I took the kids to the beach by myself this summer. We go without Josh sometimes, but always with a friend. But this summer, the kids wanted to go alone, just the three of us.
When we talked about it and the trip was weeks away, it seemed completely do-able. Easy, in fact. But the night before we were set to leave, my stomach was in knots. I would be hours away from home, without a back-up adult for almost 200 miles.
But we had made our mix CDs, purchased potato chips, brought up the sand toys.
We packed up the car and started driving.
The first thing we did when we got to the beach was rent bicycles. Actually, the first thing we did was request a different room since the sliding door wouldn’t lock. But the second thing we did was rent bicycles.
I almost hadn’t packed our bike helmets since we’ve never taken them biking at the beach. They only learned how to ride a two-wheeler a few months ago. And taking them biking alone for the first time? That just seemed like craziness. And yet I heard myself asking them after we got settled in our new room whether they wanted to go for a bike ride.
So we walked over to the bike rental place and got three bikes. In order to get to the bike path, we needed to walk several meters alongside the road. Again, my stomach was in knots wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. But then we were on the bike path, wobbling along. I rode in the back, the ChickieNob rode in the middle, and the Wolvog rode in front.
We did a five mile loop (after I had fixed the ChickieNob’s skirt from becoming completely grey as it hung over the dirty back wheel of the bike; brilliant!) and then rode back to the hotel for a swim before dinner. We had done it: bicycled this long distance (at least, it is for two new bike riders) all alone.
That evening, we got two bits of bad news. The first came right before dinner, and it made me feel ill. I ended up pulling over the car before we went into the restaurant to eat and telling the twins what had happened. We were all alone; this was something I would have talked about with Josh. But Josh wasn’t there, so I told the twins instead. While they didn’t have any brilliant advice, they listened, and sometimes that is all you need.
The second piece of bad news came later in the evening, right before bed. There is nothing that reinforces that idea of aloneness that comes from receiving bad news while the rest of the world seems to be blissfully trucking along around you than being physically apart from anyone you know. We were emotionally an island, the only three people around who understood. And we were physically an island, the only three people each other knew for miles. Oh, and we were actually on an island, just to drive the metaphor home.
We decided to go for another bike ride the next morning. The woman who works there told us about a secluded beach that Josh and I had never heard of in all our years of going there. “Let’s try to find it,” I told the kids.
“No thanks,” said the ChickieNob, uninterested in riding a half mile down an unknown path. It was one thing to bike where I had been before even if it was new to her. It was another for all three of us to leave the figurative and literal well-worn path.
But suddenly it felt imperative that we see this beach, that we all take the chance with the road. So we made the right and started riding all alone down a sandy road. And at the end, we ditched the bikes and climbed the dune and found ourselves on an almost empty beach — only five or so people on the enormous stretch of sand.
This was now going to be our beach.
Back on the bike path, the Wolvog took a terrible spill off the bike when his wheel hit the edge of the road. I watched him tumble off and then the ChickieNob swerve to try to miss his outstretched arm. For one terrifying second, I couldn’t tell how badly he had been hurt, but her wheel hadn’t clipped his skin or passed over bone. He stood up and told me he had to stop shaking before he could ride again.
The worst happened. I mean, hadn’t that been my fear the day before, the reason I was so nervous to take them biking? One of the kids had fallen off their bike and gotten hurt and I was all alone with them with no help in sight. It all came down to me. And yet here we were, dealing with it. The worst happened and there was nothing to do except catch our collective breath and tend to our wounds and then get back on the bike.
Riding back, we paused to stare at a jellyfish in the water off the bridge. I named it Herman, and we watched him slowly squinch his way across the water, like a disembodied lung breathing.
“When I was little,” I told the twins, “I believed that if I spat in the water at the end of summer, I would have good luck for the year.” I have no idea why I believed that my drool hitting a body of water would change my fate, but we decided that I would donate my saliva to the channel in order to counteract yesterday’s the bad news just in case.
We went to the beach and came up against my second fear: taking the kids in the water by myself. I am not tall enough to stand where we can ride waves. I am not strong enough to hold two kids while treading water. And they are not confident enough in the ocean to jump waves without me.
I could have told them that it was too dangerous to try at all, but we devised a system where one child stayed on the sand where I could see them at all times. The other child came in the water with me. And every two or three waves, we’d look back to check on the child on the sand.
We swam out past the break and bobbed up and down in the water. Every so often, my foot would come down on the hard smooth shell of a horseshoe crab, and I would inwardly shudder. If Josh had been there, he would have been the one to take them in the water. But here I was, all alone, and I had to suck it up and bob in the waves for an hour at a time, even if it meant my feet sometimes landing on sea life.
