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And Your Untouchable Face

It’s been three months.

This week has passed in a slow, melded blur. I’ve been by turns anxious and listless; my soul has the shakes, and I feel it in my joints. My hands hurt more these days, the middle knuckles starting to stick again. 

This is the third time I’ve tried to write this post. I haven’t been writing daily. My carefully crafted schedule has gone to crap. I’ve been keeping up with some things; daily yoga practice, drinking enough water. Mostly I just feel aimless. 

So, at the urging of a couple of lovely friends, I got out of the house and came to the beach. It’s not storming today, but rain is moving in. The clouds are rolling overhead, thick and heavy as they slowly edge out the blue. The dry seagrass moves gently in the cold breeze, marsh sparrows darting in and out of their quiet rattle. There is no snow on the beach. The sand isn’t even frozen; it gives softly under my boots, leaving dents instead of footprints until I approach the water’s edge. 

The tide is out, the ocean receded about as far as she goes here. I remember how much you wanted to be there for low tide to look for shells, and how excited you were to find the times of the tides were published. I brought your camera. I finally adjust the strap to fit me and sling it over my shoulder. I start walking, tracing the path we always took. 

I have never walked this beach this slow. I remember how impatient I could get with you, here, in your favorite place on earth. Most times we came here, it was winter. I was always dressed for a walk, but not a walk with you on the windy beach when there was so much to stop and look at. I don’t know why I insisted I’d be fine without gloves, or scarf, or whatever I had been missing. I knew what a walk at the beach entailed with you; I knew it could be hours before I sat back in the car. 

I’m sorry I hurried you. I’m sorry I didn’t prepare better, and my hands got cold. I’m sorry that it became annoyance, that I didn’t want to bend over to pick up shells anymore, that I didn’t want to take your picture another sixteen times only for you not like any of them. 

I never thought I’d walk this beach alone, but here I am. I’m dressed warm enough. I’m not being yanked along by Ella, or worried about the tiny baby strapped against my chest. I’m not impatient or hungry or cold or annoyed, and that just makes me remember all the times we were here when I was. I stand for a bit, the air cold enough on the soft breeze to bite at my cheeks, eyes squinted behind my sunglasses against the glaring light of the pastel winter seascape. 

I brought a bag this time. I actually found one in the car, like I always thought I would. I start walking, eyes downcast, stopping every few feet. I reach and turn over shells, picking them up like I’ll find you underneath, and have only half a moment to grab you before you disappear again. Maybe I’m searching for you here because it feels like a graveyard. The storm this week left the last vestments of sea creatures littering the sand in thick lines where the waves pushed them up. Among the pinks of the limpets, the rainbow of scallops and smooth white of clams lay the jagged shells of horseshoe crabs, ranging in size from my palm to our dinner plates. I find more spirals, broken homes of conches and who-knows-what-else, than I think I’ve ever seen before. I collect at random, filling my bag with the remnants we are drawn to. I stop here and there along my slow walk to pay respects at little altars to unknown deities; a dance of gull feathers stood up in the sand, curved mosaics of pure white shells. I find pieces of glass worn by the sea, and these I slide into the pocket of my jeans to come home with me. 

I search for every shell you ever dropped, every piece I didn’t want to pick up. I criss-cross the sand, from the tide line to the surf. The water foams up to my boots, and I remember your wild giggle as the sea would catch you in your excitement. I think of the starfish parable, and remember how you would toss  any object back into the sea if it was home to something living still. You made a difference to that one, and that one, and that one…

I reach the end of the jetty and start up the dune path; it’s an easier climb that I remember. Of course, the last time I came I had Lucy strapped to my chest, adding all of seven pounds. I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding when I reached the top. The tree still stood. 

We had picked out this tree for Oscar that first time we stayed after he was born, even knowing that it would one day be taken by the sea. The squat pitch pine stands about ten feet tall and just as wide, branches heavy with thick needles and tight cones in clusters. He is not buried here, but he is here, in this wild place where he can see the water and the land, feel the wind and the spray of the sea. Two years ago, we hung a small wooden fish ornament that we wrote his name and birthday on. It wasn’t always on a branch, but we have found it every time we came to see. I search her boughs and under her canopy, gently but thoroughly. It makes sense that this is the first time that I cannot find it. We had purposefully picked out the wood and jute rendering, knowing that sooner or later it would be returned to the natural world. I feel more peace than sorrow at the loss. I kneel on the carpet of her fallen leaves and press my face to the earth for a moment. You are ever here, and ever loved. 

