Before I wake up, I’m in the middle of telling you something. I want you to fix the toilet, rake the yard, paint the shed. In my dream, I’m running around after you because we’re putting the house on the market. Today. Or, so I think. And the new family will want everything to be perfect. In my dream, Leo, we’re almost out of time.
That’s when I feel a breeze. On my toes. I think that’s what wakes me. Because my toes are sticking out from under the blankets. It’s a delicious ocean breeze that carries salty air that reminds me of that first trip we always took to the beach every Memorial Day weekend when the kids were growing up.
Except it’s January.
The room is dark except for the light of a single lamp. It’s not our room. I’m disoriented at first, not being home, but then memory creeps across my skin like so many spider legs. We’re at the Dove House. I’m here to die.
I see shadows of people in pockets around the room—layers of people, almost. The first layer is solid. Tangible. But I see second layers, even third layers if I gaze between the edges of skirts and skin, and these are gauzier, more like vapor. I’m afraid to blink. I know when I do, the background people will vanish. And it’s nice to see them. I sense they’re here to greet me, and that the ones in the back, the ones peeking over shoulders and in between elbows, have come a long way.
Resting my head on the pillow, tucked inside a pillowcase that smells like a cocktail of lemons and Downy Fabric Softener, I blink, and the filmier ones vanish.
I see Michael, and then Johnny and Gina, and across the room the grandchildren.
Doesn’t it feel like yesterday, Leo, when that sweet nurse placed Michael in my arms, and you said he had my curls? Now both our sons are grown-up men with families of their own. Michael looks so much like you tonight, Leo. I never noticed how many strands of his hair are turning gray. And he’s wearing the same kind of flannel you always wore on winter nights, the cozy kind with the fleece inside.
A chorus of murmurings makes me think about the sound our curtains made in the summertime when we kept all the windows open and the breeze made the fabric brush against itself—whoosh, whoosh. Nice. Quiet. Safe.
This room feels like that, safe—even with everybody braving grief.
A screen door stands beyond the kids and grandkids and the pastor I never really got to know because I got sick before Father Tim retired. I know what you’re thinking, Leo, that I’m embellishing to make this a better story. “Janie,” you’re saying, the way you always did, rolling your eyes and elbowing the boys. Well, it’s there. And beyond the screen door is the ocean. I hear waves before I see them. It looks to be dusk—our favorite time of day, especially at the beach. Do you remember how the sun hovered over the ocean, just about to sink below the horizon, and we’d speed through dinner so we could make a ritual of perching ourselves on the sand to bid it farewell?
When I sit up, the pastor is saying something to Michael, and Gina is cradling Johnny in her arms. Johnny is weeping. You know how our baby boy gets, Leo. He’s all Mr. Stoic, and then that last straw releases the floodgates. I remember how he collapsed when you passed.
I scoot across the bed, away from my body. I study my face. I’ve never watched myself sleep, so I guess I could imagine I’m sleeping, but, no, there’s a difference. My features—eyebrows, lips, cheekbones—are still there.
But the me in those features, that magic ingredient that makes the difference between a leaf alive on a branch and one dead on the grass, she’s gone. You’d think that would scare me, right, Leo? I, the girl who couldn’t touch the dead mouse inside the “Have a Heart” mousetrap? But this is different. I mean, I don’t feel dead. I’m here. I’m not there.
Oh, it’s too hard to explain. You understand, though, right, my love? I mean, you already crossed. And you always understood me Leo, even at my worst.
I watch the grandbabies Zoe and Zacky, who sit huddled together on a woven throw rug, looking like they don’t know which is worse—the dead grandmother or the weeping father. When I climb out of bed, I don’t exactly feel weightless, like astronauts. But nothing hurts either. And both my hips seem fully operational. I guess I feel like me, but new again.
I tiptoe across the hardwood floor. It feels cold to my bare feet, probably because that darned screen door is wide open, but it’s nice too. It’s nice to be walking around, barefoot or otherwise. How long has it been since I walked anywhere? Thanksgiving, maybe? Longer, still, since I walked without a walker. I can’t think of the last time I tiptoed anywhere in bare feet.
I’m eager to smell the salt water up close. The summer before last, Johnny and Gina took me with them and the kids to Cape May. It was the first summer you were gone. I guess they thought the beach would be good for me. But I froze when we got to the sand, afraid I’d fall. What a burden I became. An albatross. But I’d already broken one hip, and I was terrified to break the other.
So I made them take me back to the cottage, and I missed getting to watch the kids swim. I put a damper on everyone’s fun, and felt ashamed.
