They call it the shoulder season: that time in September when the rental houses are cleaned up and closed out, when the striped tents disappear from the sand, when the gate to the pier creaks on it hinges. The sky still shines blue, the ocean water still laps warm. But the little kids who once hopped like sand fleas across the beach are gone, safely back in school, hunched over desks, pencils in hand. The little tykes no longer dream of ocean waves, they’ve abandoned seashells for the latest cute guy. Their absence leaves to us the empty beach.
In the shoulder season, restaurants curl their awnings, the beach museum closes its doors. Only children, the museum believes, want to gape at shark’s teeth; only kids want to learn how the tide flows as fall appears. Only those who must strain to peep over the counter covet whale-shaped erasers, only babies cry for sand-filled octopi. They rule the world, these kids. So the museum locks its doors against our pressing adult noses. Inside, the demonstration tide churns in Plexiglas silence.
With the children gone, the arcade pinballs chime desultory, no one to punch their buttons. But the seagulls cry, the waves crash, the sea oats rattle in the breeze.
Before us, the beach stretches pristine: no young surfer boys lurk like wet-backed seals beneath the pier; no young girls stroll three together, heads bent, bare feet in lock-step; no fat-bottomed babies plop their diapered behinds onto the sand. No snuffling, over-eager dogs lick our legs, traveling to more interesting parts, making nuisances of themselves.
We have the beach to ourselves.
Do you miss them?
No spurting of covetous tears for neon Noodles or blue Boogie Boards or green flip-flops with black and yellow bees buzzing on the toes. No whining, no wheedling, no holding up the line while, for God’s sakes, pick one!
Do you miss them?
No naked jiggling bellies, no loud pumping boom-boxes, no motorcycles revving too heavy for skinny adolescent arms but, cool!—she looked!
Old ladies in skirted swimsuits, black.
Old men selecting seashells, dropping them.
It is the shoulder season. Press your shoulder against the salty air, see if you can halt the heavy thud of time. For even one minute, see can you push it back—unyielding, obdurate time.
Loneliness, what have you done with our luxurious solitude?
Obnoxious death. You know you’ll win in the end and yet you cannot wait, you worm your way into These Best of Times.
The tide rises, washing away that which once was and will never be again, not on your watch.
The season ebbs, recedes.
We were many. An overflowing, summer-stuffed, unpracticed group. Even those of us who weren’t novice train-goers were intimidated by the crowd, made nervous by the excess: would I really have a seat?
He was kind, the conductor who did not view his job as an opportunity to inflict minor cruelty on those more ignorant—and dependent—than he. As we anxiously asked about proper tickets and checking luggage and trying to line up in the correct place so we’d be out of the way of his tram, he re-assured us, “You’re doing it right. You did a good job.”
“He’s always here, always like that,” a sister traveler said when I noted the man’s kindness.
A miracle, I thought, when it could have so easily gone a different way.
I knew I wanted a coffee, but when I stalled on what to eat, the patient cafe attendant offered a list of appropriate breakfast food. As my bagel warmed in the microwave, he asked, “Are you okay? You seem sad.”
“I am,” I said, tearing up: I am fine until someone is nice to me.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he replied.
Later, when I’d done some good work on my writing and watched the trees whiz by the train window in an arc of green, I returned to the clerk to ask for a “regular Pepsi.”
“How is your trip going?” he asked.
“Better,” I said.
“I can tell,” he replied. “It shows in your face.”
Much improved, this time I did not cry.
I have never been an adherent to the “angels in your path” theory. People are just people. But those working on the train today were kind people. And that may be all angels are.
Exiting the Office Depot, I saw a sign: “Now Hiring Smiling, Friendly People.”
I wondered if I would pass the “Smiling, Friendly” test.
I debated this on my way to the car. Talking out loud, to myself.
“You flunk!” my examiner shouted. “Smiling, friendly people don’t talk to themselves. They have people who listen to them. People who like them, people who call them friends. Because they are . . . smiling and friendly. Ergo, you, talking to yourself in our trash-strewn parking lot, cannot be smiling and friendly. Next!”
I could not argue with his logic, specious though it might be. I did not feel smiling and friendly. I felt bereft.
