A Walk on the Beach
We are walking on the beach after dark.
My sister is experiencing a vodka-fueled delusion in which she is the reincarnation of Steve Irwin, and has just pulled a well-meaning grandpa aside because he had the gall to take a walk with his granddaughter, and is showing her seashells by flashlight.
My sister is slurring something about sea turtle nesting season and she wants this tourist this so and so to nix the light so the turtle mommies won’t get confused on their way back to the Atlantic. Never mind there’s not a turtle in sight. Never mind this guy is grasping the tiny hand of what looks like a 5-year-old girl, still wearing a flower-print bathing suit and carrying a pink, plastic bucket. Never mind my sister is clutching a faded, 22-ounce insulated cup advertising the 1996 Olympic Games filled to the brim with vodka, Diet Coke, and ice.
My mom and I are standing several feet away, eyes turned up at the sky, trying to summon the power of invisibility.
This, my friends, is how we roll.
My mother, sister and I have gathered at our favorite meeting spot on the beach – exactly two hours drive for each of us -- for our last girls’ weekend before I move to Virginia. We’ve come here many times over the years. We’ve sat on the balcony celebrating mother’s days and promotions, talking politics and careers and once even choking down a yellow piece of birthday cake on my nephew’s 32nd birthday – three months after his death.
I am wondering how many times our heels have made indentations in the sand here, when my sister points to Venus, a lone light shining above our left shoulders, as if God punched a hole in the sky.
“Is that the first star of the night,” she asks me. Before I can answer, she throws her arms out – as if embracing the air around her, sloshing vodka and Diet Coke all over the sand. “Star light, star bright…”
“Is that a star or a planet?” I interrupt. Why I do this, I don’t know. I’m such a freaking know it all, I can’t even stand by and let my sister make a wish.
“It’s the North Star,” my Mom says with so much certainty that it’s impossible not to let it go.
“Mom, it’s can’t be the North Star,” I say.
“Why not?” she asks.
“First of all, it’s in the west,” I say.
“That just depends on where you’re standing,” my mom says.
“No way, Magellan,” I say. “North is always north. The Atlantic is there – so that’s east. That’s south. That’s north. That’s WEST.” I point in all four directions for effect – as if my index finger makes things absolute.
“It’s Venus,” I say. I know this, ironically, because my mother’s mother told me so.
“Well, I think it’s the North Star,” my Mom says.
I leave it at that.
We are hoping this walk will somehow diminish the impact of having consumed a pound each of bread, grease and cheese. My mother and sister ordered a Domino’s pizza called The Extravaganza because they couldn’t resist the name. It came loaded with pepperoni, ham and sausage, despite the fact I gave up beef and pork at age 13. I tried to pick most of it off, leaving behinds heaps of carnage on a soggy, paper plate.
To make the walk bearable, we each poured a sizeable cocktail into insulated tumblers we brought from home.
“My shoulder hurts,” Mom says. “Do you think it’s because I’m carrying this giant drink?”
She stops then to take a sip, as if to lessen her load.
I laugh, then grow concerned.
“Is it your right shoulder or your left shoulder,” I ask.
“Is it your shoulder and your arm?”
“Just the shoulder,” she says.
There’s a beat.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m not having a heart attack.”
I continue to worry because I know without a doubt she wouldn’t tell me if she were having a heart attack. In her mind, it would be better to collapse in the sand and die than go through the trouble of calling an ambulance. She once thought she was stroking out and insisted on driving to the hospital with me in the passenger seat screaming “You know you’re going to have an accident and kill us both.”
“I know,” my mother answered then, cool as the other side of your pillow.
So, that’s what I’m dealing with here. We decide if mom is about to die, it’s best to make it back to the tiki bar at the hotel.
We clamor back up the dunes, wash our feet, and take seats at the hotel’s outdoor bar, next to a door where we can hear the music from a wedding inside. (My sister, upon seeing the bride and groom up close, slurred that the bride was much prettier from our 10th floor balcony and her husband must be a good 20 years older than her.)
I watch my mom study her legs with a frown and wonder “what now?”
“My ankles are swollen,” she says, twirling her bare feet in little circles. “Must be from the walking.”
“You’re right, Mom,” I said. “It can’t possibly be from the quart of vodka and heavy dose of Extravaganza.”
She says she’ll miss me.
“It’s only because I like you,” she says. “I wouldn’t miss you if I didn’t like you. And it’s a wonderful thing to like your daughter as well as love her.”
I like my mom too. I admire her. I believe she has accomplished more in her life than she believes she has. It is not easy to leave her. She thinks it is. She thinks I have spent my life rejecting the steady, solid, brick house of a life she built – the life she chose. But that is not the case.
It sucks that my dreams right now reside in a place that I am not. I don’t want to leave my family, my home, or the stretch of beach where my mother and I leave footprints only inches apart.
I look at her now, and wonder who will sit in the passenger seat the next time she’s inclined to drive herself to the hospital.
I think this, but do not say it. Because more than half of my heart wants to stay here with her, and be a comfort as age settles over her like a long, afternoon shadow. I know what’s coming. I was there when it happened to her mother.
But then I think about when it comes to be my turn – when I have to watch my skin thin and my hair whiten and to think with regret of all the unexamined possibilities scattered behind me on my path.
My chest hurts. I blame the Extravaganza.
I look up at the sky and try to spot the North Star – thinking of how much better it would be to depend on the light of something so far away, something so far removed from the choices we’re faced with here on Earth.
It would be so nice to depend on something other than head, heart and gut to guide you -- knowing with certainty the direction you were meant to travel.