The Shore

This is a short story I wrote about 18 years ago, the only one I’ve ever written, that is really nonfiction in disguise.  My dad had moved on in his second marriage some 20 years earlier, and I had no beefs with that, we were all grown, but twinsie and I had been very close to him, so this sudden break just made us believe that he’d not only divorced our mom, but had also divorced us.  And without having a true conversation with him about it, this brought a sense of pain and abandonment, like he’d forgotten about his former life, and all of us.

At the same time I wrote this, my best friend’s dad was dying from colon cancer and was only in his mid 50s.  She had moved to Phoenix, and he and her mom had followed.  We had long phone calls about her father’s suffering, but mostly about the tears that wouldn’t stop after he’d had chemo, and how she daubed them for her dad.  I sorrowed so deeply  for my friend.  I went and visited her with twinsie, and I could see his dying in her eyes.  It broke my heart for her.

Soon after he passed away and she asked me to write his eulogy, this story came to me, intertwining the stories, and releasing much of the pain I had for my friend, and the loss I felt for my father.

Ironically, since I’m no fiction writer true, at the urging of my writing friends, I submitted this and won second prize in a Hemingway competition celebrating the writer’s would-be 100th birthday. And that is stranger than fiction.  

So, I give you, then:

The Shore.

The sun felt warm on this spring day on the Jersey Shore. The gulls swooped and cried echoing the sounds of the woman’s heart. Her father’s eyes were pale blue, watered down by infirmity. He couldn’t see. Not the way he used to, for nothing was familiar. They sat in silence, breathing in and out, their shoulders touching in the salty breeze.

Annie glanced at the old man at her side. The ravages of illness had long since robbed him of his dreams and memories. There was only a wise, pleasant man in an old body with milky eyes that stared into the distance as if he searched for the person he once was.

She held his hand and gently pulled on the thin skin mottled with dots from age and sun until it formed a peak. She traced her fingers over the soft, well cared for hands, the nails hard and oval shaped. She carefully lifted each finger and watched them fall back into place.

A woman dressed in a flowered tunic lumbered by, her belly round and swollen, a young boy skipping at her side. “Look, Dad,” Annie said, pointing to the woman. “She looks ready to give birth at any moment!”

The old man squinted, “My wife is expecting too,” he said, a wistful, dreamy look washing across his face.

Annie smiled, sadly. “You’ll make a wonderful father.”

The old man sighed as he watched the mother and son pass by. Then his eyes silently searched the place where the ocean meets the sky. The waves swept rhythmically onto shore washing away the sand like so many yesterdays. Memories and those things familiar were lost in a vast ocean deep and dark. They’d surface occasionally; bobbing and winking like the glint of the sun as they rode the waves back to obscurity.

Annie watched a man in a gray business suit as he shuffled his feet along in the sand, his briefcase dangling from one hand, his shoes, and socks from the other. His trousers were rolled up to show smooth, youthful calves.

She let go her father’s hand and leaned her elbows on her knees. Sadness welled inside her so deep it filled her, pushing everything good aside. She wanted to cry, finally. But was afraid that if she started she’d never stop. Like Lizzie’s tears.

Lizzie. Her best friend. The cancer was bad enough, but the chemo caused her long, auburn hair to fall out leaving a smooth, shiny cap of skin. She got so sick she wondered which was worse, the cancer or the treatment? Her eyes watered constantly. Lizzie didn’t mind the baldness so much, the nausea and vomiting ceased after a time, but the tears were too much for her. It was as if her body wept at its inability to protect her from the beast that raged within. Even when Lizzie smiled her body wept in defeat.

When Lizzie became too weak to daub her eyes, Annie did it for her. Finally, the tears ceased at the moment Lizzie’s breath slipped away in a sigh.

“Daddy,” Annie whispered into the wind. “Do you remember Lizzie? She died last week. She just closed her eyes and fell asleep.”

“Look!” her father said, startling her and pointing to a little girl with dark hair making a castle in the sand. “That’s my daughter Annie.”

Annie watched the child as she dug into the sand with a yellow, plastic shovel. The wind fingered the child’s hair, while the sun bathed it in golden light.

“She’s like sunshine in the winter,” her father murmured, his eyes glistening with vitality. “In my dreams I’ve walked her down the aisle, lifted her veil and kissed her goodbye. I’ve held her babies in my arms and smoked cigars with her husband. I’ve heard her laugh a thousand times in my dreams. Just to know her is reason enough for living.”

