Every summer while I was growing up, we would spend two weeks at the most beautiful beach in the world. It wasn’t sandy, and the waves that crashed into the shore to awaken me every morning as I lay in my dark green sleeping bag were far too cold to surf or swim through. Sometimes the sun shone and it was hot. Other times the beach was shrouded in a cold, bone-chilling fog that all but hid the nearby rugged cliffs. Sometimes there was even cold, driving rain, the kind that comes at you sideways and makes it impossible to stay dry.
It didn’t matter. This beach called Bellevue on the rugged island of Newfoundland was, to me, the most beautiful place in the world.
Whether the sun was shining or fog swirling through the campsite, I would awaken in the early morning to the sound of waves rushing to shore, the smell of bacon being cooked on a black cast-iron frying pan. The days were spent combing the beach; splashing in the water; seeing if we could walk further along the shore than we ever had before; trying to get back around rocky cliffs before the tide came in and trapped us.
I was fascinated by the shapes and sizes of the rocks that covered the beach, and every summer I would search for those that looked most like chocolate candy, toffee or mints. I’d trudge slowly across the beach gathering as many as I could as my partner in the search found room in his pockets to carry whatever I chose. If he sometimes told me I should leave some of them behind, I don’t remember. I just know that every summer for as long as I wanted, I left the beach with new rocks so that throughout the fall and winter, my playmates and I could sort them into tiny jars of candy that we would sell for pennies in our play store. Oh yes sir, we have mint candies and wonderful toffees. How many would you like?
My dad would also build boats for us. He would sit, take out his small, sharpened pocket knife and patiently turn odd-shaped pieces of driftwood into sleek sailboats, while I searched the nearby rocks for any stray feathers left behind by seagulls. The best ones for sailing were tall, straight and full, and when I found one, I’d run gleefully back to my father, shouting with excitement, so he could finish the boat.
How wonderful it was to be that small, wispy-haired girl, holding a perfect little sailboat in my hands. To walk to the edge of the water with my father, bend down and send our boat gently and lovingly on its adventures. Everything magical could happen to that boat, and we’d stand there watching until the tiny feather sail could no longer be seen bobbing against the horizon.
The beach was rarely littered in the days of my childhood, but once in a while we’d find an empty bottle. On these occasions, pieces of paper would be scrounged from the bottom of a pocket or beach bag, a pencil or pen would materialize from somewhere and we’d scribble a message. One of us would pitch the message-filled bottle into the water and we’d stand and watch, speculating on who would find it or where it would go, until it too, was out of sight.
There was also an annual rescue by my father and older brothers. The cliffs that sheltered the beach beckoned climbers. Young women or men, convinced they were able to climb from the rocky shore to the wooded areas above, would pick a place that looked safe and start their ascent. Screams for help would inevitably reach my family’s ears, as the climbers reached a spot where they realized they could go neither up nor down. My mother and I would run to take our places at the base of the cliff to watch, along with anyone else who was on the beach, as the drama unfolded and the climbers were somehow brought to safety.
On days when the combination of wind and tide was exactly right, we’d all sit on one particular rock near the edge of the ocean. Facing the cliff, we’d pretend we didn’t hear the waves come rushing towards us and then scream with utter delight when the freezing water splashed up and over our backs, shoulders and heads. The wetter we got, the more we screamed. Often my brothers and I perched on the rock while our parents stood dry and laughing on the shore, my dad leaning close to my mom to say something to her. Sometimes we all huddled together on a rock that we called our own.
There were plenty of fish in the cold waters of the Atlantic ocean in those days, and seagulls rarely came to shore. Except for early evening, then they would settle in an area unsheltered by the walls of cliffs that were so characteristic of most of the area. I wanted to get close to them so badly that we spent evening after evening creeping as quietly as we could in their direction. There must have been hundreds nestled together on the beach and I suspect they knew we were approaching long before they gave any indication. And then, just when I thought that tonight I would get close to them, they would rise almost as one from the beach, the sound of their wings and their cries echoing for miles, and fly away over the ocean towards the setting sun. We’d turn back towards the path to our campsite, and I’d fall asleep knowing that at some point after we’d left, they’d probably returned to their place and were sleeping too.
