Digging in the Sand

I became reacquainted with Nick at an annual reunion breakfast that Denise Meyers held for her former interns at the elementary school where I’d finished my graduate studies in social work. Denise was the school counselor there, and I’d interned for her four years earlier, about the time that Nick’s severely-handicapped son had been born. I hadn’t gone to any of the previous reunions, but changed my plans to attend that one because Denise said in her email that Nick would be there, that his wife had left him, that his son was in the children’s hospital for a longer stretch than usual, and that he was having a hard time. Nick had been the assistant principal during the time of my internship and, because of the nature of our overlapping responsibilities, was the person at the school with whom I’d worked most closely. He’d been generous with his time and kind to me when we worked together – kind, in fact, to everyone with whom I ever saw him interact – and wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation that helped me get the job I still held with an agency supporting foster youth. I’d been very fond of Nick and was sorry to hear of his troubles. So, I went.

The breakfast was held at a bakery near the school. A small section of tables at the back had been cordoned off and set with platters of bagels and muffins, decanters of coffee, and

pitchers of orange juice. About a dozen of us, all females, showed up and took turns talking together and catching up with Denise. Nick didn’t arrive until things were winding down and made apologies for a meeting he’d been at that had gone longer than expected. I watched him as he visited with Denise and a few of the other former interns. She’d told me earlier that he’d been promoted to principal at the poorest and lowest performing school in the district, one made up almost entirely of dependants of enlisted military families, the year after I left and had completely turned it around; she said it had become the school with the district’s highest achievement data and was regarded for its social-emotional supports for military students and families. Nick was still tall and good looking, but his shoulders were stooped, his hair a little disheveled, and his sports coat wrinkled. He was about ten years older than me, but had aged significantly more than that.

When our paths finally crossed, I could see more closely the weariness in his eyes. He congratulated me on my position and asked about my work. I gave him a brief summary of things and then said, “Denise let me know about some of the challenges you’ve been facing…with your son and all. I’m sorry.”

I watched him blink several times and look away. I touched the elbow of his sports coat. He turned back, paused, and said, “Yeah.”

“I hope things get better,” I said. “I really do.”

He nodded. Two other former interns he’d worked with greeted him, and he turned his attention to them. We drifted apart, but I continued to watch him from the corner of my eye until I had to leave.

I sent Nick a card the next day saying it was good to see him again and to let me know if he ever needed someone to talk to. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I was surprised to hear his voice on the other end of the line when he called several nights later.

“If your offer is still good,” he said. “I’d like to do that…to get together.”

“Sure.”

“I’d appreciate talking to someone like you, you know, with your counseling background.” I heard him laugh. “Informally, I mean.”

We met that Friday evening for drinks at a bar along the ocean boardwalk. I got there before he did and found a tall top table next to an open window. He came in a few minutes later, looking rumpled and sheepish. He gave me an awkward hug.

We ordered beers, then sat looking at each other until he finally blew out a long breath.

“Well,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me what’s been going on?”

He nodded, it seemed, gratefully, and began a rambling soliloquy that lasted more than an hour. When we’d worked together, he’d always seemed stoical to me and a person of few words, so his steady stream of pain and personal struggle was startling. Nick told me how Ben’s medical fragility issues had become more and more complicated over the years. He’d had a long bout of seizure and secretion control issues; things had gotten to the point that his care needs were often round the clock. He’d finally entered the hospital with an especially bad pneumonia about a year earlier. Ben had already had a fundoplication and a G-tube put in to help prevent further aspirations, but during that admission the pulmonologist recommended a tracheotomy to make managing and clearing his secretions easier, which would require a lengthy stay in the convalescent wing to follow. Shortly after that recommendation, Nick’s wife told him she was done being a martyr, that she deserved to be happy, and that she was leaving and moving in with her yoga instructor. Nick had no idea about their affair. She didn’t come to the hospital for the surgery, and never visited the convalescent wing where Ben stayed afterwards. She wouldn’t return Nick’s messages. He had no contact with her again until about several months later when he was served divorce papers while standing bus duty at dismissal in front of the school.

