“Do you want some help?” I ask. I’m watching my three youngest sons haul the cooler along the beach. The older of the three, back turned towards me, is occupied with pulling and declines to answer my offer. His heels are dug into the sand as he stands bent over the object. His slight frame and slender features mask his true physical strength. Both of his hands hold firmly to the same handle on one side of the cooler, and he rhythmically drags the heavy item forward. Each tug begets him not much more than a few inches of progress. His two younger brothers, facing me from the other end of the cooler match his efforts with pushes of equal exertion. In unison, the three boys tug and push and then scramble forward after each heave-ho, meet the cooler in its new position, and repeat the performance over and over again. I look at the wake of sand trailing behind the cooler. The furrow line and three sets of footprints leave a curious trail down the beach parallel to the seashore. My eyes follow the trench over the stretch, to me, it looks like a giant slug has been on a slow procession across the massive expanse of red terrain. I divert my eyes back to the boys as they toil with their task at hand. I am proud of their efforts and hardworking natures.
The family and I are on our second last vacation day. We’ve come to the beautiful Canadian province of Prince Edward Island; famous for its red dirt, beautiful beaches, friendly people, and potatoes. So far, we’ve seen virtually none of that – friendly people exempted! Since setting foot onto the tarmac at the airport an unrelenting torrential downpour and high winds have driven us mainly indoors. The wind off the Gulf of St. Lawrence is bitingly cold, and while we packed warm clothes, we didn’t bring winter jackets, so our vacation activities have been mainly centered around sheltering ourselves from the non-idyllic climate. We’ve gone to a couple of museums, seen a play, done some shopping, that kind of stuff. The purpose of the vacation was to spend some quality time together, and despite the weather, we feel we have succeeded in that. Still, we are thankful for a sunny day for a change, and in spite of the still chilly temperatures, we’re taking advantage of the sunshine and having a picnic on the beach.
Panting loudly from exertion, Cowboy, my second youngest child, the oldest of my last set of twins, looks at me and says, “We did this all the way from the parking lot.”
I laugh, nod my head and tell him, “I know, I watched you.”
“You watched us, and you didn’t help?!” says Bug, Cowboy’s younger twin, his eyes wide, head animatedly nodding as he speaks each word. Clearly, he isn’t too put out though, because his wide grin beams up at me despite his plea to spare him the intense hard labor I have forced him to endure.
“I thought you guys had it under control,” I reply, grinning back at him, squinting against the bright sun. “Here, let me help you now though,” I walk towards the boys, who have stopped their cavalcade. I lean down, take a handle on each side of the large cooler and hoist it upwards. I walk approximately five steps and put the cooler down beside the spread out picnic blanket.
“Thanks, Dad!” Bug says. He doesn’t see the irony in how they accomplished the task already. Their efforts brought the cooler from the car to the chosen spot on the beach; not a short distance! I merely swooped in at the last second and finished the job.
I pat my six-year-old son on the back, tilt my head sideways, look down at him lovingly, and in my most sagely manner tell him, “I think you guys actually did it, I only just helped a little bit.” I demonstrate to him how little I did by holding up my hand and showing him my forefinger and thumb. I move my digits from a slightly open position into a tightly pressed together one; in the process, the gesture creates a big fat ‘0’ symbol with my hand. Still, he shrugs, smiles, and wanders away. He doesn’t care who did what, he’s just happy the job is done. That’s always been him, the baby of a big family, he rarely gets to take sole credit for anything he does, and he mostly seems okay with this.
My other two sons, now excused of their task have run off to join their siblings along the water’s edge. Their mother, Nikole, shouts towards them, “Stay out of the water with your shoes on!” None of them appear to have heard her, and the shouts of “COLD” followed by squeals and giggles coming from the shoreline tell us that we’ll need to be hanging their shoes over the bathtub tonight. She looks at me, shakes her head, and proceeds to unpack the cooler.
I zip up my thin jacket to block out the barrage of cold air sweeping up the shore from the water. Despite the cool breeze, the sunshine is warm, and the red sand is emitting a pleasant warmth. I kick off my shoes and stand in the sand in my socks. Emily, my best friend since third grade, travel companion, and partner in this journey of the past few months looks at me and asks, “You gonna keep those on?” She points to my feet and sees me wriggling my still sock covered toes in the sand. I’ve managed to dig a small hole for myself with just my feet, so I’m now several inches lower and looking her directly in the eye.