Ten days ago, my daddy died. If you’ve been wondering what happened to this blog and the rollout of stories, there’s your answer. Facebook has been wondering. “Your posts are down! Your reach is down! Your comments are down!” their emails scold me.
Well, I am down. Blue. Sad. Not feeling smiling and friendly.
Next week, I hope to return to my enthusiasm. In the meantime, listen to some of the old stories. Catch up on what’s already out there. Or go chastise the Office Depot for being so upbeat or Facebook for its lack of understanding. Take on the relentlessly happy and ask them for a smidgen of space for grief.
Recently, I have had two distinctive events in my life: the death of my dad and the birth of my second grand baby. These events are distinctive in the sense of momentous and thus distinguished from my otherwise normal life. They are also distinctive in the sense of distinct: they have nothing to do with one another.
In their comments to me, folks keep wanting to conflate the two: yes, your dad died; but you have a new grandchild. I have to assume they offer this comfort because it works for them. For me, the substitution of one thing for a lost thing is the proverbial paved road to perdition.
I know the dangers of this path because I’ve tried to follow it. When I was three years old, my first dad, the one I called Daddy Joe, died suddenly and traumatically. Twenty years later—after a lifetime of being assured I was too young to remember my dad and thus wasn’t scarred by his death—I married a man who looked uncannily like Daddy Joe. It did not work out well.
Grief must be dealt with or, sooner or later, grief will drift downstream and like a sea serpent raise its scaly head when you are least expecting it. Substitution is not dealing with grief. It’s flailing around in the grip of grief, trying to extricate yourself, grasping for something that will make the loss go away.
You can’t make the loss go away. The thing you love is gone. Gone. Gone.
Not only will substitution really mess up your decision-making, trying to wedge someone into the role of stand-in is unfair. You are asking the new person to fill a hole that isn’t shaped like him or her. That won’t work, either.
Perhaps folks who pair the baby and my dad are using shorthand to tell me that, though I have grief in my life, I have happiness as well. I can’t tell you how strongly I agree with that statement. But the baby doesn’t make the loss of my dad okay. Losing my dad is not okay. It wasn’t way back when and it sure as hell isn’t now. And although I am beginning to believe in a nonreligious but purely scientific/physics way that a much bigger schema is in place than “Life” and “Death,” I must wait until I too get dead to actually understand it. In the meantime, the physical thing I loved is no longer physical, and regardless of the ways in which the dead re-present—visions, dreams, memories—the physical loss is what it is.
And the baby is what he is too: a doubling of the incredible joy I feel for my first grand baby, which is nearly unimaginable. Surely that’s good enough to stand on its own.
You can talk all you want about how “sweet” my daddy was. And he was sweet, particularly at the end of his life when he tromped through the brambles of dying without letting erupt anger, complaint, or self-pity. In fact, he did the opposite, insisting always that he was doing great, feeling great, just glad as all get-out to be here.
But you need to remember: when we were three girls growing up, whenever we opened our bird-mouths and chirped complaints about this, that and the other thing, his stock response was: “Life is tough all over.” To this pronouncement there was no, “Yeah, but.” Life is the way it is. Get used to it. Move on.
So when I see Daddy in my mind’s eye fighting to get his arm to bend the right way so it will go into the dang pajama sleeve. Or holding onto the sitter’s hand for an extra long moment so he can steady himself before trying to take his first step. Or grimacing at the pain he cannot identify, much less do anything about. When I ponder the courage he showed in his absolute conviction of happiness even when many of us would say life had decreased to the point it just down-right sucked, I understand.
Daddy was not being patient or kind or even sweet. He was living out what he’d always believed: if you’ve got a roof over your head and a family that loves you and food you can count on arriving on your plate, you have no right to complain. None.
“Life is tough all over” wasn’t something Daddy said just to shut up teenage girls. It was a jumping off point: life is tough, understand that, get over it. Now what are you going to do? Who are you going to be?
For me, Daddy answered that question: I am going to be someone who teaches my grown daughter the proper way to exit this world, with light-heartedness, happiness, and joy at the life I’ve been given the chance to live.
When I was young, I loathed the publication of grief. I hated the wail of ambulances, screaming death through the streets. Even more, I detested the sight of the black crawling hearse, dragging all of us unwillingly into the otherwise-private funeral procession.