I ordered us each another beer around the time he was explaining the litany of additional medical problems Ben had been facing: operations on his testicles and eyes, complicated breathing treatments, the long titration period weaning him off oxygen to maintain acceptable O2 saturation levels. Nick began each day before work by driving up to see Ben in the convalescent wing, and retuned immediately afterwards every afternoon to be with him until bedtime. During Ben’s admittances to the acute side for surgeries and procedures, Nick always spent the night in his room. It had taken most of the past year for Ben’s condition to stabilize enough to consider bringing him home again and for Nick to find nursing care for him during the workday and overnight, but finally those arrangements had been made. He said he would be bringing Ben home that next week. His eyes lit up and he smiled when he told me that. It was the first time he’d done so since he greeted me when he entered the bar.

I returned his smile. The sun had gone down behind him through the window, and the horizon’s long orange glow was fading.

“I’m sorry for going on and on like that,” Nick said. “I’m kind of a wreck.”

“You’ve been through a lot.”

He shrugged and looked out the window. “We missed the sunset,” he said. “With me going on and on. Shucks.”

That’s all right.”

He turned back to me. “I appreciate you listening. And understanding.”

The truth was I understood better than he knew. I’d moved my father in with me to care for him after his stroke a couple of years before. And then my step-brother got kicked out of his group home due to violent episodes connected to his bipolar disorder and came to live with us so I could help him, too.

I reached over and put my hand on Nick’s. “Hey, how about if we walk out to the end of the pier? We won’t talk at all. We’ll just be together and watch the evening fall.”

A cool breeze came in through the window, and I could taste the salt on it. Nick was nodding slowly. “Okay,” he said quietly. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”

Nick and I began doing things together. We moved very tentatively at first; he was still gun shy from the way things had ended in his marriage, and I’d broken off a long term relationship with a boyfriend only a year or so earlier because of his gambling problems. Our own caretaking responsibilities limited the free time we each had available, and when we did get together, it usually involved Ben. So, we did things like take him for walks in his wheelchair, play gin rummy or backgammon, maybe rent a movie to watch. Over time, our relationship deepened and evolved romantically, although our circumstances had limitations. I worked ten-hour shifts four days a week so I could take my dad and step-brother to their medical and psychiatric appointments on Wednesdays, and weekends were mostly filled with chores, which meant we only had two or three evenings a week to be together. Those circumstances, however, did allow us to uniquely appreciate and support one another’s worlds and to accept the priorities therein. We also shared a similar need for independence and didn’t ask for or expect much from one another. We rarely spoke on the phone or communicated between visits, and there were often stretches of several weeks when Ben, my father, or my step-brother was in the hospital, sometimes overlapping one another, when we couldn’t see each other at all. And with Nick owning his little two-bedroom condo and having it set up for all of Ben’s medical equipment, there was no possibility of blending our two families together.

But, somehow things worked. Maybe the infrequency of being with one another kept things fresh somehow. We had time to miss each other, and the limited time we had together seemed precious. Eventually, we became intimate, although it took many months for it to happen. That part was quiet, tender, and very satisfying, though we rarely expressed our love for each other verbally. It seemed unnecessary somehow, and as if it might compromise things. I’m not sure why.

A bit of irony occurred during our second year together when I got a job as the social worker in the convalescent wing of the hospital where Ben had once been a patient. My understanding of Nick’s world grew even more after that, as did my admiration for his devotion to Ben. Many of the patients in our wing had been there for many years and rarely had visitors. It became a special joy for me, even a passion, when I could help arrange a discharge for one to go home. The care in the convalescent wing was good, but with fifty beds and a nursing staff of ten on each shift, the attention that could be provided each child was necessarily limited. They would be repositioned and have their diapers checked and changed regularly. They were all part of the rotations during which groups were pushed into the “family room” where a television played or, if the weather was nice, out onto the interior patio. And volunteers came to interact with them: a woman with a rescue dog, a barber to cut hair, a trio that played ragtime music, a chaplain who did a short non-denominational Sunday service for the few children whose families requested that. But, it wasn’t anything like being home. It just wasn’t.

