“Look at that,” Zach, my 18-year old son, said. I looked down and where, just a few moments ago there was just sea water and sand, a new world was emerging. Hermit crabs by the score started scurrying around, carrying around on their backs what previously appeared to be empty shells, Nearly invisible tiny shrimp, previously unseen, flitted around by the hundreds. Fiddler crabs dug out of their hiding spots buried in the sand. We both stood there, transfixed at the world below us.
It was a glorious day and the sand bar was bigger than I had seen it in years. I had seen a full moon the night before and have learned over the years that this had an effect on the tides. Each day we would look at the tide tables to see when low tide was, planning our day around the emergence of the sand bar. It was almost a mile long, lasting from Clinton Point to the east to the light house at the end of the rock jetty to the west. Most of the beachgoers from a dozen beaches in this protected cove would be drawn to the sand bar like bugs to a fire. Little children would be digging holes to corral their captured hermit crabs or to build sand castles. Pre-teen suntanned boys with bleached blonde hair would take turns trying to see how far they could go on their skim boards. Gen X’ers who grew up together but had not seen each other since going off to college, would be playing a game of touch football. My 21-year old daughter Kira, her boyfriend from college, Jackson, Benji, my 10-year old son and I had spent most of the last hour playing our own version of Ultimate Frisbee. Eve, my wife, was joyfully taking her exercise walk circumnavigating the length of the sand bar. There was a seemingly endless number of couples, from young newlyweds to 80-year-olds, walking hand in hand. The water between the sand bar and the beach was no higher than knee high and 80 degrees. It became a place where scores of young children could play in the water without their parents’ constant vigil.
I have been coming to this beach for as long as I can remember. My uncle Meyer (my father’s brother) bought a summer cottage there in 1956, two years before I was born. Many things have changed since then. There used to be raft we would fight to push each other off of, but that was gone after someone at another local beach was paralyzed jumping off a raft. I used to love to go out with Bruce, Meyer’s son, on one of his many water craft. After Bruce passed away from a sudden illness 30 years ago, Meyer and his wife Sylvia, rarely came to the beach anymore. Meyer came to be known as “the mayor” because he and his family were one of the first ones to move to Island Beach permanently, at a home prominently displayed at the end of the walkway to the beach. He was always the one to remind beachgoers not to break rules like having food or alcohol on the beach. He continued to, every Fourth of July, hook up a wheel barrow to his tractor, carrying flag waving kids throughout the local parade. I have many pictures of Zach and Kira (and later, Benji) riding in the wheel barrow, with grins from ear to ear. Meyer, now 92, rarely leaves his house anymore, but his spirit continues at the beach.
A few years after Bruce died, his widow , Marilyn, and her new husband, Neil, bought a summer home right next door to Meyer and Sylvia. Soon after that, after Kira was born, we began renting a summer cottage adjacent to the two other houses, making a White family compound of sorts. Every year we would return to this magical place. Marylyn’s two children, Sam and Toby, a decade older than Kira and Zach, became closer and closer to them as the difference in their age became less of an issue. This past year, both Kira and Zach separately traveled to Portland, Oregon and Santa Cruz to stay with their cousins, who they almost see as siblings. Even though a divorce and re-marriage, I have never missed a summer at the beach with all of my family.
I don’t really see much of Zach these days. He lives off at college and, when he comes home, spends most of his time at his mom’s house. At the end of the week with him, we had relived all the rituals we repeated every year, the bike rides down the shore road, collecting bottles on recycling day to bring in for their deposits, having our yearly water balloon fights. We would throw a Frisbee around for hours and even developed our own game, Frolleyball, a one-on-one game played like volleyball except using a Frisbee. I had coached Zach in wresting and soccer since he was a boy and we both loved impressing each other with our diving catches.
The sun was starting to go down, the tide was coming in, and there were only a few stragglers left at the sand bar as it again became submerged under the water. We were leaving to go home the next day, and Zach and I stood in the warm water, having a conversation long forgotten. Each year at the beach was a reunion of sorts, with family and friends reacquainting. Kira and Zach would hang out with Sam and Toby as if they had always lived next door to each other. Marylyn and Neil now live in Island View full time and each year gather all the relatives in the area for a giant cookout. Clarke, my brother, lives nearby. He looks like a cross between Wilford Brimley and David Crosby, with his gray ponytail, pot belly and untrimmed moustache. He stops by regularly, and displaying his sarcastic sense of humor and curmudgeon spirit that is simultaneously endearing and annoying.
Zach was telling me a story but stopped mid-sentence. We both looked down to see what was happening in the world below us. We began to realize that there was nothing random about the sea world below us. Hermit crabs would be fighting over a piece of some kind of flesh until a fiddler crab would rush in and snatch it away. There was a small piece of rock showing through the sand that crabs would battle over. One crab would apparently win, but no sooner did it settle on the rock,when another crab would shuffle over to knock it off the perch. Schools of minnow like fish, not seen earlier, would dart back and forth in unison. For what seemed like an eternity, Zach and I were transfixed by the sea world below us. No words were spoken, but in our awe at what we both saw and appreciated, we shared one of the most intimate moments we had had since he was a boy.
The next day I was going into the hospital to get open heart surgery with a significant chance of stroke, kidney failure, paralysis or death. Eve was shocked that I chose to go on vacation when I had an aortic aneurism that could potentially burst with certain fatal consequence. The day before my surgery, Kira stayed with me in the hospital with Jackson. I had a great time with them and was so appreciative that what could have been a chilling time was one of great fun. The next day, they made an incision from the middle of my chest, around my body to my spine, collapsed my lung and split my ribs to delicately replace my aorta with a Dacron tube. They awoke me immediately after the surgery, asking me to move my toes. After the third person came by with the same request, it dawned on me what a real possibility paralysis was.
I spent three days in intensive care and ten days in the hospital. During the long road to recovery, I thought many times of the opportunity I had to spend this time with my family. I closed my eyes, remembered the sea scene in the water, smiled, and realized I was ready for the long recovery ahead.