Monday, August 3, 2009

Reality, Departures from

Every July, like all good Philadelphians, my family members gather for a week long vacation in Ocean City, New Jersey. We’ve been vacationing “down the shore” for almost a century and my family’s history, both good and bad, is tied up in the place.

My mother still tells stories about the summer she spent in Ocean City between her junior and senior years of college. I celebrated both my first and thirty-first birthdays (and many in between) in rented apartments blocks from the boardwalk. My brother and I played on the beach together as children and got tattoos in a neighboring town as young adults. After his first chemo treatment my Dad scored 7 holes-in-one at Tee Time mini-golf.

I had my first emergency room visit at Shore Memorial Hospital. After the final surgery to scrape all of the cancer cells from his skin, Dad shuffled along the boardwalk and contemplated his foreshortened future. When bedrest precluded my visit two years ago my Mom made the trip for me and returned with a tub of caramel corn to hold back the mounting dread in my hospital room.

When R got sick I chased death away with a vision of her on the beach, chubby and sand-covered—a happy, healthy one-year-old.

In Ocean City, reality is just a vague notion. Old-fashioned candy stores occupy nineteenth century buildings. The boardwalk restores the spring to aging knees during a morning jog. Laughing children fly through the air on ancient carnival rides. Everything is enveloped in the heavenly aroma of fried delicacies and salt air and there is no such thing as a “bikini-body”. It’s paradise…New Jersey-style.

This year marked C’s first visit as a fully-functioning human and I was excited for her initiation into the wonders of the shore. On our first morning I anxiously prepared her for the beach—thick coat of SPF 60+, wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved bathing suit, toys, and all of the requisite equipment. We loaded up the wagon and trekked across the burning sand to a perfect spot near the lifeguard stand. My brother set up the chairs and umbrellas while my mother, sister-in-law, and I wrangled the kids. By the time we were ready to hit the water I was almost as anxious as C and the Dynamic Duo.

Then I turned around and saw them. Chubby, sand-covered twin boys frolicking on a blanket with their beaming grandfather.

The sight of twin toddlers feels more like an exceptionally painful stubbed toe these days than a shotgun blast to the chest. Happy grandfathers barely register anymore. Still, I felt a jolt of envy and anger.

My mind leapt into action, fighting to hold on to my mellow vacation mentality. Within moments the poor parents of these beautiful boys had faced numerous miscarriages prior to the miraculous arrival of their babies. Grandpa became a great uncle, standing in for a father tragically killed in Vietnam and Grandma a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s.

For me this is the most miserable side effect of loss—feeling bad feels good. Some drown their sorrows with alcohol or turn to drugs for relief, I self-medicate with sad stories. Normally the universe (or at least the internet) is happy to oblige with real tragedy. Occasionally I have to cook something up from scratch to get my fix.

Is this behavior normal? Probably. I doubt my little brain has come up with some previously unknown way to grieve. Is it healthy? Probably not but it helps me function. (By the way, the boys escaped unscathed. I haven’t sunk so low that I have to construct calamities for children to float my decrepit ship of hope)

Anxious to get some distance from the poor family being decimated by my overactive imagination I walked C down to the water. I helped her jump over the waves--a time-honored family tradition. We dug in the sand and I showed her how to make a drippy sand castle--just like my Dad taught me so many years before. Gradually my anxiety drifted away, lifted on a warm current of fabricated sympathy and nostalgia and carried out across the water by C’s screams of delight.

Ocean City is the perfect place to escape reality. Developers build high-rise condos on shifting sands. Entire families bathe nearly naked in UV radiation. Diesel-powered carnival rides spew fumes into crowds of children with developing lungs. People chow down on artery clogging funnel-cake and frozen custard for dinner.

But look at them smiling.

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