When we got off the beach, we got a third bit of bad news, and I almost started laughing despite the terribleness because it was just too ridiculous; for everything to implode while I was all alone with the kids, miles from home. After I got them showered, I went out to the balcony and called Josh — sometimes you need to process things with an adult — so I could have a long cry. And then I moved the kids on to dinner and play time because what else can you do when you are alone except keep moving forward?
All summer, the ChickieNob had wanted to conquer a particularly enormous climbing activity at the beach, one in which she didn’t have the strength to actually attempt on her own (as is, she only met the weight minimum by two pounds). But I convinced the park employee to let me go up with her despite being terrified of heights and purchased us two tickets. I was the only adult on the climbing attraction. (To be completely honest, the other kids on the wall scattered to watch from down below once we started to attempt this. There was something a bit disconcerting about a grown woman grunting her way up 30 feet.) I was terrified I wouldn’t actually be able to get to the top, and the ChickieNob was certain she wouldn’t be able to get to the top.
I refused to look down or at anything that wasn’t the ChickieNob so I missed the view from the top. Because yes, we got to the top. And we came down triumphant. Alone, neither of us could have reached the summit. Back on firm ground, I held her while we rocked with relief and whispered that we’d do the same thing this year. Neither of us would have to get through all the bad situations alone that had just gotten dumped in our laps. We’d have each other’s backs and get through the year one nauseatingly dizzy step at a time.
Absolutely a perfect moment.
The next day, we realized that we hadn’t seen any wild horses yet this trip. As we drove over the bridge, I told myself that if we saw horses, it meant that everything would be okay. And if we didn’t see horses, it would be a sign from the universe that nothing that we were worrying about would work out.
We really really needed to see horses.
As we drove down a stretch of road, we pulled over to scan the woods. And there, in a clearing by a clump of trees, stood a pack of seven brown-and-white horses. Seven horses — isn’t that a lucky number? The Wolvog couldn’t see them at first, so I made him contort his body halfway into the front seat so he could see out my window. The only way it would come true is if we all saw them; so we all saw them.
When we got to the beach, we went to jump waves, but the ocean was ten times rougher than it had been the day before. We were being knocked around and swallowing a lot of water, so we decided to get out after ten minutes.
After we got back on the sand, we realized that we had set up our blanket next to a horseshoe crab. He must have been washed in with the morning tide and couldn’t get back into the ocean. We asked a passing lifeguard if there was anything we could do for the crab, but he picked it up and told us that he had died a few hours earlier.
“Things get washed up on the beach every day. If you had come here this morning, there was an enormous shark that got beached. Had to get it off the sand at five in the morning.”
Wait. What? Enormous shark?
“There are sharks?” I asked. “Like this close to the edge?”
“Lady, this isn’t a swimming pool. You share the ocean with all those animals. You get what you get.”
Fine, I wasn’t saying that the sharks couldn’t be there too. I just wanted the sharks to be somewhere far away. The ocean is a big place; why did we all need to swim together?
He pointed to a place where the waves were breaking a second time a few meters off shore from the first break and told us that it was a trough in the ocean where sharks and skates fed. Did they ever bother humans? Not often. But if we didn’t like the idea of swimming that close to fish, we shouldn’t go in the water because even though we had never seen so much as a dorsal fin, the water around us was teaming with more than the occasional horseshoe crab underfoot.
After he walked away, I looked at the twins and said that there was only one thing to do now. We had to go in the water so we didn’t let our fear of the sea life build between trips to the beach. So we held hands and ran into the water, swimming to the first break. We bobbed up and down for ten minutes again, being knocked over by huge waves, and decided that we had proved our point. No one else was in the water since the waves were so rough, and while we wanted to prove that we were brave enough to swim near fish, we were not stupid enough to swim when no one was swimming.
Every once in a while, aloneness is a sign.
We went to the ice cream store one more time before we headed home. After we threw out our empty cups and wiped our mouths and said goodbye to the ice cream store staff, we got in the car and sat in the parking lot for a minute while I rested my head on the steering wheel and cried.
It is so hard to enter aloneness, but it is so hard to leave it too. To come back to the rest of the world and leave your island. For those three days, it was just us against the world, and we could shut out everything happening back at home. Pretend it wasn’t happening. We could curl up in bed together and watch Hotel Transylvania, and talk about things I believed when I was little, and play pinball. I could lie on the sand and read the Hunger Games and play catch with the Wolvog and search for seashells. We could stay up until late and eat potato chips right before dinner and tell the hotel staff not to bother making our beds because we were just going to mess them up again anyway.
We put back on our Beatles mix for the ride home, starting with “Here Comes the Sun.” We drove back over the causeway, the light glinting off the water to make the salt marshes turn a brilliant green, a colour that seemed so hopeful that it looked unnatural. But we believed in it, since we were looking for signs from the universe.
We believed in that greenness.
And we drove home.