He chuckled softly, shaking his head. Annie felt her sadness well in her eyes and slip silently from her soul. They sat there quietly, daughter and father, one in the present, the other in the past.

She glanced up and sighed as the orderly approached, “Hey, Harry,” he said. “It’s time for your therapy.”

Annie’s father slowly stood. He took her hand in his and said, “Thanks for keeping an old man company.”

“My pleasure,” Annie replied, reaching up and kissing her father’s smooth cheek. She watched as he took the orderly’s arm and began to walk away. She noticed his shoulders listed to the right just a bit, and his legs didn’t quite straighten all the way, but he was still in fine shape.

Suddenly, he turned to her, his eyes engaging her own for the first time that day. “That friend of yours who died. Would your life have been better if you hadn’t known her at all, sparing you all this sadness?”

Annie shook her head slowly. “No,” she replied, and they gazed at one another for a moment. Annie smiled and said, “You know, that’s exactly the type of question my own father would have asked.”

“Ah,” he said, chuckling softly. “Then he was not only a lucky man, but a wise one at that.” And with a wave and a wink he turned and walked away.

 

Perfect Moments

 

IMG_9337 This blog was written in 2000 by the woman lying in the photo above.  She was just 41, and Sammy the Cat loved massaging her arm before bedtime.  I found this essay after my husband successfully transferred my old computer to this one, which would now be considered old by many standards.  It was like opening a time capsule reading all the essays and seeing all the photos.  I’m sure more will show up here on my blog, because even I have noticed my absence.

Perhaps reading this from the me who is 16 years my junior, will bring you a perfect moment, or two.  And if they lead you to look for them in your own life, all the better. 

Yours, Pearly

I’ve had a couple perfect moments today and it’s only nine in the morning. I woke snuggled beneath a fluffy comforter, while a cool breeze and the morning sun spilled in through the open window. Cuddled all around me were our pets–a cat massaging my arm, two dogs curled up in balls, and a kitty purring in my ear. I stretched before joining the day, and thought, This is a perfect moment.

My daughter came in and I watched her face alight with joy as she told me all about the part she’d won in the school play. I smiled as one by one she kissed each pet, and then said, “I don’t want to forget my mama,” and planted a warm kiss on my lips. Another perfect moment.

Life is like that; in its turmoil and speed we must look for our perfect moments. Because the moments fly by to create a day that is filled with the business of parenting, couple-hood, work, and writing. I fall into bed many nights exhausted, my heart, and mind filled with prayers for loved ones, and gratitude. I sleep a deep slumber that quiets the pace of the day, and then wake to start all over again.

I wasn’t always so impassioned in finding perfection in the midst of turmoil.

It is Christmas Day 1978, the blizzard of “79” lies around the corner, but I don’t know it yet. I wake at five and I can almost see my breath in the little apartment that costs me 65 bucks a month and is warmed by an old gas stove. The silver light of a winter sunrise guides me to the halls of Sherman Hospital where I take care of patients too ill to be home with their loved ones. I tuck red carnations in the hair of my female patients, and I whisper greetings in the ears of those who some believe can no longer hear. I gently bathe my patients, rubbing warmed lotion on parched skin. I believe, as I go from room to room singing Christmas carols off key, and I see smiles stretch across yellowed faces, that this is the best Christmas ever.

I’ve found my life’s work here in the rooms of 4-South. Here I can bring joy simply by being. I listen carefully to my patients’ needs, and I gently hold the sick in healthy, young arms till the pain or nausea subsides. This time will end in ten short years, and I will wonder before I’m thirty what I will do next only to have Sherman provide yet another opportunity. But today, I don’t know that, I feel the world is at my feet, and I have found my place in it.

Later that night, in my sister’s house my family gathers for a Christmas Celebration. My parents are here; the jagged edge of divorce has not yet split them. My nephews crow with delight at the pile of gifts beneath the sparkling tree. I rush to the door as my brother and his family arrive. I gather his two year-old daughter in my arms and watch as my brother, ten years wiser than me, stomps his feet and shakes the cold from his body. My heart is full.

I say to my brother, “Isn’t Christmas just wonderful? I’m so happy today. Are you happy?”

“I’m happy, Bonnie,” he says, but I’m not convinced.

“Totally happy?” I ask.