When I step outside, the air feels cold. I don’t feel cold, exactly, inside my body. Do you remember how our bodies felt when we jumped out of the hot tub at your brother’s house? I’m going way back now, Leo. This was before kids, or marriage even. It was winter, snow covered the grass, and we ran from hot tub to house—it was freezing out. But we weren’t. Inside our bodies we stayed warm. That’s what it’s like now.
I’m standing on a long beach with soft, white sand. I dig my toes into the sand. The sun sits atop the water, and the whole sky glows orangey-red, my favorite color. I turn to go inside to grab a sweater or a blanket or somebody’s spare winter parka, out of habit I guess. I figure if I’m not cold now, I will be. And it’s always nice to have a jacket.
But the hospice is gone. Utterly. In its place are miles of dunes.
“Hey, lady!” a little girl calls.
She’s running toward me, seemingly from nowhere. As she gets closer, I see she has on an old-fashioned red bathing suit, the kind with a flouncy skirt attached, and embroidered ducks across the hemline.
“Is the water warm?” she says, closer now, looking beyond me to the ocean. She can’t be more than seven years old.
“I don’t know,” I say, feeling queasy for no reason I can name.
“Let’s dive in,” she says, and runs past me. I jog after her, concerned she’ll drown. Where’s her mother? Or a lifeguard?
She has a head full of crazy blonde curls that bounce as she runs that make me think of Michael when he was a baby.
“Where’s your mommy?” I say. I reach out and grab her closest hand, then kneel down in the sand so we can see each other better.
Her brown eyes, a second ago distracted by the promise of a delicious wave, register me. She tries to wriggle out of my hand, wrestling harder as I grasp tighter.
“Are you at the beach by yourself?” I ask.
She looks around as if she realizes she is alone. She steps closer to me, places her hands on my cheeks, and clutches my whole face. She runs her fingertips across my eyebrows and frowns. I think about Johnny, and that time he wandered away from us when we were at that wedding in Boston. Do you remember? And I was so scared he fell off the stone wall into the ocean and drowned. Was this little one’s mother worrying too?
Then a conversation I had with Michael washes over me like one of those luscious waves cresting just beyond my blonde-haired friend.
Scatter my ashes at the beach.
Ma, I can’t talk about this.
Yes, you can.
So, if this beach isn’t real, if I left my dead self on a bed in the Dove House in Maryland where frozen snow covered the ground, is this little wanderer dead too? Is this heaven?
“Excuse me,” someone calls. A woman materializes from the dunes.
“Is that your mommy?” I ask the girl.
She shakes her head, still cupping my cheeks and studying me like she’s trying to figure something out.
The woman approaches us. I rise from the sand, placing both hands on the little girl’s shoulders to hoist myself up, and realizing mid-hoist that I seem plenty limber for an eighty-eight-year-old. I want to ask the woman if the child belongs to her.
“Might you be this little one’s…” and I stop talking.
Just in these few moments since I stepped outside, the sun has dipped into the sea. It’s getting darker.
I recognize this woman. Even in this dim light. I recognize her pants. I loved them once upon a time. You did too, Leo. She has on those silky red bell bottoms with all the flowers.
Now I understand. But she doesn’t. And I have no idea how to explain this to her. I mean, of course I remember her. And how could she remember me? We never met.
“Janie,” I say. I extend my hands. Her brows furrow. I look at her hair. Gold and gray strands blend into ringlets that shine like copper. It looks so much nicer than I remember. I was embarrassed when my hair turned gray. I thought it made me look old. I study the dark circles under her eyes, and wish I could wipe away her exhaustion. I place my hands in hers, wrap my fingers around hers, gently tap her wedding band with mine. “Janie?” I say again, this time like a question, like I’m asking permission to step inside her heart on this darkened beach, so we can go home.
And maybe it’s my voice, or your wedding band, Leo, or a familiar soul she recognizes in my eyes, but now the woman recognizes me.
And the little girl must too. She falls, little arms and legs twitching this way and that to escape—I’m reminded of a sand crab scurrying madly to get away from probing humans—and then runs down the beach.
The woman beckons her. “Don’t be scared,” she calls.
And we follow.
The girl stops, abruptly, at the water’s edge. She stops like she hit a wall.
I lift my hand, and feel something in the air, some electricity, or invisible screen, something like a magnetic force that won’t let us pass. I think about magnets repelling each other.
