Tuesday, August 16, 2016
By Joanne Pilgrim
I drove east, the white heat shimmering over Montauk almost like frost, even just after 7 in the morning. Pale yellow other-worldly sun, sky bleached of blue. We are in the middle of a heat wave, the earth changing like never before, it seems, in ways that we can’t control. I expect there will be more extremes, that you will never see.
Montauk Highway was two lines vanishing into lumpy tops of trees, the ocean a tinted, opaque shimmer. You are much with me, often, but I wanted to feel it stronger today, the force of the collective memories carried by everyone gathered on the beach at Ditch, your surfer crew, your family. Your footprints in that sand, that image captured of you crouching on your board in the curl of an aqua and Atlantic-green wave.
Your granddaughter, in a bright orange sundress, the skirt splashed with a floral pattern, toddled on the sand, holding one end of a dog’s leash and attempting to lead him or her around. Mostly compliant, the dog at one point headed the opposite way, the gentle pull enough to land Quinn –boomp! – right on her bottom. Resilient, she got right back up.
So sad you can’t see that with your own eyes, even the way she has grown, a little person now rather than the babe in arms she was when I held her at your house just before you passed as her mother tended to you, trying to make you comfortable in your hospital bed.
You couldn’t really speak, you lifted your hand and gestured to me, tried to say something – I hope you knew it was me there. I do not want to remember you that way. I bent and kissed your forehead, brushed my hand over your bald and spotted head. You were there, but inside a fading husk.
Better to recall how many times you had a clonk on that head, a bruise or a scrape on the bald part of your pate, how I teased you about needing a stronger “lid.” Better to think of you in your floppy hat with the string under the chin, loose shorts and T-shirt, flip flops, pedaling a cruiser bike around Montauk, the essence of chill.
The surfers paddled out for you this morning. They stopped at the sandbar, standing waist-high, and said something, about you, I’m sure, though I couldn’t hear, before all raising their arms high with a cheer. Then some continued out into the waves.
I thought, let me go and stand in the same water at least, and I stood next to the jetty rocks slowly sinking up to my ankles in wet muck as the wave curls edged in.
Orchids from the leis worn to honor you were bright here and there against the deep taupe wet sand, and more floated in and I thought, these flowers, a drop of your spirit, will appear along here all day, throughout the surf contest and among the crowds that will throng to Ditch all through this hot weekend day. People will see them and will not know why they are there, but a little bit of you will always flavor that place – and many others. Were those the couple of good waves you sent for the surfers who paddled out to ride in?
On the way home I laid on my back in the bay and thought about the lessons you have given me. “Health is wealth,” you said to me one of those last times we saw each other. We knew you were sick, were dealing with it, but not how close to the end.
You made a good life for yourself, savored so many things, but not with that selfish edge I see in so many people, that I shy away from. I shortchange myself that way, not wanting to be like that, not feeling deserving, not believing the things that could be.
A long time ago, after the death of my college professor Willi Unsoeld, an inspiration, a mountain climber and philosopher king, I stood holding hands with a circle of several hundred people, singing these lines from a Holly Near song that seem fitting again: “Well it could have been me, but instead it was you. So I’ll keep on doing the things I’ve been doing, as if I were two….”
And in the spirit of you, Rusty, I’ll try to do more.