Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Story: Why I Love the Ocean (a remembrance)

Recently, I went to the beach with my wife and her friend, and spent a few hours lounging on the sand and, primarily, swimming in the relatively warm (65° F is warm for these parts) late July water.There were actually waves big enough to surf, but I'm taking a break from surfing (see my post Why New Hampshire Summer Surfing Sucks) for a bit, and it was fun just to play in the waves and body surf like I did when I was a kid, while my wife and her friend waded in the shallows and talked. I was feeling quite nostalgic as I plunged under the white foam, and tried to catch waves for a ride. I was in the water for a long time, and my mind wandered back to summer days of my youth when I would spend seemingly endless hours in the water at beaches just south of where we currently were. On the drive home, I had a clear vision of a memory that has surfaced from time to time of my sister Debbie, and the summer of 1973.

In the summer of 1973, my father rented an apartment for a week in a ramshackle cottage close to the sand at Salisbury Beach , Massachusetts - just south of the New Hampshire border. It was a new adventure for us. I was 7 years old at the time, and hadn't yet started 2nd grade. I'm sure I had visited the beach at some point on a day trip with my mother, but this was certainly the first time we would be there for days at a stretch. The cottage had a resident basset hound who, although harmless, would howl into the air at us every time we entered the yard through its rickety gate, his clownish ears nearly touching the ground. We showered in a wooden shed fed by a sun warmed water tank on its roof - meant for washing off beach sand, but my parents had us use it even in the cold mornings. I remember the crickets that lived under its wood slat floor. For the week, I was in another world. I played in the sand, splashed in the ocean, ate Kentucky Fried Chicken (a lavish treat for us in those days), and a couple of times was allowed to play at the carnival-like Salisbury center - a few streets populated with arcades, pin ball machines, skee ball, an old wooden roller coaster, and a beach side ferris wheel. When I was tired of the beach, I would chase grass hoppers in the dune grass of the yard.

I wasn't fully aware of the reason my father rented that cottage apartment, but I knew it had something to do with my sister Debbie, who suffered from cystic fibrosis - a genetically inherited disease that attacks and degrades the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. Debbie had wanted to be at the beach. She probably didn't count on getting stuck at the top of the ferris wheel for 20 minutes, which happened once. She might not have counted on, although I would imagine she had some notion, this being her one and only stay at the beach. She died the following winter in February of 1974 at the age of 17. We were at this ramshackle cottage in this run down beach side town, because it was all my father could afford - his being awash in medical bills and the costs of raising 4 other children. He must have known this was the time to do what he could to make his daughter happy, because time was running out.

The memory I have of Debbie from that week, aside from the ferris wheel incident, that stays with me the longest, and resurfaces in dreams and on days like my recent beach visit, is of me and her in the water together. This was unusual, because Debbie wore a  trach (pronounced "trake") - a tube that was inserted through a hole in her throat to assist with breathing. This made water perilous, because any water that entered through this tube would drain straight into her lungs. A year before our beach trip, my father had installed a small above ground pool in our backyard that Debbie loved to go in. She had to stay above water, and if I was in the pool with her, I was admonished not to splash. This was the ocean, though, and we were in it together - Debbie leading me into water deeper than where my feet could touch the bottom. I remember it being the morning, because it was quiet. I remember the water was calm, with gently rolling swells Debbie lifted me over as they passed us. I remember being afraid at first to be in water deeper than I could stand in (I was only 7) but I also remember trusting my sister to keep me safe. The morning sun shimmered on the calm water, and I was in my sister's arms. 

I have never lived more than an hour's drive from the ocean. Even when I lived for a brief period in southern California, and climbed on a surf board for the first time at Doheny State Beach, it was only a short ride back to Mission Viejo, my temporary home. The ocean has always been somehow in my veins. You could trace that back to the yearly cottage rentals that became a tradition for our family after the first stay with Debbie. You could trace it back to the hours I spent frolicking in the surf or hunting for crabs at low tide. Later, when I took up kayaking and waveski surfing, I had even more reason to to be near, and in, the ocean.

I trace it back to the memory of the calm water, the shining sun, and my sister's arms holding me tight.

- TB on the Water   


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