One sunny June morning, my eighteen-month-old son, Cole, wakes me up early to play. I follow him out the back door and into the field overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, behind the summer home my wife, Elena, and I built near the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Osprey circle up high and then dive straight down, splashing into the water.
But Cole isn't looking out to the waves breaking below us. He is hunting for toads -- or, as he calls them, "Abooda!" He looks intently at the ground as he marches down the path. When he sees a toad at last, he points emphatically, looking back at me, and shouts again and again, "Abooda! Abooda! Abooda!"
I chase the toad into the high grass, trapping it in my hands. I kneel down as Cole thrusts his arms out with great excitement, desperate to see and touch the little creature. I gently transfer the baby toad into Cole's hands. He recoils when he feels the moist skin and tiny clawed feet kicking for freedom. But for a moment he holds the toad in his cupped fingers, just long enough to look up at me with a triumphant smile. Then the toad jumps free.
Later that afternoon, Cole and I join Elena and Cole's older siblings, Kerry and Seamus, and walk down the same path, through the field and into the dunes beyond. A pair of swans flies past us in the direction of our house. They nest in the salt pond, coming by at least once a day with graceful, long wing beats. We walk together onto the beach, wide with fine white sand. The water is a clear bright greenish blue; it's a color I have seen in the Caribbean but rarely in New England, where cold water laden with plankton turns the sea into a denser, dark-colored liquid. There are giant rocks, far out in the ocean, where waves crash spectacularly. We watch a neighbor closer in, trying to surf the waist-high break. Down the beach we can see the old farmhouses in the distance. Our house sits up behind us, with a blue stone veranda that wraps around the back of the barn-shaped structure and overlooks the beach and ocean beyond.
Elena and I set up our chairs in the sand. Cole runs back and forth in front of us, marching toward the waves until they break and then away as fast as his little legs will take him, giggling as he tries to avoid getting wet. We smile at his gait, a vigorous back-and-forth flailing motion with his left arm while his right arm remains still. Kerry and Seamus alternately play with Cole, doting on him as their most cherished possession, and ride the waves on their boogie boards.
As I dig my toes into the sand and breathe the salt air I can't stop thinking about the toad. The morning romp had been a victory lap of sorts-not in the realm of traditional male achievement (money, sport, female conquest), but in the far more subtle stuff of life that makes us whole or shatters us. In my case, I had always gotten the external aspects of manhood right but the interior man was rotting to the core. As with many men I know, my successes and failures in these two seemingly contradictory worlds led, over time, to a widening gap between what people saw and who I had really become.
I hold Elena's hand and watch my three kids working together to make a sand castle, their actions so enthusiastic and natural, as I recall how hard I'd tried to prove myself worthy. I'd come from behind to win pivotal athletic competitions, single-handedly closed long-shot deals, created the perfect-looking house and family. I had to work so hard to be the man I thought I was expected to become; and although I succeeded on the outside-beyond any reasonable expectations-I lost that house and that family because I never belonged. I was plagued by noises in my head telling me that outside I was taking the world by storm, but inside I was still the same old fraud. That noise drowned out the sinking feeling, every moment of every day, that I was headed for disaster and needed help desperately.
Instead, I ran and ran and ran.
Walking down the beach with Cole to look for crabs in a tidal pool, I realize that, a decade later, I have finally re-created what in my prior life had looked so good on the outside but had no structural integrity. It's the first day I know the noise has left for good. My head is silent. I can see what's been right in front of me the whole time. So much of the beauty in the world had eluded me, the miraculous details that can be seen only through clear eyes. But the day Cole shouted "Abooda!" and I felt the creature's tiny clawed feet scratch at my palm, and saw the look of sheer awe on my son's face, I realized that I am not two men, just one, who had been put on the planet not to close deals or win races but to discover beauty in the most minute details of my life.
Follow Tom Matlack on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tmatlack