“Are we trapped?” the woman asks. Her voice hikes up on the word trapped, and something about the sound of it—the petulance of it—reminds me of the night I crashed the car. I was still drunk when you got to the hospital, Leo, and I remember trying to con you into believing I’d fallen asleep, and I hadn’t been in the wrong. Wasn’t that the last time I wore those red pants? The EMT’s had to cut them off me. I feel like if I stand really close to her I’ll smell the alcohol.
All three of us see the teenager at once. We see her when she’s still way down the beach. Every once in a while she stops walking and places her hand in the air, like she’s feeling for some chink in this invisible wall’s armor. And pauses there. Then she meanders again, head bowed like she’s seeking that most lovely seashell that she can carry home and keep all winter to remind her this place exists. I don’t think she sees us. She wears cream-colored pedal pushers and a dark brown pullover sweater that’s way too big for her. It’s your sweater, Leo. When she gets closer I’ll see the hole peeking from underneath the right sleeve. And if she lets me get close enough, I’ll smell your scent.
She stops when she sees us. I can’t tell if she knows who we are. Nobody says anything. I guess none of us knows what to say. I sure don’t. So we all four stand in the stillness.
“I’ve been trying to find a place to get in,” she says, finally. “There isn’t one. There’s…this… invisible wall all along the shoreline.”
“Look,” the little girl says, and she points to the water.
That’s when we see you. I’m not sure what you look like to them. But we all speak your name, at almost exactly the same time, so I know we all see you. I see you the way you looked the night you proposed—twenty and a couple years old, so beautiful. You never stopped being beautiful to me.
We’d gone to a show. Do you remember? In the city. And you escorted me home, first on the subway, and then down Sixty-first Street to my parents’ apartment. It had been chilly, and you’d taken off your sport coat and wrapped it around my shoulders. And then you got down on one knee. You had on one of those narrow black ties all the boys wore in those days, and a white button-down, and you asked me to marry you, Leo. We were so happy.
You’re not exactly walking on water. Not like Jesus. But you’re sort of hovering.
The teenage girl runs past us like a sprinter hungry to win first place. She throws herself forward, but crashes backward onto the beach.
“Leo!” she screams, crouching on the sand now, her pants wet and sandy.
I kneel beside her, and shiver. I’m not sure if it’s the breeze that makes me feel cold, or the way she cried out your name, like she knew, even at seventeen, that having you was more essential than air.
I try to speak. I want to tell her what she doesn’t know at seventeen—that no matter how much you love her, wholeness is already inside her, and that it would be so much better for both of you if she had understood that. But words are too hard to say. They remain a muddled, unspoken mess.
She speaks instead. “You’re shivering,” she says to me, and takes off your sweater, the one I wore all those years ago ’til it shredded in the dryer. She helps me put it on.
The sky darkens. We wait. The teen and I sit, the woman walks, the little girl explores the dunes. Night settles in, like tonight is a night like any other night, like we four companions belong here, together, like it could ever happen that four parts of one’s life could sit together on a beach. We settle into silence. I find you, then lose you again in the shadows of the waves. Clouds, one and then another, cover the moon.
“What happened to me?” the teen whispers to the woman and me. She looks horrified by us, like we’re some kind of awful last chapter.
“I got old,” I say. “And slow.”
“Before that,” the teen says.
“She means me,” the woman says. She kneels on the sand, arms wrapped around herself, her red pants glowing in the light of the moon. “Because you were such a star student and so oozing with promise, right?” Her voice cuts like glass as she smirks at teenage Janie. I remember when I used to do that to people—aim for the jugular because that made me feel less broken.
“At least I wasn’t an addict,” the teen says. “You dragged everyone with you into your pit—Leo, the boys. You were selfish. That’s what you—”
“Shut up,” the woman says.
“You both shut up,” I say.
“I can’t believe he didn’t leave you,” the teen says. “You ruined his life.”
“Stop it,” the little girl says.
We look at her. She’s standing fifty feet away, high in the dunes. And she’s crying.
“We can’t swim,” she says, gulping back sobs, “because we hate each other.”
“The old lady’s the one who died,” teenage Janie says. “She’s the only one who has to swim.”
“We all died,” the little Janie says. “We’re all trapped.”
Something about her voice, something about how young and old she sounds at the same time, something about the breeze and the moon and the waves and the way I feel like I’ve spent my whole life getting to this beach so I could dive in, makes me cry too. And it’s that scary kind of crying, the kind that doesn’t build slowly. A loud burst of sound erupts. I cover my mouth and crumble. I hear the others crying too.
We’re the reason we can’t swim. I try to remember that moment when I stopped liking myself. A long time ago.
I look back into the ocean. I see you, Leo, but you’re fainter, or farther out. Or maybe it’s just too dark.