I stand, feeling a flutter on the back of my neck. I ask you out loud if you are waiting for me here. It’s the first I’ve spoken this whole walk. For a moment, I feel you in the breeze, but then you are gone again. 

I don’t get any more of an answer than that, and I don’t understand the translation.

I make my way out of the dune and approach the water at the inlet. Foot and pawprints mar the sand in every direction; there’s a unmarked patch, maybe four feet by four feet, that is untouched. I take the horseshoe crab tail out of the bag and draw a large heart taht ends up a little wonky. It will be washed away with the next high tide, but that’s alright. I kneel and set out piece after piece, shell after shell, sea garbage after beach debris. Seaweed that looks like stacks of coins on a string, scallops and clams, mussels and conches; thick pieces, broken pieces, pockmarked and scarred pieces. I add the delicate leftovers of crabs, pine cones from the tree, a piece of waterlogged cedar shingle. I write Oscar’s name and his date, then yours, and your dates. You always wanted me to write RIP,  but I thought it was tacky and too much like a Halloween decoration, so I never did. Instead, I write “forever in my heart,” for you both are. I take some pictures, take some time, then turn to walk toward the car, still slower that I ever had before. 

I’m wrestling with your absence, and everything you left behind. I miss you so much, and most days I’m still pissed. I tell you almost every night that I’m still mad and I’m not talking to you. I did last night, and probably will tonight. I’m angry that you aren’t there when I lay down, when I wake up. My heart hurts because you had the audacity to die on me. You’re missing out on so much, and I’m missing you unbelievably. I’d give anything to argue with you about if we should come here for Christmas or not, or to feel your cold-ass feet sliding up my legs again. I wish I could take you to the beach, and I’d dress warm enough. I’d bring a dozen buckets and scoop up every shell you pointed out. 

I’m sorry, and I’m angry, and I miss you. 

I’ll see you on our road, and I’ll meet you one day at the tree in the dunes. 

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You Might be Surprised How Far She’ll Get With Her Feet on the Ground

It’s been five days since I arrived at the Cape, and I am just now getting to the beach. It has been nearly 60 every day, with plenty of sun and some Oscar blue skies; now, it is storming. Gale force winds are tearing whitecaps from the waves as they break. The storm rolling in, shaking the trees in the yard inland, told me it was time. Now I stare at the sea and remember the mountains.

The days are passing; time marches on. I am in limbo. The house is packed and ready, waiting for my final arrival at the steps of the Estrogen Triangle. According to the landlady, men have not had luck in that corner of our winding country road; some tragedy or serious legal matter always befalls them. I’ve wondered, more than once, if that was part of Hawthorne’s bad luck there. They had said the house felt cursed before, when we lost our son before he was even born. I didn’t believe them – I might be starting to. 

There is a wrenching deep in my chest, as if a giant, mechanized hand is trying to gently grip my heart and massage it back to life, but cannot determine the pressure of its own welded fingers and joints. It is a deep and bruising twisting that never unwinds. 

It is not only anger anymore. Rage is the stalk that anguish winds around, sinuously reaching and spiraling around to join in a longtime lover’s embrace with grief. She holds me as a morning glory clings to a climbing fence, delicate tendrils coiled with surprising strength and no desire to release. The trumpeting blooms distract the eye, hiding secrets and stories themselves.

Several weeks after Oscar died, Hawthorne and I were down here on the Cape. My cousins were out of town and we were house sitting, taking space for our broken hearts in the salty air between the seagulls and the tourists. We joined them one evening and took a sunset whale watch. I insisted on having our Jack and Rose moment; after that, Hawthorne kept back from the rail, more than a little scared of heights and being tossed into the ocean by the waves and wake; that is, until distant plumes pulled them forward by their excitement. 

