The Gulf waves are picking up ahead of a front. When I had run along the beach at sunrise, the waves meandered up the packed sand, and lazily back out to sea. But by this hot July afternoon, waves crash against the shore. My five-year-old son, Toby, and I spend time tumbling and laughing as wave after wave knocks us off our feet and pulls us along the sandpapery bottom, trying to regain our balance before another wave crashes on us.
Eventually tired, we sit down farther up the beach where the waves advance and recede after crashing, covering our legs.
“Watch the coquinas,” I say. Toby gives me a look, like many before. “Here’s Mom going off on the wonders of nature,” I imagine he’s thinking. But then he sees the hundreds of tiny pastel clams.
With each receding wave, the mass of coquinas between us upend and furiously wiggle-burrow into the wet sand. They are racing against that next wave that will, inevitably, undo their work.
The coquina is the Sisyphus of the mollusk world. All that work, over and over and over.
Toby and I are in Florida in July because my grandma Ruby, Toby’s only great-grandparent, is dying. Before the beach we spent a few hours visiting Grandma in her condo where she’d stay a couple more weeks before moving to hospice care for her last hours. The next day we’d say goodbye in person for the last time. “Don’t be sad,” she’d say as we were leaving. “I’ve had such a good life. I’m ready.” Two weeks later, from her bed in hospice care, a red prayer shawl wrapped around her shoulders, my mom would put her on the phone. “I love you,” she’d say through strained breath, “Toby and Tim, too. Tell them. I love you all.”
Toby and I can’t stop watching the coquinas. We sit, glued in our spots, as the waves advance and recede. The coquinas’ predictability becomes almost comical. We wait for one to give up, to lie flat, to tumble out to sea with the waves. It doesn’t happen.
I was going to make this trip alone, but decided to bring Toby at the last minute because he was particularly close to his great grandma. We saw her a few times a year. My active boy would settle in her presence and stare at her with wide eyes, his hands reaching up to touch her wrinkled cheek, trace the liver spots on her arm with his perfect smooth fingers. Joining us at the beach while wearing her therapy socks and tennis shoes, she’d wade in and out of the waves hand in hand with Toby, her laughter joining his.
At three years of age he’d start calling her weekly. To chat, he’d say. They’d stay on the phone for a half-hour or more. Toby’s first rhyme, inspired by a buoy (which he pronounced “boobie”) bobbing in the lake by our house, was “Boobie, boobie, Grandma Ruby.” We rushed home so he could call her, proudly, to recite his masterpiece. I could picture her face breaking into a wide grin as she laughed and told Toby that was a beautiful rhyme and he was such a smart boy.
As we sit on the beach watching the coquinas, I think about how Grandma Ruby’s death will be the first loss he consciously remembers. I wonder, though, will it trigger subconscious memories of his other losses? His first mom at birth, his foster family at nine months? Is losing Grandma, as painful as it may be for me, fundamentally different because I have a firm foundation that has existed since birth? Is his foundation as fragile as the coquinas’ wet sand? And if it is, how do we build on that?
I know what Grandma’s advice would be. Eminently practical, she would tell me there is no changing the past; we can only affect the future. If a foundation is shaky, and there is no getting around it, you just build the very best thing possible.
As the coquinas wiggle-burrow into the wet sand, over and over and over with the unceasing waves, I look at my son. So full of potential. Like his grandma, so buoyantly resilient. His brilliant face beams with delight and wonder. For now, I think, he is okay. The best thing possible, for us, might not be perfect, but it is beautiful. Grandma, I’m sure, would agree.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Beauty is, I think, everywhere, as long as we refuse to equate beauty with perfection. Our task is to pay attention, to notice that glint of sunlight on the water, the drops of dew on blades of grass, the red flash of a cardinal against a gray winter day, fireflies blinking in the dark, and stars scattered like glitter across the black northern sky. Our task is to notice the kind smile of the stranger ahead of us in line and the unmitigated joy of a child’s laugh. As a writer, I try to capture flashes of beauty, like photographs, and release them into the world. As a reader, descriptions of beauty, especially beauty in the midst of grief or chaos or decay, remind me to recognize the same in my life.
Sara Martin lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two sons, and their family dog. When she’s not spending time with her family or trying to sneak in writing time, she works as a public interest attorney.