The water shimmers baby blue beneath a blushing pink sky and it seems Bob and I are the only people on earth, sitting on a second floor balcony set on pylons, our ears alone tasting the whoosh and eyaahh of the Atlantic. A fish jumps with a sharp flash, leaving circles in the water like a target. One wave follows another, some breaking off in pieces, others collapsing with a hard whump like a dropped I-beam.
The first walkers appear on the packed sand, two women ambling towards a shy sun.
Yesterday, as Bob and I celebrated his sixty-third birthday, the nursing staff at Chambersburg Hospital took my mother off the high-flow oxygen apparatus and my brother stepped towards her bed. My father took a place on the other side and tethered one of her hands. My brother held the other and they sat, father and son, waiting for mom to fly away. But she held on, her lungs doing what they have always done, making that slow whoosh and eyaahh that sang to all six of her children while they lived in her womb.
A young couple passes beneath me without even a glance at the giant sand bags tucked around the pylons. The dam has opened. A lone woman with a blanket over her shoulders — her face momentarily brightened by the light of her phone, a woman in salmon, a pair of women — one in black holding a stout mug like a lantern, the other in a pale hoodie — another woman in black, all of them walking into that peachy glow.
I wore a black cover-up over my bathing suit yesterday during a long, eastward stroll with Bob. It wasn’t anything I would wear in public, but I’d brought it for comfort and it was handy. After some deliberation, I pulled it on. I have never worn black on a beach before.
We had nearly reached the end of the beach, when I saw my doppelganger — a silver-haired woman in a loose, black dress. She was tanned and long-limbed and I watched her bend easily to flip a shell at her feet. I took a few more strides before veering towards her. I had made up my mind. I must speak with this woman or live with regret.
She was younger than me, her hair was longer, and she wore a golden smile. Our idle talk masked a shimmering connection. We parted and when we saw her later, she told her friend, “Camille is my twin!”
Covid has kept us from random encounters like this, highlighting the importance of casual conversation with strangers. But here, at the edge of the earth with the breeze and slapping water we are freed up for small talk.
Mom rallied all day yesterday, talking on the phone and receiving visitors, while breathing low-flow oxygen. When James and Kathryn appeared at the door to her room, she greeted them with a bright, “I don’t feel like I’m dying!” Then James handed Mom his phone so she could sing Happy Birthday to Bob, and I told her about the beautiful ocean and how grateful I was to her for teaching me to swim. “You held my hands and told me to kick,” I said, and she giggled.
But she grows uncomfortable this morning and the nurses begin giving her morphine. She lays on her side asleep as her sons and their spouses gather, taking turns saying goodbye. Finally, shortly after noon, my mother takes her last breath.
The dog walkers appear at the same time the horizon births the sun, round and orange and so bright I have to look away. Bob snaps away, catching the glory of a new day and filing it away in pixels. The woman with the mug and her young companion return with the sun on their backs. A clacking grackle lands on the white gutter above us, black against the blue sky, and then against all odds, the beach is completely empty.