Counting Buoys

I rinse the shampoo out of my hair and feel the salt water, the ocean breeze, the warm sand, slipping away with it. Our summer vacation is over and our life is as it was before–fast, intentional, focused. As I let the warm water wash over me, allowing life to move forward even though I wish my spirit to remain in the waves, I remember our wine-induced conversation the last night of our vacation. We sit on the dimly lit front porch, screened-in but, after years of use, the screens have rolled away from their frames, inviting small, unwanted guests to our party of two. My husband sits across the glass table from me, reclined in a well worn patio seat, red wine in hand. He’s had too much to drink, and so have I. In his white shirt, his linen pants, he looks the part, and wears it well.

The question fell from my lips before I could stop it, encouraged by too much alcohol and too little inhibition. This vacation, so blissfully free of cancer, is about to take a turn.

“Do you think it’ll come back?” I cringe but it’s too late, the words are spoken and hang in the air between us. I pray for an ocean breeze to sweep them away but the pines are too thick. He has to answer.

Reflecting, looking into his glass, one hand behind his head while the other swirls the red liquid; he looks happy. A week of playing in the surf, laughing, half-naked babies and beach breeze-induced sleep agrees with him. He takes a swallow, leaving the tiniest bit left in his glass, then clears his throat.

“I hope it doesn’t,” he starts, softly. “But, if it does, I’m not so sure I want to know about it.” He’s confident now, sitting up a bit more. “If it comes back, it’ll come back somewhere bad, and it’ll probably be stage IV. And then I’d have to find a treatment that would give me maybe five years to live instead of four, or something like that. So, what’s that they say? ‘Ignorance is bliss’? I just want to live a happy life. I don’t want to know.”

He finishes the rest of the glass and gives me a half-smile, pleased with his answer. And I am silent only because I know whatever I say next will be potent. I want to shake him, to scream “What about US? Don’t you want to know for us?”

Instead I feign a lighthearted laugh and say, “Well, of course you’ll find out, you’re on a trial. And that’s what they do, they monitor you.” I take a sip and then I add, “and by the way, if it comes back, we’ll get rid of it, just like the first time”. Somehow, the words didn’t come out as convincingly as I’d hoped.

I finish my glass and we are enveloped in silence. Not the awkward kind; the reflective kind. I am learning about him, still. And I understand him. I think back to the last few days on the beach. The secluded beach town, exceptional only in its unexceptional nature. Victorian homes from the 1920s, virtually vacant beaches, low tide stretching out for hundreds of yards, warm water lapping at baby toes. The perfect getaway for a family needing to get away.

We arrive on Monday afternoon and begin to unload the car and explore the beach house. It is old, but functional, a little musty, with mismatched furniture and a large front porch. It needs love, but it is footsteps from the ocean and expansive enough for two sets of tiny feet to run without impediments, and as those tiny sets of feet explore every nook and cranny, my husband wraps me in his arms and says, “I’m sorry, I thought it would be nicer.” I shrug him off–it’ll be great!–, and then search for cleaning products.

We fill our days with hermit crab and sea shell hunts, wave-jumping and rock climbing. I coax my baby into the sand but the first day he is wary of this new frontier, content to shovel sand from the edge of the more familiar feel of a blanket. My toddler jumps and splashes and runs in the water, never coming out unless to say he’s hungry. Our beach time is punctuated with naps and meals, and under the warm, late August sun, with the cool ocean breeze sweeping away all of our real-life troubles, we have found a haven.

I look at my husband across the table, lost in thought, far away. I reprimand myself for having brought up the ghost that we finally buried on this trip. Instead of apologizing, I say “Why are we even talking about this? Let’s move on. More wine?” But he declines and I decline and we decide sleep seems a better option. The seamless perfection of this week at the beach punctuated by the reality of what awaits us back in our real life.

As I reach for the soap and scrub the sand and sea salt off my skin in the shower of our city townhouse, I remember my baby just hours ago, our last jaunt on the beach. We grab our suits and race to beach an hour before check out to squeeze in one more ounce of summer. This time, our baby is ready for the sand and the water. Brave now, he holds his father’s hand as he wades out into the sea, giggling under his baseball hat, squealing when the waves reach his belly. My toddler counts buoys, then begs me to “be a mermaid”, so I dive under the shallow water and swim up to him, listening to my boys squeal with delight. My husband reaches down, grabs hold of our baby and tosses him in the air, then dunks him back in the water. We are the only ones on the beach, on the planet. We are in the middle of an ocean, and we are all we need. The words spoken last night have drifted out with the tide and we purge ourselves of the things we said with each dip in the ocean, each shallow dive. As I swim toward my screeching boys, holding a look of equal parts fear and exhilaration as they wait for me to surface, I leave, for these last few moments, all of our real life behind. Right now we are just bodies buoyed by the salt of the ocean; reflections in the water changing with the circling sun. We are imperfect, flawed, loving, adapting creatures that move with the tide.

The laughter rises up from my family and I feel the breeze at my back. I wish for the breeze to carry that laughter back to our real life, to remind me of the buoyancy, the light, the laughter we found at this exceptionally unexceptional beach. I hope that this laughing breeze can find me when I feel our life about to change–again.

I turn off the shower and bring the towel to my face. The beach is gone from my body, I’ve erased all signs of it. But in my soul, and in a forlorn beach house not far away, I know there exists a world where my husband is free, where burden is buoyed.

I will not forget that place.

Originally published September 3, 2013