The old walk the beaches of Cape Cod in September. This year, I was among them. Some walked with determined steadiness. Others could not but give in to age. One man fell climbing a pathway through the dunes and I ran to him and offered help. He waved me off and got to his feet, unassisted and uninjured.
“No,” he said, and I knew how he felt. Knew how I would feel if someone rushed to me.
I was lucky. I had a guide through the cold beaches of the fall in Cape Cod. His name was Henry. He is not yet four and he is my grandson.
“You have to dig out the boring stuff,” he said. It took a while to understand what he meant but, soon, I caught on. He made small patterns in the wet sand with his hands and then pointed them out to me. My job was to dig holes large enough to eradicate the patterns. The patterns were the boring stuff.
We walked the beach while he scratched in the boring stuff and then I dug the holes. I would look back and see we had walked a long way and left behind scores of holes. I worried running children would trip in the holes, but there were no running children. They were back in school. That’s where Henry would be when we returned to New Jersey.
Henry and I encountered a woman walking toward us. She stopped to talk.
“I have three grandchildren,” she said.
“I do, too,” I answered and gestured back where we had come from. “My wife is watching the other two. Twin girls.”
She followed my gaze but I realized Henry and I had walked so far we could no longer see the beach tent where Lynda stayed with Phoebe and Imogen, the 8-month-old twins.
“You are a very good grandfather,” the woman said. “You spend a lot of time with him.” She meant Henry who was patiently waiting for me to finish my boring adult conversation.
“I’m a very lucky grandfather,” I said. “I see him every day. And he wants to be with me.”
The woman, who said her name was Pam, didn’t seem to be listening. She said she was 66—younger than I—and said she knew she had little time to be with her three grandchildren.
“I know they will not remember me or what I say to them. So what I have to do is just love them so much my love gets into their bone marrow. It gets to be part of them and, maybe, when they grow up, they will act knowing someone loved them very much . Because it will be in their bone marrow.”
I nodded, as if I understood. Pam looked at Henry and she said, “Your grandfather loves you very much,” and then she left. Henry and I watched as she walked away and then we went back to digging out the boring stuff.
One shovel-full of sand came up with a shiny pink disk. It was the carapace, or top shell, of a crab polished by the water and the salt and the sand. I showed it to Henry without telling him what it was. He took it and announced that he didn’t want to keep it because, “It belonged in the water.’’
He stood just beyond the reach of the waves and threw the disk into the sea. It kept coming back with the foaming breakers. Finally, on the fourth or fifth time, the shiny pink disk did not reappear. It was gone forever, a tiny, lost sparkle in the limitless sea.
“It’s gone,” I said.
“It belongs there,” he said.
I couldn’t explain but I didn’t want to lose that shiny memento of my day with Henry on the beach in Brewster. I wanted to hold on to it. I thought about what Pam said and I was troubled she would be satisfied to be simply some unconscious, unidentifiable presence in the “bone marrow” of her grandchildren.
I want Henry and Phoebe and Imogen to remember me. I want them to keep me alive somehow. I had recently left a job I held for a half-century and I knew I already mean little, if anything at all, to the people I worked with. That’s what we do. What we did, the old on the beach at Cape Cod. Work as if it mattered—work instead of watching your children grow—work instead of spending more time with family—and then, when others decide, leave work as if it didn’t really matter and then expect to be happy—or, at least, indifferent, about it.
On that beach in Cape Cod, I felt sad. I was digging holes to hide the “boring stuff” and thought I might be the boring stuff. Maybe we all are. And we have to settle for believing in thoughts of bone marrow.
I noticed Henry was looking past me, back toward where we had left the twins. He smiled the way he does for only one person. His mother, my daughter.
“Mommy!” he called and ran to her.
“Henry!” she said. She lifted him up, ignoring his sand-covered clothes. She kissed him and set him down again.
“Look,” she said. “I found this on the beach for you. Isn’t it beautiful?” She showed him the shiny pink disk.