Nick and I got away for an overnight together every now and then when he was able to arrange respite nursing to piggyback his day and night shifts. We never went far so we could return home quickly if there was an emergency. We usually found a bed-and-breakfast somewhere up the coast or in the mountains nearby where we could go for a hike during the day and find a nice place for dinner. Those little trips felt special, I’ll admit, and almost decadent with no responsibilities and so much more time alone together. By contrast with our daily lives, they seemed almost delicious and other-worldly. We looked forward to them a great deal. When one was coming up, I often felt flushes of anticipation.

On one of those trips, we were walking along a brook, and Nick asked me about a discharge I’d been working on at the hospital.

“Done yesterday. He’s home.”

Nick smiled and so did I. “Single mom, kid is both trach and vent, and she only has day nursing. But, she’s ecstatic and so is he. I nearly cried watching them leave together.”

He squeezed my hand. “That’s about your fourth discharge so far this year, isn’t it?”

I nodded, but my heart fell a little. The truth was that as much as I was pleased to arrange a discharge and see a child go home, our new admittances hadn’t kept pace, and my supervisor was taking some heat for the drop in our census. But, the trail ahead opened into a meadow where the brook widened, and it was lovely, and I was with Nick there, so I chased the thought away.

Barring a medical emergency, our lives together fell into a kind of rhythm where I’d spend the night at his house on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. He had to get up early when the overnight nurse’s shift ended, so I used that time for an hour’s walk along the bay. I loved starting my day that way: quiet, the air crisp, dawn spreading slowly against the city’s skyline, the lap of the water along the shore. There weren’t many people out at that hour, but the ones I usually saw were more or less regulars: other walkers or joggers, bicyclists, folks out with their dogs, a few paddle boarders or kayakers on the water, and one small old man I always saw on the long, narrow stretch of beach in front of the tidelands park. He was usually on his hands and knees digging deliberately, almost studiously, with a short shovel in the sand. The passes he made with the blade of the shovel were shallow ones. I found that curious.

There were other routines in the stretches of time Nick and I spent together. When I arrived at his place after work, we’d usually share drinks and talk for a while. On nice evenings, we’d sit on the back porch with Ben in his wheelchair, and in the winter, we sat on the couch in front of the fireplace in the living room. Nick almost always bar-b-qued something for dinner, and afterwards, I often stretched out on the couch laid my head on his lap while we read. In between those activities, Nick tended to Ben’s various needs. Shortly before eight, he got Ben into his pajamas and then snuggled and rocked him in the bedroom while he sang him the same three lullabies. From the couch, I could hear the movement of the rocking chair and Nick’s soft, off-key voice; sometimes, I peeked in and Ben would always be nuzzling his face into Nick’s chest and making that yawning grin of his. About eight-thirty, after he’d tucked Ben in, there was a short period of time when there were no scheduled care responsibilities, and Nick and I got into bed together. Sometimes we made love, and sometimes we just held each other until he had to get up for Ben’s next procedure a half-hour or so later. I was often already asleep by then.

Nick sent me an email at work every Wednesday or Thursday asking what I wanted for dinner on Friday, so I was surprised one windy week in February when that didn’t happen. I waited until mid-afternoon on Friday to call his school, which I’d never done before. His secretary answered. When I asked for Nick, the line remained silent for a long moment. Then she asked, “Is this someone from work or personal?”

“I’m a friend.”

I could hear her breathing on the other end of the line. Finally, she said, “You haven’t heard then?”

My heart clenched. “What?”

“He’s gone.” Her voice broke. “Passed…there was an accident, a car accident.”

“No!” I heard myself shout. I began sobbing and slumped from my chair onto the floor. From the receiver, I could hear her whimpering, too. I kept muttering, “No, no, no, no…” until I stopped suddenly and asked, “Was Ben…?”

