Aging Not so Gracefully
I’m digging my toes into the sand, feeling the breeze getting cooler as the sun begins to set. Goose bumps form on my bare body and I reach for my t-shirt in the multicolored beach bag. I shake the sand off of my gray t-shirt and pull it over my fading yellow bikini. I stare out at the distant horizon and listen to the soothing crashing of the waves as the breeze blows strands of salty hair across my face. I can tell I have been here for hours by the receding tide that was once nearly pulling my flip-flops out to sea, and by the long, slow arc the sun has made across the sky. Removing myself from my reverie, I turn around and look up the stretch of white sand toward the dunes and down the path that leads to the street. I scan the silhouettes of the distant figures for the limping walk of my grandmother, but don’t see her. My dad emerges from the water, grabs the pale orange beach towel, and dries his salt and pepper hair vigorously.
“Any sign of them?” he asks.
“No, Michael said Grandmom took an hour to finish the potato salad,” I replied. My dad had asked Michael to stay behind to help Grandmom get down to the beach.
“Well, she is getting older.”
“Yeah,” I say, thinking about Grandmom struggling to get around and tiring out more than usual. Every summer we come here to visit her, and for the last three years my dad has said Grandmom will have to give up the place soon. Up until this year I have shaken off the idea of parting with the beach themed décor of the condo in Brigantine, New Jersey just a few steps from the beach, not wanting to think about a summer without a visit to the condo and not thinking the day would ever actually come. The whole island is like home to me. I’ve grown up on the white sand of the 39th Street beach. Here I dove through the waves for the first time: my cousin taught me to put both of my arms above my head, take a deep breath, and plunge through the wave and come up on the other side, the cool water cascading down my body in delicious refreshment. Here Michael and I built countless sand castles.
“We need to build a moat!” he would shriek, as a wave got dangerously close to our castle. We dug tirelessly, until the moat began to fill with water. Once our castle was safe and dry, we would add the finishing touch.
“I got a bucket for sand dribbles,” Michael said, carrying a small yellow bucket with water spilling over the edge. We would dig our hands into the bucket of water and sand and let the mixture drip onto the castle and dry almost immediately, creating tiny towers of delicate sand. Then we would sit back and admire our work, wondering if our sandcastle would still be there when we come back tomorrow.
Here I fell in love with the ocean, its ability to put me in a state of pure happiness, its vastness enveloping me and taking me away from the rest of the world. I lose myself here for hours, lost in the serenity of the shore.
“Is that them over there?” My dad is looking back toward the dunes and I’m pulled back to the present.
I turn to look. “Yeah, that’s them.”
My dad goes to meet them halfway between the dunes and the water. They’re slowly making their way toward us, Michael slowing his pace to match Grandmom’s. He’s carrying two beach chairs and stops to readjust his grip. My dad reaches them and takes the bag that Grandmom had been carrying. After a few minutes I hear my grandmom’s sing-songy voice behind me.
“Oh, what a lovely day, this is my favorite time to be on the beach. Thank goodness I’ve finally made it down here, I’m very tired.” Her black hair is windblown and fading to a brown since it hasn’t been dyed in awhile and her purple-rimmed sunglasses sit slightly crooked on her face. Her white cotton pants are printed with beachy designs of seashells and ripple in the breeze. My dad unfolds a chair for her,
“Here, Mom, why don’t you sit down?”
“Okay, that would be lovely,” she begins to turn herself around but loses her footing on the downward slope of the sand and tumbles down face first. For a moment there’s a freeze in time where none of us are fully aware of what just happened. Michael and I look at each other in disbelief, knowing that right now would be a really bad time to laugh. My dad is the first one to snap out of it, bending down to help her up. I hesitantly move to her other side and we lift her up with a hand under each arm and the other holding her hand while Michael stands awkwardly not knowing how to help.
My dad sees Michael looking lost and says, “Michael, why don’t you hold the chair steady for your grandmom.” He holds the back of the chair as we lower her into her seat. We’re all holding our breath, not yet sure what to say or what she will say, and then she starts laughing. Her face is covered in sand from the fall, and she’s laughing. We laugh with her hesitantly, unsure of how to react. “Mom, there’s some sand on your face,” my dad tells her.
