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Disaster Parenting by Robert Kerbeck

Disaster Parenting by Robert Kerbeck
Robert Kerbeck with his son

I wonder how my teenage son, Davis, will remember me after I’m gone. Perhaps it’s a thought in the minds of many parents in these COVID-19 days. Mostly, I wonder if my seventeen-year-old holds it against me for making him fight a wildfire. Alongside me and my wife Gardia, our son fought the 2018 Woolsey Fire—the worst in LA history—to save our home. Seventeen of nineteen houses on our street burned to the ground. Ours was one of the few to survive.

A year and a half later, Davis is living through the worst pandemic in over 100 years. In between these two tragedies, I made him go snorkeling with me in the ocean at night.

Guess which event was the most frightening?

Only a month after the Woolsey Fire, we headed to Hawaii for fresh air and a much-needed vacation. While our home had survived, we lived surrounded by the remains of our neighbors’ houses. Each time the winds blew, toxic soot and ash ended up at our doorstep. Melted refrigerators, washers, dryers, cleaning supplies, insulation materials, paint—anything that couldn’t withstand 2,000 degree heat—was on our shoes, in our lungs, and frequently inside our house.

So we escaped to Lāna'i, an island we’d visited before. In Hulopo’e Bay, a marine reserve with some of the clearest water in Hawaii, we’d snorkeled with dolphins, turtles, and fish of seemingly every color and variety. On this trip, however, I wanted to snorkel the reserve at night, something my son wasn’t keen on doing. A top swimmer on his high school team, Davis felt he spent enough time in the water without having to go in at night now too.

“You’ll see things you’d never see in the daytime,” I said, diving into my sales pitch. “Eels, lobsters, completely different kinds of fish.”

As an experienced scuba diver, I’d been in the ocean many times at night. Once I witnessed a giant eel use the illumination from my dive light to attack and eat a fish mere inches from my mask—a story he’d heard countless times before.

“Won’t it be cold?” Davis asked me.

Seemingly that was his main concern and one I could easily address. “No, because you’ll be wearing a wetsuit.”

He shrugged, which I took as a yes.

At the beach parking lot that evening, we ran into a twenty-year-old guy, Austin, drinking a beer on the sand. I’d surfed with him on a prior trip when his mother asked me to keep an eye on him, as the surf was pumping that day. I figured if Austin could handle a huge south swell, he’d be up for night snorkeling.

“If you’ve got extra gear,” he said. “I’m game.”

“I’ve got three of everything.”

I handed out masks and snorkels along with wetsuits from the back of my vehicle, most of which I’d borrowed from others. But when I tested the dive lights before giving them out, one didn’t work, which wouldn’t have been an issue if it was just the two of us.

“That’s okay,” said Davis. “I don’t have to go.”

He really meant he didn’t want to go, which saddened me. If my son didn’t want to go in the ocean with me—our favorite thing to do together—it meant our time doing father-son activities was nearing its end. I wasn’t ready for that, though I feared Davis was. Already I could feel him edging toward a future without me. At home, I’d only see him when he left the confines of his room to eat. I’d gone from the star of his show to an in-the-way extra.

“Hey, you’re down here now,” I said, desperate to share this adventure with him. “You and I can share a light.”

Again, he shrugged.

We made our way in the dark, walking slowly toward the water because of our fins. Once we were deep enough, we lowered our heads and began to swim. Austin had one of the lights, and I had the other. When I spotted a good area in which to view sea life, I would give the light to my son. But there wasn’t anything to see. The reef teemed with life during the daytime but now it was gray and barren, like an underwater ghost town. Suddenly, on the ocean floor some thirty feet below, I saw a small shark swimming away from us, likely spooked by our bright lights.

“Shark,” I lifted my head to shout at the boys. “It was a small one but still, stay close.”