“Ben wasn’t in the car,” she told me. “He’s with his mother now.”

After I hung up, I stayed curled in a ball on the floor weeping. When the wind came up outside, I was aware of it blowing against my office window. I ached all over.

The next few weeks were a blur of grief and numbness. Ben’s mom had remarried and changed her name to one Nick hadn’t shared, so I couldn’t check on him. I had no way of knowing if there was a memorial or funeral for Nick because he had no extended family. I still drove by his condo on my way for my early morning walks; a “for sale” sign appeared in his front lawn one day, and there was no furniture left inside when I looked through the windows, so he must have had made arrangements for things before he died.

My dad developed severe swelling in his ankles, which required hospital admittance and follow-up visits with several specialists. That occupied some of my time. And there was a complicated discharge at the convalescent wing that involved extra hours and helped keep my mind off of things, too. But, I felt a constant pall of emptiness and loss. I found myself standing in rooms and not being able to remember why I’d entered them. I had trouble sleeping. Many mornings, I was already awake before I could hear the first southbound train pass on the tracks down the hill well before dawn. I began rising earlier and earlier to walk along the bay before work.

On a rainy late afternoon a little over a month later, I was getting ready to leave work when the receptionist called my office to say that there was a potential new family hoping I’d have a few minutes to talk. I told her to bring them down, and in a moment, I heard her say, “This is Beth, our social worker.” I looked up from my desk to see Ben in his wheelchair in my open doorway with his mom standing next to him.

My heart leapt, then tumbled, and I felt myself blinking. I’m not sure what my expression showed, but the receptionist frowned at me before walking away, and so did Ben’s mom. I forced myself to stand and shake her hand.

She said, “I’m Molly. This is Ben.”

I put my hand on his knee and squeezed it. “Ben,” I said. “How are you, Ben?”

His face broke into one of his grins.

“Look at that,” Molly said softly.

I smiled myself, then looked at her. “Please,” I said. I gestured towards one of the chairs in front of my desk. “Come in. Sit down.”

I sat across from her and watched her arrange Ben’s wheelchair next to her and smooth his hair before she lowered herself next to him. I’d once come upon a photograph of her inside a book on a shelf at Nick’s, a much younger and less worn version of the woman across from me. She glanced my way, pursed her lips, looked at Ben, and then outside. A long moment passed with only the sound of the rain. Then she sighed heavily and said, “Ben has come under my care suddenly after having been with his father for several years.” She paused, but didn’t turn her gaze from the window. “And I’ve tried. Lord knows I have. But, it’s too much. I can’t do it.”

My stomach fell. I swallowed.

She turned slowly back until our eyes met. “I’ve heard wonderful things about the level of care here,” she said. “And parents can visit whenever they like, is that right?”

I nodded, and she did the same. She looked quickly at Ben and then turned back to me. “I understand you have some spaces for new patients now?”

I knew I should speak. It was not unlike the way many conversations I’d had with perspective parents over the years had begun. But all I could do was nod again.

“That’s good, then. That’s fortunate. I know it’s late, but would you have a few minutes to show us a room, maybe take a quick tour?”

“Yes,” I heard myself say. “I can do that.”

We left my office and made the same loop that I’d made with other potential new families. I found a way to say the basic things I usually did and hoped my voice had the upbeat, positive tone I always tried to give it. Molly didn’t break into tears or stunned silence the way some parents did when they saw room after room of children like their own lying in beds, drooling, staring off into space, or at the sight of a group of them lined up slumped at different angles in their wheelchairs in the family room while a show ran on the television that none of them watched. Instead, she nodded hopefully at each stop along the way, and when she looked at me, her eyes were filled with relief, not grief. It was also a look I’d seen many times before.

Afterwards, we returned to my office, but she didn’t come back inside. “So, how soon could he be admitted?” she asked. “Ben, I mean.”

In as steady a voice as possible, I explained to her the admittance process and gave her some paperwork to complete and return. I told her what things she would need to bring for him from home and what items were optional.

