet and so tem­per­ate that Walt could imag­ine his son was per­fectly nor­mal. THE FIRST RES­CUE he­li­copter ap­peared just be­fore night­fall, then the boats in the dis­tance, en­gines breath­ing on the wa­ter. Walt called over to Christo­pher, who had drifted maybe 3m away. He told him that he was a good boy and a great swim­mer. He pointed his fin­ger to the blink­ing he­li­copter high in the sky near shore, and said, “Blue lights. Blue lights. Blue lights com­ing to get us.” Walt felt like he un­der­stood.

Out at sea, in the fad­ing light, Christo­pher rose and dipped from Walt’s line of sight. Walt tried to talk to his son to keep him calm, recit­ing his favourite lines from his favourite movies. Christo­pher loved to sit right in front of the small tele­vi­sion in his room and watch Dis­ney videos all day. Some­times he would put his eye­ball as close to the screen as he could get it without touch­ing. His all-time favourite scene was Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, fly­ing into space, say­ing his trade­mark phrase: “To in­fin­ity … and be­yond!”

“To in­fin­ity!” Walt yelled to Christo­pher over the waves. He waited for Christo­pher to re­spond. “To in­fin­ity, Christo­pher!” “ … and be­yond!” lightly from atop the wave, as Christo­pher was lifted back into view. It didn’t sound

like that when Christo­pher said it, though. It al­ways sounded like “in­fin’a be­yon’ … ” And he’d al­ways send his fist into the air. That lit­tle fist pump – Walt did it in the wa­ter then, too, even though he was try­ing to con­serve en­ergy.

Af­ter a while the first he­li­copter left and an­other took its place, its blue light flick­er­ing over the open wa­ter. Looking out to­ward the black sky, Walt be­gan to wave his arms, cer­tain now that no one could hear him. Christo­pher pounded his fist against the waves. A group of jel­ly­fish in­ter­rupted them, swim­ming into Walt’s and Christo­pher’s legs, clutch­ing on to them and burn­ing like strands of elec­tric hair. Christo­pher shrieked. Then Walt was lifted up at the same time Christo­pher was low­ered. When the tide evened, Christo­pher was even far­ther away, 10 or 12m. Walt tried to swim to­ward him, flap­ping his arms as hard as he could. Then a wave lifted Christo­pher, and Walt was caught on the other side. When the wave broke, Christo­pher was no longer there.

Only his breath in the dark­ness, a si­lence as ev­ery­thing set­tled in. For half an hour, Walt had yelled, beg­ging for Christo­pher to an­swer. He had given up con­serv­ing en­ergy, had been swim­ming as hard as he could to try and find his son. “Who’s my best boy?” Noth­ing. “Christo­pher, who’s my buddy?” Only the fish be­neath him, brush­ing against his back and legs. ”Christo­pher?!” Walt spun in ev­ery di­rec­tion, try­ing to spot the small white face and the dark-brown hair. But he was gone. Walt wiped his eyes, took a breath. He’s gone. It was a thought as dark and fath­om­less as the ocean it­self. At that mo­ment, he couldn’t see it any other way – Christo­pher was dead. He told him­self it was prob­a­bly peace­ful, told him­self that Christo­pher just got tired and fi­nally let go. Just slipped away un­der the sea. But Walt’s mind wouldn’t fully ac­cept that. Christo­pher was a ter­rific swim­mer. He had nine lives, Walt liked to say. Maybe he was merely play­ing a game. Maybe he was float­ing, just be­yond where Walt could see. Maybe he just wanted to be alone for a while, like he some­times did.

Christo­pher had wan­dered off so many times, Walt learned to ex­pect he would al­ways be OK. “Eloped” is the word used to de­scribe the way an autis­tic per­son some­times wan­ders off – is there one sec­ond, then van­ishes. Walt couldn’t even bear to call him autis­tic, to la­bel him that way, and his voice al­ways cracked when he talked about his “lit­tle buddy”.

But now he was gone. They shouldn’t have come out to the beach, he told him­self.

