I always wondered if birds felt free. What it would be like to be that free. Did they ever wonder if they were being a bird right? Were they following the right etiquette that was being a bird? I wondered if they realized they had the power to go anywhere they wanted with a few flaps of their wings. That if they up and left, no one would stop them. Nothing would hold them back. There was no reason for them not to go.
I wondered if they looked down at all of us on the ground and wondered why we weren’t up in the sky. Why we weren’t feeling the ocean breezes on our faces or warming our bodies under the sun. Did they wonder why were we bolted to the ground? Why were we never trying to fly? Why we were so left out?
I stare up at the grey sky from my spot on the beach. I’m alone. The sand nearly matches the sky in its light shade of grey, but not entirely. There are still the remnants of the once golden hue that usually covers the beach. Today is the day after a storm. Not a massive storm, but one with enough power to suck the color from the naturally blue sky. And from the grains of sand that shine a mixture of copper and bronze and gold when the sun hits it just right. And from the cerulean water that laps up onto the shore, leaving behind white foam that reminds me of clouds that seem to have never made it to the atmosphere. They just stayed down here instead. This is my favorite kind of day.
Because this is the day I come out to watch the birds. The sandpipers. The beach is empty except for me, the sand just outside our yard. People think it’s a waste of time to sit on the beach in the middle of November when there is no sun to tan your skin and there’s a chilled wind coming in off the Atlantic. I move my eyes from the blank sky down to my toes. They’re freshly painted. A light green I found in a box of my mother’s old things. This was her favorite kind of day too. Eleven years since my mother passed away. I was nine.
We spent so many afternoons on the beach after storms had passed that I’ve lost count. She’d scoop me up from playing with my dollhouse on dreary afternoons and hand me a knitted sweater to put on to block out the chill. She’d bring a dark blanket reserved especially for outings on the damp sand and a book, although she’d never read it. Maybe she went without me before I was born or if I was in school and she read then. She’d sit on the blanket, the unread pages at her side, and watch me run and chase the birds and get almost close enough to the water for it to touch my feet, and then scurry away with a bright smile on my face as if I’d just narrowly escaped.
I was seven when she got sick. Part of me wonders if sitting out in the moist sea air, shivering under a thin jacket, made it worse, but I don’t know for sure. Her oncologist said it was stage four when it was first detected. Ovarian cancer. I remember my father crying the day she came home from the doctor. They didn’t tell me what was going on: I was hiding on the stairs listening even though I wasn’t sure what they were really talking about. I’d never seen my father cry. Not even at my grandmother’s funeral. But he cried then. Blue eyes always look bluer after crying. My father’s eyes resembled sapphires for quite a long time.
But my mother never cried. She took the diagnosis in perfect stride. Like nothing was different, nothing was wrong. Not the day she found out, not after her first Chemo treatment, not even when her flaxen locks started to dull and fall out. I found hair all over the house. I always just threw it away, praying my father wouldn’t see. I cried sometimes, but tried not to let my mother see. I didn’t want her to feel bad about dying. I wanted her to remember me like I was when we’d watch the birds. When I’d run and run and run and tease the water with my presence and fall dramatically next to her onto the blanket, my chest heaving with every breath I took. I wanted her to look at her little girl and remember her with big blue eyes just like her father’s and with hair so gold it resembled the sand on a sunny day. I wanted her to remember me as vibrant and playful and so full of love that it hurt.
I blink to regain focus on my blurring green toes. I lean my head back to keep the gathering tears from spilling over the rims of my eyelids. She would have never wanted me to cry. She would have wanted me to sit on this blanket with her and color the sky and the beach and the sea with my laugh. Everyone always tells me I laugh like my mother. High and shrill when I get really tickled. And that I have her smile, too. I pull my knees up to my chest, trying to warm them with my chilly, slender fingers. Those are hers too.
“Here.” I turn to see my father. He holds a white porcelain traveler’s mug out for me to take. I wrap my hands around it and sip. Sweet, rich hot chocolate slides down my throat, sending warmth to all corners of my body. My father sits down to my right and stares out at the ocean. We’re both quiet for a few minutes, just listening to the soft rush of the water on the shore. We’ve never been close, but I guess things are different now that I’m older. I feel responsible for him now.
Never in my life had my father sat out on the beach on a day like today. He’d stay inside the heat of our house arguing through his cell phone or dealing with deadlines for work. He was always working towards a bigger promotion. My mom didn’t have a job besides caring for my father, the house, and me. That seemed like a much bigger job than whatever my dad probably did. She was the best cook imaginable. I guess she just practiced all day while I was in school and dad was at the office.
“You’re more beautiful than she ever could have imagined,” My father finally says. I feel my cheeks flush more so than they already are from the wind and record low temperatures. I glance at him, then gaze into my cup of cocoa. “Hard to believe it’s been eleven years.” His voice cracks, making me tear up. They had never expected her to live that much longer than two months, maybe three, after the diagnosis. They clearly didn’t know my mother. She wasn’t going anywhere for a while. And she certainly wasn’t going to spend the rest of her time in a hospital bed, drugged and dependent. She wanted to be home with her family. She wanted everything to continue as it always had. She wanted to make us lunch on Sunday afternoons no matter how much it exhausted her. Or help me with my math homework even though she was no good at math. Eleven years today.
My father pulls an envelope from his jacket pocket. He holds it out for me. It has my name on it. Addressed from Yale University. I take it and stare at it in my hand. I never left for college. I applied to many places, got into most of them, but I never accepted. I didn’t know how my father would survive without me. First her and now me? I couldn’t leave him. So I stayed at home and went to the local community college. I had wanted to go to Yale. It was where my parents met. But I didn’t apply there. I didn’t want them to reject me even if I wasn’t going to accept.
I look at my dad, waiting for an explanation. He shrugs and tells me to open it. I set down my hot chocolate, trying to steady it on the rigid sand. I slide my finger under the lip, praying I don’t give myself a paper cut. I remove the letter, astonished by what it says.
“I’ve been accepted.” I look towards my father. He’s smiling at me, the close-lipped smile he always does. I guess that’s why people tell me I have my mother’s smile. She always showed every tooth in her mouth when she smiled. My father doesn’t. “But I didn’t apply…” I say, my voice so low it’s almost a whisper.
My father doesn’t reply. He just sips his cup of cocoa and stares up at the sky. A couple of birds chase each other above us. I watch them, wondering which is the male and which is the female. They hover next to each other, taking my father and I in as well as the grey sky and the damp beach, and the dull sea. My eyes hurt as I stare up at them. There may not be sun visible through the cloud-covered sky, but there’s an unimaginable brightness surrounding these two birds.
I replace the letter in the envelope and fold it, shoving it into the back pocket of my jeans. I grab my cup of cocoa and scoot closer to my father, entwining my right arm with his left before nestling my hand in the pocket on my sweater. I rest my head on his shoulder, exhaling deeply. I hear him do the same. We don’t speak. I feel him kiss the top of my blonde hair, my hair like my mother’s.
I watch the bird that I am assuming is the female remain ever so close to the male. It’s like he’s trying to push her away, on. But she doesn’t move. She has the freedom to go. To leave the beach, leave the lifeless atmosphere blanketing our town, but she doesn’t. She stays and does all the things a good bird should do if it’s being a bird right. And then she returns to their nest, hidden amongst the rocks down the beach. And they stay on this cool, muted beach because it’s home.