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 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.