“I might,” I reply and lean over to roll up my pant legs as far as I can. I’ve managed to get my pants to just above my knees, and I say to Emily and Nikole who are both eyeing me suspiciously, “Watch this.”
In an instant, I move from my spot on the beach and march my way towards the water. Each step I take fills my socks with a little bit more of the soft, grainy earth. I head towards the kids who are running up and down the coastline, weaving and dodging each other and the crashing swell of briny water. The cold waves are lapping the shore rhythmically, each rolling heave of water folds over itself, thunders and foams against the hard packed littoral. I look back. The two women are watching me with curiosity etched on their faces, I wink and walk on. I come to the edge where the ocean meets the shore, and I call out to the kids who haven’t paid attention to my actions thus far. They halt their game and turn to where I am, they fall silent, listening and watching for what comes next. I shout out to them, “Water’s cold, better leave your socks on so your feet don’t freeze.”
I step forward into the icy tide. The sand inside my socks instantly turns to a thick, weighted mud, pulling my socks down my ankles and halfway off each foot. I lean down and pull each sock back up my leg. The frigid water leaching from the cotton fabric clings to the hair on my legs and sends a shiver deep into my achy bones. The mouths of my children gape open as they watch with confusion. “Come on then,” I say, “Or are you chickens?” I tuck my hands up into my armpits, bending each arm into a makeshift wing that I frantically flap forward and back. I bawk and scratch at the wet dirt beneath my feet, mimicking the chickens on our farm. The kids erupt into laughter and begin to rip their shoes off and roll up their pant legs. The oldest children join me first, standing beside me barelegged from the knees down, except for their socks. Cowboy and Bug, wearing skinny legged jeans decide at the moment to forgo their pants entirely and join us in the tide in nothing from the waist down but their underwear and socks. I laugh heartily.
From further up the beach, I hear Nikole shouting out, “R.C., SERIOUSLY?!” I can tell from her voice she is perhaps a little bit annoyed, but mostly amused. I know that she knows we are just making memories. She’ll forgive me anything under this guise.
“Uh oh,” I say. “I think we’re in trouble. Better take our socks off, so they don’t get wet,” I say in jest.
“But, Daddy, they are already wet!” Bug exclaims.
In truth, they are more than wet. The red Prince Edward Island soil has stained each sock a pinky brown color. I’ve seen this same color on some of the shirts for sale in the local souvenir shops; they call them ‘PEI Dirt Shirts.’ I smile and think to myself, “Looks like we’ve made our own version.”
We spend the next half hour jumping in and out of the waves. The water is too cold to stand in long, so we run back and forth between the soft, dry, warm sand and the bitterly cold water. Our screams and laughs fill the beach. The cold temperature and fact that it’s still early in the tourist season have secured us a nearly empty beach, so we unabashedly let our sillies out without disturbing anyone.
The women join us at the water’s edge. The girls run to Emily, and the two little boys run, shivering, to their mom. My two other sons stand side by side, backs turned towards us all, hurling perfectly round, flat, red rocks into the water. Their attempts to skip the stones thwarted as each rock is enveloped in a curling wave. I watch.
My eyes move from person to person. I take in this moment, a last for our family, the travel has been hard on my system, and I don’t think I’m up for another adventure of this sort. I observe the easiness at which my family has come together during this trip. While nobody has forgotten that I’m dying, we have all unspokenly set it aside for the time being, choosing, instead, to live in the moment, and this moment is happy.
The laughing voices of my children, the murmurs of the two women in my life, the birds overhead, and the crashing waves, have all suddenly silenced. To the outside world, the sounds ring on, but I hear nothing as I stand there, detached from the group, watching. To me, this quietude feels like a glimpse into what an afterlife might be; a silent observation from a place removed, into the lives of all my special people. Is Heaven, Paradise, Moksha, Nirvana, the Summerland, or whatever it may be called, a place on earth where you stand amongst those you love during the happy times of their lives and play a silent, but omnipresent role?
I find myself reaching out unconsciously, my hand stretching across the sand, grasping for each of them. Nobody sees me do this, and I’m not sure that I haven’t just imagined myself doing it. I picture my fingers tracing each of their silhouettes where they stand, unmoving feet rooted in the muddy sand. The present that exists in my mind has utterly frozen, and nobody but me moves. Time seems lost; it feels as if I have been here silently watching for hours, in reality, it’s only been seconds. I am struck, as if by lightning, by both the beauty and the pain in this transcendental world of my imagining. I am alive, yet teetering on an invisible wire between this world, and the unknown of whatever exists wherever it is that I will be going. This frozen present-day snapshot, however, serves as a fleeting glimpse into what their lives will be like in the future when I’m gone. I don’t know where I will be, but, I do know they will still be here, and I am comforted to see that they have each other; that they love each other, and that life goes on.