He de­cided that he should take his own life. It would be eas­ier. Bawl­ing, his tears mix­ing with the salt wa­ter on his face, he took a deep breath, ex­haled, and slipped like he imag­ined Christo­pher did be­neath the sur­face. But there was An­gela. He had al­most for­got­ten about her. He kicked his legs and came up for air, ex­pelling a mouth­ful of wa­ter. She needed a fa­ther too. THE OCEAN AT dawn is a won­der­ful dream. He thought the night might last for­ever and now con­sid­ers the morn­ing it­self a sign, too. The birds dive to the sur­face, stretch­ing out their pat­tern­less wings as if to

yawn. A seag­ull, white and with crys­tal eyes, lands right next to Walt. It looks di­rectly at him, opens its or­ange beak like it’s try­ing to get him to talk. Walt can sud­denly see the life of ev­ery­thing, the fish swim­ming on the sur­face, the ac­tual blue of the wa­ter. His neck aches like hell. His hands and wrists are swollen stiff. His lips are chapped and bleed­ing. He’s numb and warm. His tongue is swollen, his eyes dry.

He has sur­vived the night, he re­alises, for noth­ing. He stares for­ward, shield­ing his face from the sun with his arm, and then looks back down to the wa­ter, think­ing of Christo­pher.

At 7.15am, on the deck of a recre­ational fish­ing boat called the Open Range, Shawn McMichael looks out and sees a re­flec­tion in the wa­ter. A glit­ter, some­thing sparkling, some­thing that maybe on a thou­sand other days would never catch his eye. Shawn looks again and sees move­ment. Stan­ley Scott, the boat’s owner, re­alises it’s a man. Float­ing. By him­self, wav­ing his arms. The boat slows, turns hard.

“How did you get here?” Stan­ley shouts. “Where’s your boat?”

The man is deliri­ous, won’t stop yelling. He asks about some­one named Christo­pher. It takes two guys to haul him in. Drip­ping wa­ter, swollen, pale, shiver­ing, jel­ly­fish stings like long red scars on his legs. The sil­ver pen­dant dan­gling be­low his chin – that’s what Shawn had seen re­flect­ing.

“I lost him!” They sit him on a bean­bag in the back of the boat. “I lost him!” He re­peats that phrase un­til they can get him to stop shout­ing and ask what he’s talk­ing about. “Christo­pher, Christo­pher – have you seen him? Oh, my God, have you seen him?” The men drape a wind­breaker over his shoul­ders, hand him a bot­tle of wa­ter. He drinks six, one af­ter the other. “He’s a great swim­mer. He’s a great swim­mer . . . Oh, God, he’s gone.”

He has an amaz­ing, pre­pos­ter­ous story, all right. He’s floated 15km north­east into the ocean from Ponce In­let. The men don’t say a word. They get the coast guard on the ra­dio and tell them they’ve found a man named Wal­ter Marino, and his autis­tic son is still miss­ing.

Walt shiv­ers and snif­fles in the boat. He calls his younger sis­ter, Linda, and tells her that he’s alive, that Christo­pher is still miss­ing, that he’s been in the wa­ter 13 hours. “My God, that’s a long time,” she says. He calls Robyn, too, grit­ting his teeth. “Tell An­gela I’m alive,” he says.

His voice is weak, raspy. She can barely tell it’s him. “Walt?” she shouts. “We’ve lost Christo­pher,” he says. “What? What? How? Where is he?” She’s hys­ter­i­cal, ask­ing about her son. She’s talk­ing so fast, ask­ing so many ques­tions that he doesn’t want to an­swer, so he hangs up.

An or­ange-and-white coast guard boat pulls up next to the Open Range at 9am. For an hour and a half, Walt has been sit­ting on the bean­bag, moan­ing. A door opens on the side of the boat, and two men pull Walt in­side. He waves good­bye to the guys on the Open Range, who stand in stu­pe­fac­tion.

The ship’s cap­tain asks Walt if he wants to be taken to the hospi­tal or stay on the boat as they search for Christo­pher. “Let’s go,” Walt says. But he chooses to sit be­low in the cabin, be­cause he doesn’t want to be there when some­one spots Christo­pher float­ing on his stom­ach, bloated, dead – he doesn’t want to be the one.

All the way from Clear­wa­ter, out of the skies above north­east­ern Florida, the Jay­hawk he­li­copter rides 30m above the wa­ter. At 100m the trained men aboard can see gulls hit­ting the sur­face, but they’re fly­ing even lower this morn­ing, as low as they can go, be­cause they’re looking for a 12-year-old boy. The he­li­copter goes into a right-hand or­bit, cir­cling once, then again. The flight me­chanic had seen the dark­brown hair and white face in the tide line, had seen a body float­ing there, bob­bing.

