We’re at the Ocean Pines house this week for some fall clean-up after the last rental of the season. It’s beautiful this time of year. The crowds are gone, the weather is still pleasant enough to enjoy the outdoors, and life just moves at a slower pace. No more summer frenzy. As we walked along the boardwalk today, I couldn’t help but think about the family we saw on the beach when we were here in early September.
They had arranged their chairs and umbrellas in a circle, so you couldn’t see what was in the middle. A little girl scampered around, playing in the sand, running in the surf with her dad—just being a kid at the seashore. Parts of her scalp showed through a thinning web of long black hair, and in some places, her hair was completely gone.
The little girl began to chase the seagulls, straying further from where her family was sitting. One of my friends, a daycare director whose wandering child radar kicked in, took her by the hand and led her back to her family. She beamed up at my friend, pointed to the birds, but didn’t say anything.
As we were leaving, they were packing up their chairs and umbrellas. In the sand stood a metal rod that I at first thought was a camera tripod. When I looked more closely I realized that it was an IV pole with an empty plastic bag and tubing hanging from it. The child had been given medication while she was at the beach. That family circled their wagons to surround her and make sure she got what she needed. Whatever it took. Salt air and liquid nourishment. Or liquid poison if it was chemo. Sand buckets and IV bags. Chasing seagulls and chasing cancer. Lord, have mercy.
I keep seeing that IV pole in the sand. I can’t decide if it was a beacon of pain or hope. How does a parent stick a pole in the sand so they can stick a needle in their daughter to keep her alive while she’s playing at the beach? Do you shove it into the sand proudly, fiercely, like planting the flag on the North Pole, saying, damn it, we will conquer despite the odds? Does her family say, “We claim the life of this child as our mission even it means packing bags of medication in amongst the boogie boards and beach towels.”? Did they arrange their chairs in a circle to hide the reality of serious illness from the rest of the vacationers, or did they do it to bring themselves closer to her, to provide her with a canopy of normalcy in what must be a terrifying world for all of them?
I am at the age now when little jolts of illness are starting to spring up among my friends. A cancer diagnosis here. Diabetes and a mild stroke there. Like kids setting off firecrackers on the Fourth of July–snap, pop, an occasional boom. You know to expect it, it’s some distance away, but you’re still startled by the sound. The increasing vulnerability of our bodies comes with the territory. Our warranties have expired and frequent maintenance is essential. It should not come with the territory when you’re three years old. But sometimes it does and if that means bringing chemo to the beach, then that’s what you do.
I wonder what that family thought as they stared out at the ocean. Was the sound of the surf as soothing and relaxing for them as for the rest of us? Or did the constant wash of the tide rolling in and out cause them to think too much about the passage of time? Will we be here again next year? Will all of us be here?
When I was a child, the last day we were at the beach, I would trace the year in the sand, as a sort of good luck omen that I would be back next year. On that day this summer, I wish I would have run down to the water’s edge and written 2017 in the wet sand. A prayer for that little girl.