“Bonnie,” he sighs, “ There is no such thing as total happiness, there will always be a bill to pay, a sick child or unrest in the world. That’s just the way life is.” He kisses my cheek and joins the rest of the family with his little girl.

I stand there as the chill of the winter air slips through the open door. His truth weighs heavily on my heart.

It’s June 1990. I lie in bed. Snuggled in my arms is my little daughter, just three. She’s warm, and I watch as her pink lips make a suckling movement in her sleep. I listen to my husband shower across the hall in our little brick house on Oakley Avenue. The sun shines through the leaves of the massive oaks outside my window creating dancing shadows on the blinds. The heaviness is in my heart again. It lingers there burning the sweet slumber away. I wonder how many mornings I’ve woken with the sadness that permeates my soul. Months? Years? I’ve lost track. Can’t remember when it began, or why.

The world is a scary place. God allows horrible things to happen. I’m visited by the spirits of patients whose deaths none of us had time to mourn as we walked from room to room, the smell of death in each. There are evils that await my children, and I am helpless to stop them. Marriages fail. This is life, I tell myself. It can’t be perfect.

I quickly close my eyes as my husband creeps in and gently presses a kiss on my lips and then our daughter’s. I wait till the door snaps shut before I open them again. My son arrives at my side and slips into the bed next to his sister and me. His brown curly head lies next to mine. Sleepy eyelids shutter hazel eyes.

I live in a house I love, have two children I adore, work in a job that fascinates me, and yet I am so lonely. Time for a change I say. And I know it’s true. When my husband walks back through the door after a morning of golf, the children and I walk out, bags packed, and I tell him it’s over. The little gold band I’d worn on my finger for nine years rolls on the hardwood floor till it settles beneath the couch, and the door clicks shut behind me.

“What brings you here?” Bill the counselor asks.

“My wife doesn’t love me anymore, “ my husbands says, his voice sad and heavy.

Bill looks at me. I say simply, “I cannot drive by a squirrel lying dead in the street without tearing up. Yet, here my husband is in so much pain, pain caused by me, and I feel nothing.”

We start small. We decide that every night I will soak in the bathtub undisturbed. I wonder how much good that will do, such a simple thing. But big solutions come from simple ideas.

Six months later we walk out of Bill’s office after our final visit. Thanksgiving is two days away. We have much to be thankful for as we drive home eager for a few minutes alone before gathering our children to celebrate the dawn of a new marriage. And then it happens. We sit around the supper table, we listen to our son tell first grade stories, the house is warm while the winter air rattles the windows, and I realize that I’m having a perfect moment. In the midst of bills to be paid, work to be done, people dying, worldwide unrest, I have a perfect moment of peace.

Total happiness can be achieved, one sweet moment at a time.

In this imperfect life we must find the perfect moments. I admit, I’m not always so keen on finding them, but then when the rush of life pushes me into the dark corner of sadness, fear, or grief, I look for them, and they renew me.

Perfect moments are easy to find on the shore of the Pacific in the glory of a California sunset. They are easy to find when I lie back in the inky water of Lake Michigan and stare at a moonless sky. They are effortless when there’s money in the bank, food on the table, when our bodies are healthy, and the writing comes easy.

They are abundant in the company of good friends and family. I see them golden as the sun in the eyes of my twin, and feel them in the arms of my loving husband. They are a joy to hear in the voice of my daughter, and the laughter of my son. They are comforting in the quiet of a church sanctuary where the solace of faith is strong.

They are harder to find in the sadness of a dying parent who sleeps five feet from our bedroom door and whose care now falls on our shoulders.

It’s tough to find them when the coveted role in the school play was won by another child, and in the unrest of our son’s burgeoning independence. It’s not so easy when the car won’t start; my husband has had a rotten day, or when the postbox offers up yet another rejection. But when we seek them out, because they are there, those perfect moments, that’s when they are the most satisfying. In those moments there is peace. Complete and total happiness.

July 2000. A gentle breeze fluffs my brother’s graying hair as we sit in the gazebo. I look at his handsome face and see the lines that crinkle wizened eyes. I sigh as I listen to his theory of science versus faith, and smile. He will try to convince me still of the doom that lies at my “unknowing” feet, and I will continue to try and convince him of the perfect moments life has to offer, while living with all the things he fears. And when he finishes, and the debate is over, I will have my perfect moment once again