Sometimes we’d leave the beach for a day and head outside the park to fish or pick berries. I didn’t much like the flies that seemed to swarm towards me as soon as I sat anywhere with a fishing pole, and I had recurring bad luck when it came to stepping in black holes in a bog that seemed to suck my boot right off my foot, leaving me balanced absurdly on one leg and trying to keep the other sock clean while I figured out a way to get my boot back. The berries were always turned into delicious jam that was spread on crackers and paired with cocoa around the evening campfire. The trout we caught were roasted over an open fire. And my socks and boots were always cleaned.
As the years passed, we moved out of the tent that had first been our summertime home and into a tent camper. Then we moved up to truck campers, first a homemade camper and then a factory built one. Sometimes the weather was warm and sunny for fourteen days straight; often there were periods of rain and sometimes intense thunderstorms that would see us huddled in our car on the beach – my brothers and father watching the lightning flash across the sky while my mother and I moved our hands from our eyes to our ears, trying to block out the terrifying flashes of light and booming crashes of thunder. Sometimes friends would camp nearby for a few days; sometimes, uncles, aunts and cousins would arrive and spend the day; sometimes our neighbors and friends would come to walk the beach with us. But even on the weekends, when there were more people than usual at the park, the beach was never really crowded. And that was one of the reasons I loved it. I didn’t find the open spaces empty and I wasn’t lonely, despite the absence of people.
By the time I was fourteen, my mother, father and I were camping alone – my brothers by then were working or away at cadet camp. That was an unusual summer. For the first time that I could remember, the ocean was filled with icebergs and the wind that whispered across the water had the feel of September or October. Large icebergs could be seen in the distance; smaller pieces seemed to be heading slowly towards shore. It was a magical sight. But it was also the first year I was unable to find the peace of mind that Bellevue had always given me.
I have already mentioned the knee pains I experienced as a child, the ones that worried my parents even as I settled back to sleep after waking them with my discomfort. I had finished Grade 8 that year and because my class was moving to a new school for Grade 9, we held graduation celebrations – a Mass followed by a dance in late June. The next day was sunny and bright, and I have a memory of doing something for my dad in the garage, though I don’t remember what. I was wearing my shorts and noticed, as I squat down, that my left knee looked swollen. I stood up and moved around, studied it from different positions trying to convince myself it was normal. I finally had to admit that it was bigger than it should be and with an unreasonable kind of panic in my heart, went to find my mother. Perhaps I’d danced too much the night before, we said, and the swelling would simply go down. It didn’t.
I learned later that both my parents were quite distressed from the first moment I approached them with the problem, a reaction that was partially based on years of concern over nighttime pains. By the time we reached Bellevue that summer, we had been through a series of x-rays and knew there was some issue, probably a cartilage problem, but it was too soon to tell. We would have to watch and wait to see if anything changed.
I didn’t realize, but was told later, that I had begun walking more slowly than usual. My mother says she lived with increasing anxiety every time I would ask her why she was walking so fast when it was I who could no longer keep up. Their deepest concerns were hidden from me as they held a silent vigil. And that summer we walked a little slower and avoided the muddy black holes of the bogs.
For me, the icebergs became a focus. Each day we would analyze their movement just as each evening we would check to see whether or not the swelling in my knee had changed. Then one afternoon, as my father and I stood on the beach looking towards the left and the right, we realized that one of the bergs appeared to be sitting right on the beach, well beyond the spot where the seagulls gathered each evening and farther than I’d ever walked before.
Can we please see if we can reach them? It can’t be that far, can it?
And so we began to walk towards the blue-white structure at the water’s edge to see if we could actually touch this majestic piece of nature.
