There’s a place where I’ve walked for over 50 years. Yes, it’s true, I’m ancient. I’ve seen this spit of beach change a lot in all those years. I learned to swim there. My children learned to swim there and my grandchildren swim there now. I’ve seen sunrises and sunsets, bad days and good days. I’ve walked any number of dogs there that began as puppies and ended up as grizzled, arthritic, old dogs.
Over the years I’ve seen all sorts of birds. I’ve followed the tracks of red fox, coyote and deer. I’ve seen rabbits and mice, a skunk and a mink. I’ve collected the whelk and scallop shells that line my home window sills and I keep yearly watch over the fluctuating population of horseshoe crabs. I won’t pretend I know every grain of sand there but it could be close.
On occasion I find dead things. I found a seal once that had a huge bite taken out of it. I’ve found eider ducks and great blue herons half buried in the sand. I’ve found lots of fish heads and crab bodies, and one year, thousands of squid washed up on the shore.
Death in the ocean and on the beach is not uncommon. I’ve watched hawks make a kill and found the half-eaten remains of some animal’s dinner. I’ve heard hunters shoot ducks and I’ve watched lobstermen motor by, their boats full of crustaceans doomed to be somebody’s gourmet dinner. In other words, death is no stranger on this stretch of sand and no stranger to me.
However, on a recent morning I watched an ambulance go by, followed by a police car. A little later a news truck drove by. I was at a Main Street café and none of those sights were really rare. Except the news truck. That’s not an everyday occurrence, even in my busy town.
Word filtered in that a woman had been found by a birdwatcher at my beach. And yes, I do claim some ownership after 50 years of almost daily visits and walks. She had slipped and fallen or maybe deliberately entered the water and had been found floating. Her coat and shoe still sat upon the shore, or maybe had washed up. It was a day I had been lazy and chosen not to walk in the cold wind. I’d decided I’d go down after my café visit. But after hearing the news, I went home, and I haven’t returned to the beach since. The woman did not survive. The police said she was a local, but her name was never published.
Just about a year, maybe two years ago, a homeless man many of us town locals knew, at least by sight, died on a cold winter night at a beach down the shore from this one. He was a regular sight for those of us in the area. An ardent photographer, he was a man who struggled with some things that kept him from holding a regular job. That didn’t keep him from making beautiful photos or from smiling and chatting for a moment when he saw you. Even though I didn’t know his last name, I grieved his passing. It had been one of those bitter cold nights with the wind off the water. I hoped he’d just fallen asleep and passed quietly into the night.
There’s something about these deaths that has lingered in me, like the heavy scent of roses after the rain or a dream that is difficult to shake. Death is not a stranger to any beach. Sailors and fishermen have succumbed to the waves for centuries.
Back in the day people built their homes facing away from the sea. They knew she was not benevolent. That wind, rain, snow and sleet were not their friends. That tides and currents could have an invisible, sinister undertow. Many, many did not return home. Only the empty, ever present waves, slapped against the shore. Waves no survivors wanted to see and hear day after day.
The difference between those and these, perhaps, is that those who went to sea always knew there was a risk. Did these two souls know this, too? Did they deliberately slip away in the freezing air and water? Or, were they innocent victims of the cold? I guess we will never know. I do know that I will never walk upon that jetty or pass a certain tree without seeing a rainbow in the salt spray or hearing the songs of snow buntings rise from the dunes as if in somber celebration of lives lost to the sand and sea. On occasion, I may lay down a flower or two and watch the clouds pass by in slow motion. They may be gone, but the sea and sky remain and the waves will whisper their names with all the others before them.