It’s More Dangerous to Stand Still
Mom on the Beach
My mother, with two knee replacements, asked us to take her to the beach. She conjured for us warm, bright afternoons, salt breeze tickling skin, and starfish basking in their rocky pools. She told it like we might find deep truths in some sparkling sea foam. “I don’t need to swim,” she said. “I just want to walk a little in the water.”
With swimsuits on under our clothes, we drove down on the day we had free and found it cloudy, blustering, sixty degrees under gray sky. I scraped coarse sand off of three lounge chairs where we lay towels. But when we went to walk along the strand, when we felt our toes digging into the damp sand, we said, “It’s worth it.”
Between my husband’s and my supporting arms, my mom pressed her weight forward off of one foot to the next. Her voice changed. I heard strain. When the first wave hit our shins, she screamed mixed fear and joy, and the water rushed through our six pillar legs as if the earth was flying beneath us till its farthest point, and there that wave held briefly as still water, a lip of the great ocean lingering—
I thought I never had seen anything more beautiful than those bubbles briefly clinging in rings around our shins. Then the wave drew out again, and beneath our feet I felt sand stripped away, the rough grains dragging, the earth shifting till I grew unstable, bent my knees to balance myself. “Mom!” I braced my own unsteady weight under her shoulder, and now she screamed real fear.
Then with new nerve she took a jerking step, the kind a baby is applauded for. One step restored her steadiness with a new plinth of sand beneath the foot. A second step reset the balance, and when I looked back at the place where we had stood, six misshapen pits yawned where we had sunk into the shingle, smoothed but not obliterated by the last streams of the dying wave. We learned we had to walk as the water pulled back out, although the world moved around us and we yearned to just stay still. Stability came in our own motion. The sea pulled its supports out from below.
She had soon had enough. We helped her back to her lounge chair where she laughed and lazed with sunglasses pressed back tight into her eyes although the clouds had deepened. She scrolled through pictures on her phone and chatted blithely with the passing families who brought kids or dogs. She watched the daring swimmers from her drier, sturdier place, and I could not stand the thing inside me sinking, that the simple pleasure that she so had craved instead had proved another thing she no longer could do, the way she once had loved to ski, play volleyball, had camped on mountainsides. Now, if she fell to the ground she could not rise. She could not put direct weight on the metal knees. I was not sure we could have lifted her to her feet if she had fallen in the sea. She would have sat still in the water, salt waves washing to her chest and streaming sand out from beneath her body till she sank.
Only in the way she kept those sunglasses pressed tight to her face, only in that hiding did I sense regret, and perhaps even that pain was imagined. Perhaps the pain was only my own, and perhaps my mother had accepted time in ways I yet had not. I left my husband and her there, walked out along the strand until their forms had vanished among the host of obstinate beachgoers. I stood against the sea and let the waves crash through my legs and draw back and I stood still till I nearly fell.