I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember the colors of the evening slowly spreading, and the spray of the sea as the vessel sliced through the waves. It was sometime in that changing sky that my heart, defying its own weeping wounds, decided that it was not finished. Oscar had died before having a chance to do anything other than know love and joy and freeze pops; well, we would just live for him. Not exist, not go on, not let time pass by; I was going to live. I sent that promise to the sea and the stars as they began to sparkle in the deepening sky, and I’ve kept it. Mostly. 

I had forgotten about that moment these last months. A good friend, adept at zeroing in with blunt words and a compassionate heart, reminded me. She asked if I was at that turning point yet, if I had decided that I was going to live. She wasn’t asking about suicidality or the extent of depression, or how close I felt to giving up. What she was asking was if I was ready to determine my path forward, both for myself, and for how to remember Hawthorne. 

At that point, all I could do was shake my head; very effective method of communication over text message, I know. This loss was different; this one made a horrible kind of sense, like there was almost a shrug under the blanket of shock. Hawthorne had been in such pain, and all who knew them knew that. There was the relief that they were no longer suffering; no longer so anxious, no longer so hurt. With Oscar, there was none of that sense of ‘grelief,’ as it was coined by another friend’s therapist. Though it is baffling to say, Oscar’s death was a simpler affair, maybe from the sheer difference between the length of their two lives, though both were cut short far too soon. 

With Hawthorne’s death, there is so much more to process, so many more memories to sift through. Photographs of them throughout their life; from professional family photos from the church and candids from Easter and Christmas to angsty black-and-white prints from disposable cameras that smelled like cigarette smoke. There are fights and unfinished arguments to work through, and I’m left standing the winner by default, rounds denied by a too-early TKO. There are moments they are missing now; Lucy’s screeching and hilarious antics, Ella getting stuck in the yard, so many memes. I mourn for each and every one. 

With Oscar, it is as if I am allowed to simply miss him and love him, grieve for him and, in one all-encompassing package, the dreams that died with him. With Hawthorne… it’s a damn sight more work. 

I’ve never shied away from work. I tend to overfill my plate and empty my cup before I realize that even I am mortal, and cannot harness every minute of every day. I am the person who, were I to ask for broader shoulders, I would expect an even heavier load to carry; so either I do not ask or I prepare myself. I’m not afraid of working hard. 

I am reading Rachel Hollis’ new book, Didn’t See That Coming. The title was similar enough to Hawthorne’s catchphrase, “I didn’t think that was gonna happen,” that I grabbed it off the shelf without pausing and tossed it in my cart. I’m not always ready for the truth in the pages; her reminders that the past cannot be remembered correctly through rose-colored glasses are sometimes more gut-punch than love-tap. There is a story she tells about talking with gold star families of Navy SEALS, and a lesson she took from them: “If you’ve had something ripped away, if you’ve been knocked down, get back up. Every time. Wear the identity you earned with pride.”

The turning point has come. 

It’s not exactly an exciting or joyous moment. 

It is the deep breath you take as the roller coaster engages and starts to drag you upward, and you’ve never done this before.

It is getting up from a hard missed tackle, dusting the pitch off your face, and running for the next before you can tell which direction the ball is going.

It is the arch of the diver’s body as they hang suspended between the rise of the board and the precise position of the fall.

It is Karen’s laugh of recognition that grabs you by the throat:

You’re not the first one to start again, come on now friend

There’s something to be said for tenacity

The rain is lashing against the car now, and night has fallen here at the beach. There is no relief in the blackness beyond the headlights, no star or lamp to distinguish between angry sea and raging sky. There is power in that, in the wind that whips through the sawgrass, the rain that falls in sheets across the sands. I feel it within me; the mecha-hand that gripped so hard has retreated for now, at least for long enough to allow the cool rain in to soothe. The storm brings clarity.

I am deciding to live. I need to find a new dream, one for me and Lucy and Ella. I don’t know what that looks like yet. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be comfortable, but I am nothing if not resilient. It is no honor to Hawthorne, a preemptive theft from Lucy, a broken promise to Oscar, and a utter disservice to myself if I continue to exist. Will I have those days still? Sure, and that’s OK. I’ll get back up.

I know what I can say about tenacity, and it will be my roar.