the following is unedited.
as my mom used to say, you just can’t red-pencil a love letter.
day by day
oh dear lord
three things I pray
to see thee more clearly
love thee more dearly
follow thee more nearly
day by day
brooke and i walk up the stretch of beach. it’s just the two of us. katie and luau are on a roadtrip up north.
the time together is a gift.
we walk by a young couple and their two young toddlers. one playing in the sand at her mom’s feet, the other on his father’s lap. dad is pointing skyward and a chubby little arm is following suit. together, they trace a seagull’s flight.
something catches in my throat.
the little boy can be no more than two if he’s a day. and he’s watching so intently, mimicking his dad, oohing and ahhing as the gull dips into the sea, then rises again on a gust of wind.
the glory of joint attention.
i try to lock her out, but envy barges in with a question.
what might brooke and i have seen together when she was two? three?
four, five, six?
when was that first time? the blue house. days shy of her sixth birthday. “look, mom,” she’d said. a casual miracle.
the memory cements my feet to the ground. i don’t realize i’ve stopped moving (or that i’m staring) until my girl’s voice breaks into my thoughts.
“keep following me, mom,” she says.
“i am, baby,” i say. “i’m right here.”
i give envy a smug smile and send her out for a swim. “my kid just asked me to follow her,” i tell her, “there’s no room for you here.”
brooke and i are chasing “crystals” – the slightly hardened plates of sand whose discovery is our raison d’être at the beach.
they have to be just the right kind, not wet, but not dry enough to disintegrate before she can extract them.
every few feet, she stops, seeing something in the sand or the sky that no one else sees. maybe sensing something on the wind.
when she does, she looks down, bends over, rakes her fingers through the sand, checks for evidence that crystals might be nearby.
and while she investigates, i look around, take in a scene, seeing something in the people around us that no one else sees. maybe sensing something on the wind.
the crystals aren’t in this latest spot, so we’re on the move again.
i try to steer her toward the ocean, but she prefers to stay here, trolling the edges of what she calls the rivers — the tide pools that fill with water, warming quickly in the sun. they are calm, predictable. you can always see the bottom of a tide pool.
she stops, compelled by some internal guide, and begins to dig into a wall of sand.
two young boys, maybe five and seven, are wrestling nearby. the bigger one is holding the other down in submission. i watch to make sure it’s playful. there’s a violence inherent in their interaction that puts me on edge. my girls don’t play that way. physical horseplay is entirely foreign to me.
“say it,” says the big one, standing over the little one. “say that you won’t ever kiss me again, oh brother of mine.”
i look around for their parents, wondering if this is their normal — if maybe it’s everyone normal. if this is just what people do. no one else is giving them a second glance.
i finally catch a glimpse of the little one’s face, just inches from the sand, and see that he’s half-smiling. “okay, okay, i promise,” he says.
i exhale, but it stays with me. where does play end and hurt begin?
my girl stands upright again, scans the terrain with an expert eye, then heads off toward the sandbar between the tide pools. i watch her, rapt – her long, lean limbs so lithe and free. i wonder where my baby went, leaving this gorgeous young preteen in her place.
she squeals into the wind. i snap a picture with my phone, then put it down to watch some more.
the wind picks up. she looks as though she might take flight. i could watch her for days.
she breaks through my revery. “mom. follow me.”
i assure her again that i’m right here, and pad along behind. “i’m with you, baby,” i say. “anywhere you want to go.”
on her way to the sandbar, she splashes by a young girl sitting in the shallow water, scooping mud into a bucket. “hi,” the girl says hopefully.
brooke doesn’t notice, or if she does, she doesn’t react. she keeps sloshing through the water. she’s on a mission.
i wonder if i should call her back, prompt her through an introduction. i decide that not every moment has to be a lesson. i let her plod on ahead, i smile at the girl and return her greeting myself. she looks up at me, momentarily confused, then shrugs and tops off her bucket with another scoop of mud.
brooke has found a craggy ridge in the sand. like seals herald sharks, they are a harbinger that crystals can’t be far behind. she stops to gently touch the ridge, her fingers taking readings, recording the smallest topographical changes, taking note of the various gradations in consistency.
i glance back at the girl with the bucket. i remember twenty times when brooke was the one saying hi. when another kid took no notice or didn’t react if they did. when my heart broke for her unrequited efforts to reach out, to connect, to say, “i’m here.”
how many times did other kids simply not hear her? how many times was it not nearly what my own insecurities turned it into? my own fears for her, my own shredded nerves, residing as they so often do atop my skin, creating a scene that wasn’t. how many times should i simply have shrugged and topped of my bucket?
brooke has found a cluster of crystals. she is on her haunches now, pulling them slowly from behind the ridge. with one in hand, she rises, tossing it into the tide pool, watching it turn back into sand, then mud. she finds them to scatter them. the circle of life — squat, extract, stand, scatter.
the supply is quickly exhausted and it’s time to move on and search again. she turns on her heel and heads back the way we came. we’ve walked this stretch of beach four times now. we leave no sand unturned.
“mama,” she says, “come with me.”
“i’m right here, kiddo,” i say. “i’d follow you to the ends of the earth.”
“the ends of the earth?” she says.
vestiges of echolalia.
“yup, the ends of the earth.”
we walk past the toddler and his dad still pointing at gulls, past the little brother and the big brother now digging a hole together, one surely not about to kiss the other any time soon, past the little girl who has now dumped her bucket only to refill it again.
in a flash, my girl turns and comes running toward me. “butterfly!” she shouts, waving her arms up and down with an ethereal grace and an impossible intersection of hyper speed and slow motion.
she says it again, “butterfly!” and flaps her wings.
then she laughs – oh that laugh!
the sunlight shimmers on the tide pool bathing her caramel skin in gold. the wind swirls around her in a glorious, joyful, holy embrace, the ocean echoes back her laughter. her laugh summons god — every time.
she stops suddenly and stands stock still, looking out into the middle distance as if something there is urgently demanding her attention.
i drop to my knees beside her in the sand and follow her gaze. i scan the horizon, wondering what it is, but i see nothing out of the ordinary.
she squeals and runs toward the water. “mama,” she yells, “follow me!”
and i do, of course.
along with the embrace of the wind and the warmth of the sun and the roar of the ocean and the stunning beauty of god’s presence here on earth.
i follow her.