“Which room would he be in?”

I consulted a notebook on my desk. “Probably the first one nearest the nurses’ station.”

“That’s nice,” she said nodding. “That’s a good spot.”

We set an admittance date for the end of the next week. She looked down at Ben, smoothed his hair again, and thanked me. I watched her push him down the hall towards the entrance of the building. A bald-headed man much older than her who I hadn’t noticed sitting near the front door stood and pushed it ajar for her. They kissed briefly, and then he opened a big umbrella over them and Ben. The door closed behind them, and I watched them disappear down the ramp in the rain.

Ben’s room was smaller than most, so he had no roommate. Molly had put a photo of herself and her new husband on the little bulletin board next to his bed. She’d also brought the stuffed elephant that had been in his bed at Nick’s condo and a small boom box with some CD’s of classical music. I saw her name in the visitors’ log a few times during Ben’s first month with us, but not afterwards, and she only participated by phone for the required quarterly care-group meetings.

I stopped in Ben’s room every morning on my way to the office to visit him, and dropped in several other times each day. On those occasions, I hugged him, talked to him for a bit, and usually put some music on for him when I left. He had the same routines as all the other patients. These included “school” in a special classroom in an adjoining annex for a few hours each morning. He had breathing treatments with the respiratory therapist at noon and again around midnight. He had his daily turns for a shower, in the family room, and with any volunteer activities. If his sats dropped or he began coughing, a nurse went in to suction and take needed steps. Except for an occasional pneumonia, which wasn’t uncommon for our patients, he rarely had to be admitted to the acute side.

Before I left each evening, I also stopped in for a longer visit. I’d take him out of bed and hold him in the rocking chair I’d found for him like Nick used to do. I’d snuggle him and sing him the same nightly songs Nick had in a quiet voice so I wouldn’t be heard at the nursing station. Ben would burrow his face into my chest and grin like he’d done with his dad. It was the happiest I’d see him at any time during the day. It was impossible not to think of Nick when I did that, and I often couldn’t make it through all the songs without stopping to regain my composure. I felt awful about Ben having to live there, but at the same time, guilty for the joy of being with him and holding him each day.

I began taking my morning walks down by the bay almost daily. It was rare not to see the old man making his shallow, deliberate passes in the sand with his small shovel. I finally stopped one morning and asked him what he was doing, what he was trying to find.

He looked up at me in the dim light with eyes that were downturned at the edges and kind. He shrugged. “I don’t know.” His voice was gentle. “Whatever I find.”

“Why don’t you dig any deeper?”

He shrugged again. “Well, I guess it’s just come to seem about the right depth to find things.” He slid the tip of the shovel a few inches into the sand, and made a slow sweep of it in front of him. He stopped, reached down, and lifted something small into his hand. He studied it for a moment, brushed the sand from it, then looked up at me and smiled. “Here,” he said quietly. “Catch.”

He tossed what he was holding my way and I caught it with both hands. It was a tiny toy truck.

When I looked back at him, he had the same quiet smile. “See? For you.”

It was the sort of thing a boy Ben’s age would play with. I knew that I would set it on the table next to his bed and that I would close it in his hand when I rocked and sang to him at night. The old man must have seen my lips trembling because he returned to sweeping his shovel through the sand. A line of sunlight was just licking the top of the city’s skyline behind him across the bay, and a small breeze lifted his thin hair. After a few moments, he looked up again and said, “Continue your walk. I’ll look forward to seeing you again. Now we can say hello to each other.”

I tried to say thank you, but could only mouth the words. He nodded, smiled, and pivoted on his knees to make a pass with the shovel through a new patch of sand. I thought about my father and step-brother who would be waiting for me to make them breakfast at home. I thought about all the children at work. I thought about Nick and Ben and Molly. I thought about the things in life that came without warning: some good, some not. A train whistle blew. Another small breeze ruffled the old man’s hair. I thought: we all just do the best we can. At that moment, I wasn’t certain of much, but I was pretty sure about that.

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