Interlude, with Seashells

My son had vanished, but I knew exactly where he was.

I whispered apologies and reassurances in my wife’s ear, and then climbed into my car. After setting up my GPS and asking it to keep a lookout for good coffee, I pulled out of my driveway and steered for the ocean.

I knew my son would be safe. Even when totally enraged, he always took care of himself. I was the one who was dangerous when angered; but I hadn’t been that angry in years.

Around El Centro, the halfway point, I realized the moon was overhead. It’s full face looked down on both me and my son, even though we were still 150 miles apart. The moon and I were both racing west to see who could get to the ocean first.

Two and a half hours later, I parked along the wall near the looming power station at a place we called Shell Beach. It was a good spot to spend the night watching the sea. The tide was at dead low, and the newly exposed sand shone as the ivory moon slid into the ocean. My kids sure have a flair for the dramatic.

He looked very small sitting there, huddled against the wind. The two jetties wrapped their bouldery arms around, while the giant smokestack of the power station watched from behind.

Before him, the churning ocean danced all the way to Japan and back.

I hesitated — I didn’t want to push myself into his world, if I wasn’t welcome. Rather, I didn’t want to push him away, to prompt him to run again. But I couldn’t stand there and watch my son wrap himself in angst. I stepped over the high water mark and walked to where he was sitting.

He seemed to relax a bit when I touched his shoulder, uncrossing his arms and putting his palms on the sand.

My son said, “I know what you’re going to say.”

I waited.

“You’re going to say I shouldn’t have gotten mad. That I shouldn’t have run away. That I should have calmed down and talked about things rationally.”

That’s not what I was going to say, but it should have been. Instead, I said, “I’m just glad you wore shoes this time.”

“I like these shoes. The last time they were new and hurt my feet.”

I sat down next to him and saw the pile of shells in front of him. None were alike, except all were perfect. He’d been on the beach all night, walking back and forth, searching the sand.

I asked, “Do you have a favorite shell?”

He held up a scallop, the size of a quarter. The outer side was milky white, like the marble they use for statues. The inside shaded from a pearly purple at the hinge to flaming orange at the edge. That’s my boy.

For the first time, he turned and looked at me face to face. The anger I’d seen last night had gone. He’d cast it into the ocean to be carried away. The ocean’s massive indifference made you realize how silly our petty struggles could be.

I couldn’t read my son’s mind, but I imagined, I hoped, that he’d decided to give up his anger and replace it with a determination to make things better. So far, my son had become his own man, instead of what I wanted him to be. Looking at the churning waves, I imagined myself being okay with that, some day.

“Dad, I guess I should apologize to her. What should I say?”

“I think the act of saying is more important than the words you say. Anyway, your words have always been better than mine. You’ll do fine.”

Watching his face, I could see his doubts melt away, followed by his indecision. He stood and offered his hand. He pulled me up with a man’s strength. It had been hours since I’d mourned how old I’d become; this brought it all back.

“Where’s Mom right now?” he asked.

I closed my eyes and listened to the waves until the answer came.

“She’s in the kitchen. Moving around. Probably making coffee.”

He said, “I guess I’ll go to her now. Thanks for coming to find me.”

“I’ll always come to find you. Tell your mother I’m going to sleep for a few hours, and that I should be home after dinner. I love you both.”

“Love you too.”

Then my son closed his eyes, clenched his fists, concentrated, and vanished. He took his favorite shell with him. I was alone on the beach with the pile of remaining shells, perfect, but unwanted, at the edge of an uncaring sea.