I am not a parent.
I have done sitting for younger neighbors as a teen and tutored them through high school in advanced math concepts. At work, I look after the kids of other office members when it’s Take Your Child To Work Day assuming I have spare time. Through the wrestling training and small shows I have done, I’ve watched over when our company champ’s kids play in the ring after a show at the training center. Those kids were good kids, and I enjoyed seeing them.
But I am not their parent, or anyone’s.
I also have never been in a life or death situation. There are people I look over at work who need assistance, and there are people in my neighborhood who live on higher floors I would help downstairs, but those are hardly emergency moments. Everyday life has a lower risk to it. You don’t want people to fall and break a bone, but that’s preventative, not active.
All of this is a way for me to say I have never come close to the moment on Sunday – a moment that most of us hope never comes for us. Life or death hangs in the balance, and people you know and love are in danger. What do you do? In that split second, what can you do?
The very situation faced Shad Gaspard in a flash on Sunday. He and his family were at the Marina Del Rey beach when a riptide got to them. His wife, on shore, was safe. He and his son were not. Lifeguards quickly arrived to help.
In that moment, no one faults self-preservation. Any sociologist, psychologist, historian, and other expert will tell you that when facing almost certain death, safety becomes a top priority. Most of us, upon seeing the emergency personnel headed our way, would run to them, take their help, and be thankful we got to safety. If it was just about me, I might even be like that.
But I am not a parent.
If you ask just about any parent out there, they will tell you – the good ones will, even the mediocre ones – that the child means more to them than they themselves do. It’s a common enough canard that if you hurt a child, their parents will avenge. We’ve all heard or seen at least one parent say “I would die for them.”
While no one thinks this is an empty statement, life is usually kind enough not to test that theory. Most of us will be outlived by our children. Most of us will keep our children safe. Most of us will be capable, ahead of time, of stopping them from suffering before it starts. And those things which do kill children – be it juvenile cancer or a horrifying car wreck – usually happen so fast that there is nothing anyone, least of all the parent, can do.
In this moment, though, with the riptide attacking both of them, Shad could do something. He made sure his son was safe and attended to by the staff first.
We’ll never know if Shad figured he could have withstood the tide on his own. Certainly at his size he had a better chance than his son. But in all likelihood, that calculation never entered his mind. He had a split second decision with life or death as the outcome. He knew there was a chance he would die, but he also knew there was a chance his son would die. And Shad Gaspard was a parent.
The lifeguards were directed to his son. They pulled him from the riptide and brought him to shore. There was a requirement of treatment at the scene, sure, but in the end, he didn’t need to go to the hospital. He would be able to walk away. With the child saved, lifeguards went back for the parent. But by this time, Shad was nowhere to be found.
Until this morning, when his body washed up on the shore.
Normally, when writing a notice on someone’s death, it’s customary to talk about their lives. Certainly, with Gaspard, one could talk about his public career. He was part of a popular undercard tag team (albeit one that never got to the point of having a WrestleMania match). He was getting into acting, appearing in a few low-budget movies and TV series as well as the lead in a way-off-Broadway play based on Jack Johnson’s life. Heck, there was also the time he talked a drunk man out of an armed robbery of a gas station.
All of those are important in giving a full picture of Shad Gaspard. He was a successful man in his endeavors. But the single most important endeavor of his life lasted less than a minute on Sunday, May 17. It came when he pointed to his son in the riptide and redirected lifeguards to him.
This is about a wrestler, so let’s close by circling back to it. Wrestlers are larger-than-life on the screen. For many kids, who adore the entertainment, they are role models, if not heroes. Be it Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Sting, The Rock, Mick Foley, John Cena, AJ Styles, Roman Reigns, or anyone down the line, a wrestler who is cheered is seen as a hero. Make-A-Wish confirms it.
But what kids see, and what wrestlers do, is only somewhat heroic. Sure, it’s nice to have a figure in your circle of culture that shows what to do and when to do it. It doesn’t change that “Hulk Hogan” is a fictional character, an archetype, a hero who stops the scheming villain because that’s where the narrative directs him. Even in the case of a John Cena, a proven role model in his civilian life, calling what he does heroic is hollow.
When the cameras stop rolling, the heroes become memories. Usually.
Shad Gaspard was a wrestler. He was a parent. And in being that, he was a hero.
God bless him, and may I be that too.