For almost two hours we walked, our complete attention given over to whether or not the iceberg was actually close enough to touch once we got there. I remember our feet getting sore – we hadn’t been prepared for such a long trek across the beach – but we refused to turn back. As we grew closer we realized the largest piece of the iceberg would be too far out into the water to reach, but smaller pieces, which we hadn’t been able to see from a distance, had broken off and were riding in on the waves.
I ran across the beach to retrieve a piece that would have been about eight inches long and perhaps four or five inches in diameter. To me, it was as if we were touching gold, and my father didn’t hesitate for even a second when I asked if we could bring it back to the camper and keep it in our small freezer. He simply wrapped it in something (a cap, a shirt, I don’t remember) and we took turns holding it as we walked as quickly as I could manage back across the rocks. The cold chunk slowly got smaller as we walked, melting in the unfamiliar surroundings, so the piece that we placed carefully in the freezer was smaller than the one I had first touched.
I don’t know what touching that piece of iceberg meant to my father – he never said and I never asked. I know that for me it was like touching a star or a sunset, something I never thought I’d be able to touch. If my dad didn’t feel as I did, however, he seemed to instinctively understand and accept its significance to me. He could have told me we shouldn’t try to walk that far because of my knee. He could have encouraged me to turn back when we realized how far away the iceberg really was. He could have told me the iceberg would just melt and drip all the way back, or be too cold to carry, or take up too much room in a tiny freezer. He could have told me my need to keep it was illogical or just plain silly. But he did none of these things; he simply walked beside me, talking about anything and nothing, and helped me carry my dream.
After we displayed our treasure back at the campsite, we wrapped it in a piece of foil and placed it in the freezer. Then we checked my knee and smiled at one another, since the swelling was no better, but no worse than it had been at the start of the journey.
I kept that piece of iceberg in the freezer at my parents’ home for years and years, until it literally evaporated into nothingness and we threw away the foil wrap that had protected it. We kept it because it was a dream I could occasionally pick up and hold. Because, increasingly, it became symbolic of a journey my father and I would travel in the months that followed.
My father’s last trip to Bellevue took place a few summers before he died. He strolled along the beach in a khaki shirt, long khaki pants, socks and shoes, despite the heat of the day. My husband was a little ahead of us with Vulcan, our German Shepherd puppy. My son would skip along with his granddad for a time… chattering on as only small children can, as I once did… then run to the edge of the surf and scream in glee as the cold water rushed up to cover his beach shoes. For a time I walked slowly behind, filled with sensations and memories from the past and present, wondering if my father would ever again walk this particular shore. When my son ran off to catch up with his dad and his dog, I strode up alongside my father and walked next to him, stopping when he did to look out over the ocean, helping him find beach rocks he could send skipping over the waves, talking to him as he used to talk to me. After a time we reached the others; my dad found a piece of driftwood and sat on the beach to carve his sailboat as my son searched for the feather.
At this stage in my father’s illness, there were many things he could no longer do and many places he would no longer go. It was growing harder to convince him we actually wanted his company, harder to ease his anxieties as he traveled on roads that were no longer familiar, harder to convince my mother he would be fine with us and she needed some time to herself. When he walked along the beach on this summer afternoon, his pace was slower than it had ever been, his walk less certain, his words fewer. My heart broke, not for the first time, as I watched him – his strength diminished, mixed with a growing weakness, his joy measured, mixed with a silent despair. But I didn’t cry at the time; you learn not to.
My dad finished that last sailboat, his last sailboat, and set it on a wave with his grandson. He found some rocks for me (I now use them for paperweights and bookends) and helped carry them back to the car. Perhaps he also said his own goodbyes to the sea he had sailed upon, to countries he had visited, to memories of years past, and to a future Iceberg he would inspire, but never touch with his own hands.
If a child comes to you
with a piece of the world in her hand
and asks you to help her carry it home,
know that she is trusting you
with her heart and soul
and carry it gently and with love.
Just as my father did.