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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.