I’ve mellowed in those opinions, which I held very strongly, very vocally. But it occurred to me yesterday that daddy died peacefully at home, no ambulance necessary. His resting place will be an urn, no need for a casket. We’ll drive the urn to Chapel Hill, no hearse-led death parade. We will inter him ourselves with a shovel, no need for the sordid green tent and folding chairs.
I know Daddy did not take into account my peculiarities when deciding his funeral. Still, I appreciate it. love you, Daddy.
The sea burbled in, and the child followed the shells strew on the sand like sparkling coins. Her head full of stories of wrecked pirate ships, she skipped after the seagull feather blown in the breeze and gathered shells willy-nilly, scooping and shaking and stacking in her palm, until she spied the white shells.
Soft white puffed shells, like the divinity candy her grandmother made. One after another. She threw away her finds, freeing her palm for the glistening white clouds on the beach wet with waves smooth to the touch, beautiful.
When they noticed her gone, all they could find was a trail of white shells leading to the sea. Believing her lost, they wept, never turning to the water to see where she rode the waves and, with each breath of the ocean, her laughter burbled white.
“You can’t find anything good on the beach these days. They’re out at five o’clock with flashlights, getting all the good shells.”
The Coastal Carolina Museum Shell Lady
“Do you want to pet the starfish?” the young woman at the museum’s petting exhibit asked.
She did not tell me the exhibit was for kids. She did not ask me to push away from the rail. She made room for my curiosity. She showed me the starfish’s mouth, and its eyes. She said, “It’s softer than it looks.” She let me hold the star fish until it curled its spiny arms around my fingers. When she was finished, she said:
“Would you like to hold the sea urchin?”
The old woman seated at the seashell table crooned like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, enticing everyone who walked past. “Do you pick up shells on the beach? Do you want to see the shells?”
She showed me the oyster drill, a tiny bit of animal responsible for the perfectly round holes you find in shells from time to time. Drilled, it turns out, so the insides can be sucked and eaten. Murder. The holes make it perfect for stringing shells on fishing wire, though.
“Oh, look! Look at that!” the woman exclaims in a too-highly pitched voice. I can tell she’s a grandmother, working hard to make the world seem exciting for her grandchild.
Here among the sharks’ teeth and whooshing tides and cottonmouths poised to strike and woven birds’ nests full of speckled eggs and star fish waiting to be petted—she feels she must gin up enthusiasm for the wonder of this earth.
One by one, the family departs. First the young couple who must return to our nation’s capitol to meet their grown-up job responsibilities. A weekend they’re given, but their excitement at life allows no room for regret.
We have a few precious days without leave-taking before my mother and Elli pull from the driveway. They are returning to check on my dad who brought us to Ocean Isle Beach when we were too young to know a tradition was underway. For the first year since that beginning—1971? 1972? we debate amongst ourselves—Daddy is not here, too ill to make the trip. Standing on the hot concrete, Hannah, Marcee and I lift our arms like Mother always does, in greeting to the newcomers, in waving good-bye to the departing.
When Tom bundles Cory and Meg into the Camero, headed for the airport, I cannot go. With not enough room for me and the luggage, I lose out. Instead, we three remainders hop from diner to diner, seeking a place still serving breakfast. As I order my cat-head biscuit, I feel again their arms around me. Tom’s son, his girlfriend, gracious “first-timers” who joined us for this our annual trip to the beach before thanking all for being included and hugging goodbye and leaving.
In the quiet, we watch a video Elli sent of Daddy with his favorite caretaker. We wash the sandy beach towels as we prepare for our own leave-taking. Before that happens, we sit on the porch and watch the blue beach umbrellas flap in the wind. The white-headed waves roll into shore, and we remember those who were with us this week, in body, in spirit. I try not to cry. It is so quiet.
Mother should be grateful for an attentive son, but she’s glowering at me, her pug nose crinkled as if I’ve spilled sticky pickle juice on her kitchen counter. Mother no longer owns a kitchen counter, and I no longer am a child with clumsy mitts attempting to fix a pickle and cheese sandwich. Mother now lives in this lovely retirement home where the management conducts Happy Hour every Monday and Thursday at 4:30, cover charge $1.00, all the drinks you can down for free.
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