Austin sidled up next to me until he couldn’t get any closer. Davis, on the other hand, began diving thirty or forty feet to the bottom, spinning and twirling like he was a dolphin, unafraid of any shark. I realized he was showing off for Austin, who was a few years older and played lacrosse at a top college. Either that, or he was doing it to freak me out and spite me for making him come. We swam a bit further, looking for any other signs of life, but saw nothing. Austin was shivering next to me from the cold, despite the wetsuit.

“You want to go in?” I asked. He nodded.

Meanwhile, my son continued swimming to the bottom. I kept my light trained on Davis like he was a star on stage and it was my job not to lose him. I wanted him to be able to see the razor-sharp reef so he didn’t crash into it.

“Davis, we’re going in,” I said when he came up for air. “Austin’s getting cold. Stay tight.”

Austin and I began to kick toward the beach. We might as well have interlocked our arms we were so close. Meanwhile, Davis continued to show off, diving in and around us. The ocean floor switched from reef to sand, which meant the shoreline was no more than twenty feet away. The water was less than eight feet deep. Soon we would be able to stand and walk in. But then our lights bounced off a large object beneath our feet, which gleamed with the most gorgeous shades of gray I’d ever seen. It took me a thick second to realize it was a shark. And not just any shark, but a ten-foot-long hammerhead. One eye on its strangely-shaped head seemed to expand as it stared at us. I told myself the creature was as scared of us as we were of it. I’d started to settle down when I realized there wasn’t one huge shark mere feet below us, but two. Another hammerhead had come in from the darkness, and the two sharks circled beneath us. Austin and I aimed our lights like they were guns.

Somewhere nearby, my son swam in the dark. The hammerheads came close enough for me to touch, never taking their eyes—or at least one of them—off of us. I flashed to a bar fight I’d had in college when I recognized in a drunk guy’s eyes that he was going to punch me. I knew these sharks were getting ready to attack. Just when they were in biting range, however, they swam off, disappearing into the void.

At that exact moment, Davis popped up next to us. “Was that a shark?”

I mumbled something indecipherable.

“It seemed pretty big,” he continued. “It swam right by me. I think there were two of them. One of their tails brushed me.”

I pulled him next to me, and the three of us huddled together in a human bait ball as we made our way to shore.

“Don’t tell my mother,” Austin said. “She’ll kill me.”

“No problem,” I said, knowing it was me she would kill—as would my wife for putting our son’s life in jeopardy. As a diver and surfer, I knew better than to go in the ocean just as it was getting dark. I’d been told for years that’s when sharks fed. What the hell was I thinking? As with the fire, I could have lost everything.

When Davis and I arrived at our room, I headed straight toward a bottle of tequila and did a shot. I’d seen this done in movies, but it always seemed to be a clichéd convention of film. My breath was short and my hands were shaking. I texted a surfer friend, Ali, who’d lived his entire life on the island and was an avid waterman. I told him what had happened, how close we’d been to being attacked and potentially dying.

Hammerheads don’t attack people, he texted back.

Maybe they didn’t in the daytime, I thought, but this was at night and we’d surprised them. I wanted him to understand how dangerous the situation had been, how I’d risked my son’s life and that of another young man. But these were huge and in shallow water, I texted.

My phone bubbled as he typed a response. I’ve lived my whole life here and I’ve never seen a hammerhead. The bubbles continued, then stopped. What a wonderful experience for you and your son. I was stunned. Ali’s local take on the encounter was one I never would’ve considered. Rather than be afraid, we could be appreciative. Instead of screwing my son up for good, I’d apparently given him an extraordinary encounter in nature. I wasn’t an irresponsible parent but rather some combination of Jon Krakauer and Jacques Cousteau. I wasn’t sure I agreed with the very Hawaiian philosophy, but the question of good parenting has always been complicated. When do we push? When do we let up? And, finally, when do we let go? Not ready for the answers to those questions, I did another shot.


Disaster Parenting by Robert Kerbeck
Robert Kerbeck

Robert Kerbeck, author Malibu Burning 

Winner, 2020 IPPY Award - Silver Medalist in Creative Nonfiction


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