The woman stands and paces for a while up and down the beach. She hugs herself, and keeps checking her pockets like she thinks she’ll find a pill somewhere that’ll make all of this okay. She comes back, sits down. Still, nobody talks.
We all four watch the waves lap across the sand. We do that for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” the woman whispers. “I lost myself.”
“And I drank too much,” she adds, softly, like she hopes we won’t hear her.
Those words startle me. I remember when we got home from the hospital after I wrecked the car, and you begged me to get help.
Janie, you’re an alcoholic.
I remember my rage—the whole room turned red.
No, I screamed, like I thought if I said the right words, or screamed them, I could turn lies into truth.
Yes. Janie, you drink too much. And tonight you could’ve died.
I couldn’t admit it. Just couldn’t. I never admitted it to you. All those years. Even when I went to AA. Even when you went to Al-anon. I’m sorry, Leo.
“I’m sorry too,” teenage Janie says. “I wanted to grow up when I was still a kid. I didn’t understand I had my whole life, you know? I did dumb stuff.”
We all lean in. It’s so dark I can’t see anybody’s face too well. I wrap my arm around her; the little girl holds her hand.
“Not dumb,” the woman says. “Just scared.”
“I wish I went to college. Studied Art. Or…something. Something I was good at, so I could be proud of myself, so I could be more than…”
None of us finishes her sentence.
“I was too young when I got pregnant,” the teen says, her head buried, so her words are hard to hear. “I was too young to even be a good mom.”
“No,” I say. “That’s not true.” I remember when the boys were little, how much energy I had, how much I loved playing with them. We had Halloweens, and Christmas mornings, story time. We had rainy summer afternoons when we played hide and seek. I was there. For everything. “You were a great mom,” I say.
She looks up.
“You were there, Janie,” I say. Flawed, impatient, too young to always know what I was doing, I ran that race. I loved my kids. I did the work. And they grew up to be wonderful men.
The woman stands. “But I turned into an alcoholic,” she says. “That was the end of everything good.”
“You quit drinking, Janie,” the teen says, standing too.
The woman looks at the teen. “Eventually,” she says.
“I’m sorry, too,” little Janie says. “I was bad and made Daddy go away.” She buries her face and tucks herself up like a tired, old turtle.
“No,” we all say at once.
“No, Janie,” I say. She looks up at me like I’m actually wise enough to have words she’s ready to hear.
“Not your fault,” I say. I remember the night my dad walked out. I remember believing I made him go. I believed it for years. Even when I met you, Leo, I couldn’t release that thorn burrowed deep, that lie that promised me you would walk away too, when I least expected it, because nothing good lasts. And every time we hit a speed bump over the next sixty-five years, I dared you to leave me. Like I thought it was inevitable. Like some unforgiving force had already written our ending.
Why don’t you leave, Leo? Take the boys? That’s what you want, right?
Janie, stop it. I’m here. I’m right here.
But do you want to leave? How could you not?
Janie. You’re my home.
“Daddy left because of Daddy,” I tell her, remembering your words and the soothing sound of your voice as I pull her on to my lap. “Not because of Mommy. Not because of you.”
More time passes. Little Janie lays her head on my chest like Michael and Johnny used to.
I know it’s my turn to ask forgiveness.
“I’m sorry.” I take a shallow breath. “I’m sorry I let go.”
Little Janie wraps her arms around me.
“You held on for a long time,” she says. “You were brave.”
The other two nod.
“And tired,” the woman says.
The teen tucks a loose gray curl behind my ear and points into the water. I see you, faintly, far away.
“Leo’s been waiting to dance with you for two long years.”
The woman helps me to my feet. The little girl, her head full of corkscrew curls, clutches, first my hand and then the woman’s, as we can swing her so she giggles with delight.
We four walk together, hand in hand in hand in hand, to the water’s edge. I feel the water as it covers my toes, and I wade deeper. The wall is gone.
I’m wearing my favorite red pants and your brown sweater, my yellow curls turned gray. I look back. The teenager has hoisted the little girl on to her back, piggy-back style. The woman stands a little apart, clutching her hands, like she’s praying. It’s like I’m looking at snapshots of myself, and somebody, some amazing somebody has found a camera that showed me to myself in a light I’d never seen myself before. A soft light. A forgiving light. A light that makes me look beautiful. When I look at them, all I feel is love.
I don’t see you, Leo, but I know you’re waiting. I don’t see God. Or pearly gates. Just ocean. But a full moon lights a path across the waves. I know what to do, all by myself. I dive in. The water is warm.
I swim all the way home.