That photograph, above? It’s the best picture I took this summer. When I downloaded the photos I took during our three-day trip out East on Long Island in late August, I literally gasped when I saw this one. I’m usually a pretty crap photographer, and of course this is the beach at sunset, which is basically a gift to bad photographers, but isn’t it pretty?
You weren’t there, of course, so I have to tell you why else it’s perfect, other than its beach-y/sunset-y composition. It was a perfect evening, and this shot, which is of my son James and my cousin Maria’s husband, John, ended up being the perfect emblem of that perfect evening.
I’m overusing the word perfect, you say? I’m not. I’m really not. It really was.
We had spent, as I said, three days on the East end of our home island because that was basically all we could manage for a “vacation” this summer. Thanks to a hotel discount furnished by my niece who works for a large chain, and the fact that it was only an hour’s drive from our house, we based ourselves in the town of Riverhead, and took drives out to Montauk, “The End,” to climb the lighthouse there. We toured the fantastic Atlantis Marine World Aquarium in Riverhead. And we promised the boys a day at a water park in the area.
The water park day was saved for last, in part because I’d made plans to see my cousin Maria and her family on that last evening, and I knew that after a day cringing my way through the kind of family activity I’d rather avoid at all costs (and it was pricey!), I would want a relaxed communion with family.
After I shrugged off the grossness of the water park day (it’s not a bad place, really, and the kids had a blast, but walking around barefoot in my bathing suit while seeing how many people have tattoo-covered bodies – and seeing too much of those bodies, it has to be said — is not my idea of fun), I was relieved to pull up at Maria’s house. We opened up a beer with her and John while our boys and their two sons did something that involved letting some frogs out of a fish tank while wearing bicycle helmets and carrying pool noodles. After a little while, we took the kids and some food and headed to the beach, just down the road. We ate chicken legs, and watched the boys swim and try to catch fish with a huge net that John had used when he was a kid. Over a shared half-bottle of chardonnay, I caught up with a cousin I rarely see and only recently re-connected with.
And I marveled at how comfortable I felt.
This cannot be overstated. I am not naturally a comfortable person. I’m not easily relaxed. That night? I was relaxed. Near sunset, John and my husband dug a hole and a fire was built. Other kids were drawn to the flame (and the marshmallows). In that photo, John’s showing my son how to skip a rock.
We drove home late that night trying to figure out when we could have Maria and John and the boys over to our house. We don’t have a magic beach down the road, but I wanted to feel some of that comfort and relaxation again. I wanted John to get to know my husband better. I wanted our kids to hang out.
I was, and am, feeling awfully, awfully lucky.
A little over a week ago, on a dark road that was slick with rain, John lost control of his car and had the horrific bad luck of being in the path of a bigger car coming the other way. Two seconds difference, and it wouldn’t have happened,but it did, and that night John lost his life, Maria lost her husband, and their boys lost a great dad, the kind of dad who got them fishing poles and still had the fishing net from his own childhood.
Someone described my reaction to this terrible family tragedy as being just on the outside of something terrible. That’s exactly right. In all honesty, I barely knew John. Maria and I were close as kids, but hadn’t really seen one another much in recent years, but were determined to change that fact now.
One night shouldn’t have been enough to make me feel this close to the pain and the grief, but that would only be true if it hadn’t been a perfect night. And it had.
I’m writing this here not because it as a whit to do with being a mean mom. It has to do with being human, with feeling love, with being parents and relatives and friends, with a magic beach and a roasted marshmallow and a half-bottle of chardonnay and an old net and just life. Also it’s my blog so I get to write what I want, and this is what I wanted to say, today.
Love it all and love it now. Go skip a rock.
Rest in peace, John.