This handful of people swells my heart; love and pain in equal measures create an internal swirling dichotomy of intensity, longing, need, and fear. It pulses through every artery and flows rapidly uninterrupted around the veins in my body. It fills me simultaneously with comfort and disquietude for what’s to come, but for now, this surge of confused energy is keeping me alive and fighting; at least for a little while longer. It has awakened within me the ability to see and appreciate the truly beautiful occasions in life, like this one, where I am on the beach with my family, and I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be. Cancer, and it’s looming companion, death, have given me a perspective like no other. I can look upon myself, I can see my life, and I can feel truly blessed for the experiences I have had, both the good and the bad. Each episode and trial in my life has taught me something and brought me to this place, right now in this present, where I can safely say, everything will work out fine. Everything happens for a reason. Everything, whether we understand it or not, is meant to be. I choose, despite the occasional times of fear, or the desired longing to have more time, to be okay with what is happening to me and that viewpoint, to me, is a gift.
Like a sudden awakening, life springs into action again as Nikole scoops each little boy up under one of her arms and carries them up the shore. She stands them beside the picnic blanket to dry and comes back to the water’s edge to collect their pants and shoes. She calls out to us, “Lunch is ready,” and like a pack of starving dogs the remainder of my children at the water’s edge streak off towards the food.
We spread out and sit cross-legged on the ground in our little, chosen area of the beach. We each face the water and observe the crashing waves and swelling tide as we munch on the food lovingly prepared and packed together as a family. My eyes skip from person to person. Everyone is lost in their own thoughts, and nobody makes any noise except for the occasional snap of a carrot stick between somebody’s teeth or a snuffle from a tiny nose revolting against the bitterly cold wind.
I see my four sons, all handsome, fine young men. I wonder if someday they will bring their own sons to this beach and walk into the water with their socks on. I look at my two daughters, their long hair blowing wildly in the breeze. They are beautiful, intelligent young ladies. Their futures are ripe for the picking. They are being raised by a strong woman, who is getting help by the influence of other strong women. They, themselves will grow to be strong women. My eyes move from Nikole to Emily. They are as opposite as they are similar. One with dark hair and tanned skin, the other fair and blonde. Both are intelligent, hard-working, and wise. I am glad that I have them now. They, all of these people – and the other amazing people in my life who aren’t with us on this beach, make these last moments of my life worth living. None of them will ever know just how truly thankful I am for each of them.
Out of the silence, Cowboy’s voice rises, “Dad, there is sand IN my sandwich,” he whines. He holds up his triangle of bread, cheese, and veggies to show me. He has taken one big bite out of the center of the half he is holding. I look beyond the sampled-fare to his hand. It is coated thickly with a layer of red granules. Apparently, he has been placing his hand on the ground between bites.
“Oh Buddy,” I say, shaking my head back and forth. I reach for his hand and pull it towards me. I take the sandwich half and toss it lazily into the cooler beside me. I put his hand in the crook of my armpit, close my arm tight to my side and pull his hand out quickly. The dried sand flakes off his fingers and falls to the beach below, he giggles. I pull him up into my lap and give him my uneaten sandwich half. He takes it happily and replaces the one big bite right in the middle of the triangle. We sink a little deeper into the soft, warm sand under us. He munches happily. I rest my cheek against his head and take in his little boy scent. I quickly begin to doze, tired from the day’s adventure.
“Dad,” says my middle son. He’s been quiet a lot for the last little while. He’s coping the hardest with all the changes.
“Hmmm, yeah Bud?” I ask him, sleepily, in response.
“There’s sand IN my underwear.” Although my eyes are closed, I can hear the grin in his voice. The kids all begin to snicker.
Instantly, Nikole responds, “No rude talk during meals,” but she laughs herself.
I slowly open my eyes and give him a sideways glance. My grin matches his. “You’re on your own with that one,” I reply and wink lightheartedly at him. Inside my heart thunders with happiness. This joke breaks his silence with me. This vacation seems to have accomplished what I had hoped it would. It has repaired us all a little bit. A part of our broken souls has been plugged with red dirt and rain. We are a happy, complete family now. We are all going to be okay.