Low­ered 5m down by a thick hoist ca­ble, res­cue swim­mer Tom Emerick hits the wa­ter feet-first. He swims to­ward Christo­pher, the boy’s small pale eyes star­ing at him, un­blink­ing. Emerick sig­nals for the he­li­copter to send the bas­ket down. It’s 9.15 am, 5km from where his fa­ther had been dis­cov­ered two hours ear­lier. “Hi. How you do­ing, my name is Tom,” Emerick says.

Christo­pher says noth­ing, barely makes a move – just watches as Emerick pulls him into the stain­lesssteel bas­ket. “Don’t climb out of it, OK, buddy?” he shouts. In the stom­ach of the he­li­copter, Emerick wraps a wool blan­ket over Christo­pher’s shoul­ders, checks his breath­ing, his pulse, has him track his in­dex fin­ger with his eyes. Christo­pher’s skin is warm; he’s slightly hy­pother­mic. But other than the jel­ly­fish

stings, there doesn’t ap­pear to be any­thing the mat­ter with him.

Robyn and Ed take Christo­pher home on Septem­ber 8, af­ter he stays one night at Hal­i­fax hospi­tal in Day­tona. He can barely walk, so they carry him back and forth from his bed to the bath­room.. They let him watch Dis­ney movies, tuck him un­der his Tigger and Pooh bed­sheets. Robyn goes in and sits be­side him, asks him softly what he saw out there in the ocean, what it was like. Two days, and she asks him this sev­eral times, and fi­nally he tells her: “It was dark.” A whole sen­tence. SIX MONTHS LATER, Walt takes Christo­pher back out to the beach at Ponce In­let. Christo­pher walks on the beach and looks around, then goes into a bath­room to put on his swim trunks. He dips his feet into the wa­ter, re­coils upon dis­cov­er­ing how cold it is. Christo­pher lies on his stom­ach in the sand, laugh­ing.

But when Walt takes him back to the group home that night, Christo­pher, who had been si­lent and mostly calm the en­tire day, looks at his fa­ther, then throws his cup of wa­ter at the car win­dow. When Walt gets out of the car in front of the home, Christo­pher runs into the empty street and sits on the con­crete of the cul-de-sac, be­neath the street­light. He looks lost and fright­ened in the glow. He starts hit­ting his head with his fists and shout­ing at the top of his lungs. ”Please, buddy, please,” Walt begs. Walt puts his hands un­der Christo­pher’s arms and tries to stand him up. Christo­pher won’t budge. Walt’s voice quiv­ers. “I know you don’t want me to leave, man, but I have to.” He man­ages to stand Christo­pher upright and drag him about 5m to­ward the door of the home, and then Christo­pher jumps at him, sinks his teeth into Walt’s arm, so Walt lets go and falls half­way to the ground. It had been so easy to for­get all day. Walt cries out in pain.

“Why, Christo­pher, why?” Tears are run­ning down his face, with noth­ing but the back of his bit­ten arm to wipe them away. Christo­pher just stands there. Walt has tried to imag­ine what that night was like for Christo­pher. He has imag­ined it re­peat­edly, in his sleep, at his work, in his rented ho­tel suite with the cur­tains drawn, the empty plas­tic soup con­tain­ers on the counter.

He has imag­ined Christo­pher gig­gling and splash­ing, the fish touch­ing his back and arms; Christo­pher star­ing in awe at the dol­phin snouts and fall­ing stars, soothed by the foam tops of the waves; has imag­ined the whole night was like this one big ad­ven­ture, the big­gest ad­ven­ture Christo­pher will ever have in his life, float­ing on his back as the wa­ter warmed his ears, in won­der as the sounds changed be­neath the sur­face; has imag­ined that those sounds cap­ti­vated his son’s imaginatio­n, and that since Christo­pher loves to float and swim more than any­thing, per­haps he even had fun.

And the phos­pho­res­cence, the most colour­ful thing, he hopes it passed his son in a trail on the top of the wa­ter, long and thin, sparkling there like some­thing hope­ful; prays that Christo­pher got to see it. He has to be­lieve he did. He can just pic­ture Christo­pher stick­ing his hand in the filmy sub­stance, hold­ing it up to the moon­light, slick and shiny and Dis­ney green. In fact, he can­not bring him­self to imag­ine any­thing else. Walt aches for the day, a day that will prob­a­bly never come, when he’ll be able to ac­tu­ally talk to Christo­pher, and ask him about what he saw and what he felt and what he was think­ing, how he sur­vived.

But re­ally, all he can do is won­der.

The Ponce In­let Light­house.

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