My husband and I are working in Ocean City for a month, the island beach town where we raised our four children. It is a very family-oriented resort, no bars or alcohol sold, and it JAMS all summer long, until Labor Day. School starts the next day and the transformation in this small city as vacationers leave is extreme. Streets that have been furiously overcrowded are suddenly empty; finally we can park again. The wooden boardwalk is once again pleasant, the ocean breezes themselves feel joyous. Pretty much everything whispers… they’re gone. The relief is palpable.
Our family had very few traditions, but the first day of school was one we never missed. For this one day, maybe, the kids were less reluctant about school. Especially when they were younger, there was a tiny element of excitement, curiosity. Once all four were on their various school buses, Paul and I always got on our bikes, headed to the boardwalk, and rode through the freshly empty town. We’d stop for breakfast at the tiny restaurant that we could never get into in the summer when crowds kept the locals at bay. We reclaimed our community and looked ahead with deep satisfaction to the life of a parent with kids in school. Sports, new friends, challenges….growing. Moving forward, back when time was kinder.
I’m not much for holidays anymore, so I don’t know if there is a more evocative day for me. The calendar is no longer my friend, lurking as it does with dangerous days and memories. It’s fitting that this day falls in September, rolling out hope of cooling air, promises almost tangible on the ocean breeze. My bike ride this morning was still lovely…even though no longer brimming with those same expectations. Being back in this town where we lived for almost 30 years, where we raised four kids, and walked through life….and death… with many friends so deeply implanted into our hearts…feels at once familiar and foreign. We’ve been forever changed by recent events…by the loss of our son. Our transformation feels as radical, as blunt and dramatic, as these empty streets. And yes, they are a fitting metaphor for the hole within, the hollowness that never leaves…. But the air still feels ripe with promise; hope continues in the same streets, the remaining children, the same friends, and the life to come. There is both, always and concurrently. At home in Floridee, I never run into anyone who knew Zack, who can evoke or share memories…..and here, I do run into those who knew him, loved him, and remember. Both situations help… and hurt. I hang and eat donuts with his girlfriend, and it is glorious, and brutal. We laugh and love…and cry. I want her to be my daughter forever…but I remember that she has her own parents… her own life. And of course I want this for her. It is both. Everything is both, and today especially is deep with dreaming.
Paul doesn’t really like to come here, and I understand why. Just speaking logistically, it’s a rough go. We pay a boatload of money to stay in a shoebox. Parking is a nightmare, and the bed is so bad I sleep on the tiniest of couches, shorter than the length of my body. Everything feels a bit alien to us now in this place that was home for so long. But I will always want to come as this is also a place of great comfort to me, solid encouragement, a living reminder that we built a life. That like the undulating waves coming in and out of the shore, life has its own rhythms and rhymes and cannot be denied. My oldest son and his daughter still live here, although not together. Like so much else here, this is not the fulfillment of my dreams for him. His life has had as much coming and going as the tides, and the road before him is not one easily traversed. It fits about as well as my tiny couch. But I do sleep each night, and he does walk through the days. We keep going, because life, for all of us, is both.
I want to come each summer, to see him and encourage him. To ride my bike on an empty boardwalk and feel hope in the wind. To look at an enormous sky and know that Love is watching over us, and over Zack, and the waves and the road are still before us. Both coming in, and going out…. No one gets a pass. But we all get to ride, for how long we do not know. In some seasons the streets are filled with promise and pleasure; in others, the ride is more difficult. The bed’s too soft and the couch is too short, sleep is fitful at best. But get up and jump on your bike. Ride to the boardwalk and look out at that magnificent sea, at the waves endlessly unfurling. Embrace the coming in and the going out, the duality of it all, while you still have it. Tomorrow is not promised, but hope still rides the breeze.