“Oh my, there is sand on my face, isn’t there?” She laughs again and pulls a paper towel and a water bottle out of her beach bag and begins dabbing at her face with the wet paper towel. The wet paper towel only makes the sand stick to her face even more, but she doesn’t realize and continues to dab her face. I’ve never seen her so disheveled and helpless before this visit. I start to wonder what will become of the condo, which family member will take on the responsibility, or what type of people will inhabit it next. I wonder if they will rinse the seashells they find at the beach in the sink with bleach so they don’t smell, like Grandmom showed us when we were kids. Before her hip surgery, she would take us on walks down the beach, where the water meets the sand and leaves shells washed up on the shore, like treasures waiting to be found. We would make our way down the beach slowly, stopping to pick up and examine each shell that caught our eye. She would tell us the name of each shell that we picked up.
“That one you have there, Michael, is a razor shell,” she said, pointing to a long, thin, slightly curved, sand colored shell.
“What’s this one, Grandmom?” I asked, holding a black rounded shell, perfectly intact, with ridges radiating out from the bottom.
“That’s a scallop shell, my favorite. Look how beautiful this one is, what a good find.”
She explained how some of the clamshells have tiny holes in them from the seagulls using their beaks to eat the flesh of an unfortunate clam. She called the pieces of shells with a million tiny holes in them moon rocks, because they looked like the cratered surface of the moon. We would collect shells until we all had full hands and then we would rinse off the extra sand in the ocean. When we returned to the condo, Grandmom would be sure not to let us play with the shells right away. She showed us how to fill the bathroom sink with warm water and add a splash of bleach. She put our shells in the sink and let them soak for ten minutes.
“You have to be patient,” she would say. “You don’t want smelly shells, do you?”
While waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Michael and I would get distracted with other games, like mischievously feeding the seagulls. We would steal a piece of bread from the cupboard when no one was looking and run outside on to the balcony, giggling. We would tear the soft bread into seagull bite sized pieces and throw one over the railing onto the black pavement of the parking lot below. For a few seconds the lone piece of bread would sit on the pavement, waiting for a seagull to notice it. It wouldn’t take long for one to swoop down and devour it, then more would join as we threw more pieces over the railing until a whole flock would be squawking for more. Our fun would last until the piece of bread was gone or someone told us to stop, whichever came first.
After our slow trek walking Grandmom off of the beach after her fall, I’ve showered off the saltiness in my hair and skin and put on some dark skinny jeans and sandals and a flowy white tank top for dinner. I walk into the living room and see her sitting on the blue striped couch with nautical accent pillows, waiting for us to be showered and ready. She’s treating us to dinner at our regular spot, Andre’s. My dad still reminisces about the days when it was the Pizza Palace and all they served was pizza and hoagies for takeout. Now, Andre runs an overpriced Italian sit-down restaurant.
“Oh, hello, Anne. Won’t you be chilly in that top? You’d better take a sweater. Look at these old pictures I found.” She hands me an envelope and I take out the first picture, of Michael and I with our grandad sitting at the table eating ice cream. I look about seven years old, my short hair and bangs wild and blond from sunny days on the beach. I’m wearing a pink Minnie Mouse t-shirt from that year’s trip to Disney World. I’m gripping an ice cream cone and grinning widely with ice cream dripping down my face. Michael is about four years old, dark hair and big dark eyes, he’s focusing intently on his ice cream cone instead of the camera. My grandad is looking at Michael’s ice cream cone too, gesturing as if he’s in the middle of saying something. Maybe telling Michael to lick his ice cream before it drips.
In ten years my brother’s chubby innocent hands holding the ice cream cone would grow and elongate, and one day take a blade to his own arm and cut over and over again. Slashing away the frustration and confusion. He would be careful to slip away to the bathroom without us noticing, careful to not let any blood drip onto the counter and hide the tissues he used to stop the bleeding. He would hide the cuts by wearing long sleeves in all seasons, even on the beach. One day it would be just us on the beach, and he would take off his long sleeves when I ask him if he wants to go for a walk. He would try to hold his left arm close to his body, but I would already know. He would forget, and reach down to pick up a seashell, revealing the deepest cut he’s made, so deep that the healing skin is bumpy and raised. I would be crushed inside, defeated. I would ask when he did it, why he did it, if he’s okay. He would shy away, back into his shell, close back up, tell me he’s okay. I wouldn’t ask any more questions, I would try to coax the smiling, laughing boy back out of his shell. I would look down at my feet squishing into the wet sand as I walk and wonder what happened to the little boy with the chubby hands.
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