by Derek T. Bell
The week has almost passed and I have yet to see a sunset. I’ve missed them all. Every single one. I love my family, but moving all four of us in any specific direction can be a bit like turning an ocean liner. And as our vacation draws to a close, my patience has worn thin.
“I need to get out. Just for an hour or so.”
Thankfully, Amy agrees. As I head for the door, I add, “Hey Heath, do you want to go for a walk on the beach?” And miraculously, he says yes.
Walking beneath the planks of the porch above, and then climbing the wooden stairs, we leave behind the cool green world of our cozy apartment, tucked down the side of a wooded dune, hidden in the trees which surround The Khardomah, a ramshackle 1870 hunting lodge turned boarding house where we’ve been spending our week. Heath and I cross the quiet street, and as we head down the gently curving road we pass the original Highland Park cottages; the Loch Hame, the Bonnaire, and others, built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when this land was nothing but forest and sand, and far enough from town that, for a time, it had its own trolley line.
As we round the bend, Lake Michigan opens before us, a vast, inland ocean whose sudden appearance down these steep, curving roads, never fails to take my breath away. We look out over the beach, windblown under dense gray clouds, extending north to the town’s most famous landmark, the South Pier, its dark candy red lighthouse temporarily shrouded in the gray primer and netting of a late summer paint job. The green flag on the lifeguard stand flaps in the breeze, indicating it is safe to swim, but the water is largely empty due to its unseasonable chill. There had been red flags earlier in the week, not for riptides, as is usually the case, but for hypothermia, and while I did not swim on those days, the water remained cold enough throughout the week to give me a chill that was hard to shake.
From the top of the hill we make our way down four long flights of stairs, through the sand and dune grass, to the road, where we stop to check for cars, then skitter across and into the parking lot, before kicking off our shoes and stepping into the clean, white sand, cool now this late in the day. The water writhes beneath the overcast sky, a chaotic world of gray and white, and the sunset looks hopeless. But as we approach the gentle roar of the shoreline, the evening breeze ruffles my son’s hair.
I ask him if he wants to walk down to the pier, and he says “Sure.” And so we begin. Walking easily. Relaxing into each other.
A pair of jet skis scream from far out in the water, their noise, amplified by the open distance, seeming oddly loud to be coming from such small bouncing shadows. Heath asks what they are, and I tell him that, basically, it’s a couple of guys flying around on floating jet engines, and that on a day like this it must be a pretty rough ride. He asks why anyone would want to do that, and I tell him I haven’t a clue.
The water is cold against our feet, and Heath is timid at first, skipping awkwardly back up above the waterline every time a wave rushes in. But slowly, he acclimates, growing bolder and stepping further out into the cold, reveling in his own courage.
“Oh My God! I can’t believe how wet my pants are getting”
“Well, here. You need to roll them up.”
I step out into the water and roll his long shorts up above his knees, soaking mine in the process, his laughter contagious.
Heath has Asperger’s Syndrome, and, as a result, so many things have been difficult to share. His mind is sharp, and his passions are strong, but his palette is limited. Going outdoors is troubling, exercise is not his friend, and moving him beyond a computer screen is a battle gently waged on a daily basis. And yet here we are, on a whim, walking the waters of my childhood. And with every step I can see something inside him ease.
The jet skiers call it a day, their sputtering, high-pitched whine fading into the distance, and as the light begins to retreat, we make our way down the beach, passing three boys who have built a small mound of sand, and are now wrestling about, each one struggling to be king of the hill.
At the pier I show Heath a shortcut up the rocks, and having reached the top, we follow the battered concrete out from the shore, walking beneath the catwalk, passing the last few tourists as we make our way around the lighthouse and then out toward the foghorn, its deep, melancholy moan, one of my first memories, long ago replaced by a smooth sonic “ping “. Stepping around its squat red bulk, we come to the end. Three fisherman, their equipment scattered about, stand before an infinity of water and sky. A reel hums as a one makes a cast. His sinker plops as it hits the water and disappears into the darkness.
As we head back toward shore, the lights are coming on in the cottages, stars among the hills. Reaching the end, we scramble down to the sand, and Heath heads back to the water, greeting the waves as long lost friends, kicking at them, and delighting in the galaxies that explode off the ends of his feet. Looking back I see the pier lights come on, and notice, up above, in the northwest, a small opening in the clouds, its edges stained orange and red, the colors beginning to leak across the sky. Heath continues on, wading up to his knees, smashing at the rushing water.
Both brooding and vibrant, a vivid pink now dusts the turbulent blue-gray clouds in every direction. And then, with no visible movement, the gray is vanquished altogether, and everything above me goes pink. Neon as far as the eye can see.
Suddenly the lake ignites, the sky illuminating the water like fire on foil, blazes of pink dazzling the crests of the dark blue waves, mirroring the sky to the point that for one dizzying moment, I cannot tell them apart.
“Heath!” I cried
“Are you seeing this?”
Catching up to him, I wrap my arms around his chest and gently turn him toward the light.
“This is the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen.”
But even as I say it, the color begins to recede; the pink melting to orange, the gray closing in. I hold him for a moment and we watch. Nothing seems to change. But when I look away, and then back again, everything is different.
“Heath, have you ever heard the phrase ‘in the moment’? Do you know what that means?”
“No.” He replies, slipping from my arms and returning the water.
I do my best to explain: the past is gone, the future never arrives, so all we have is now. How much he takes in, I can’t be sure. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter.
He’s already there.