As I write this beginning, a man lies in a hospital bed in a nursing home, writing his ending. The man is my grandfather, and he is dying. Parkinson’s has etched his brain like the waters of the Chesapeake working on a piece of broken glass, eating at it until it is dulled and clouded, transforming it into a pale artifact washed up on some distant shore.
A thousand thoughts dance through my brain like shorebirds, fleeting and half-glimpsed as they flicker past on sudden wings. I remember gathering fists full of seaglass on the wild beaches near my grandfather’s house. The opening lines of Beowulf dance in my head—the story of Scyld Scefing, washed up alone in a vessel as a baby. He became a great king, and when he died, his people laid his body in a boat and sent it off again, back to the mystery from whence he came.
My seven-year-old interrupts my writing to show me the Lego parachute he’s constructed. I watch a tiny plastic man leap from my desk and glide to the floor. Transposed against my waking sight is a movie I’ve played in my head a hundred times, and as I watch my child in his present, I see my grandfather in his past. He is young, younger than I’ve ever known him, and he is the radio operator on a B-17. Somewhere over Europe, a bomb fails to deploy. It will detonate on impact. My grandfather jumps on the bomb to try to dislodge it, and slips, falls from the belly of the plane. The gunner pulls him back, and for one eternal instant, the lives of ten people dangle in midair—my grandfather and all the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren who will be born because he survived.
I wonder how many lives the plane’s guns cut short, how many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren disappeared somewhere over Europe before they were ever born.
Air and water—when I think of my grandfather’s life, these are the forces that dominate. Like air and water, I cannot imagine my life without his elemental presence. As far back as I can remember, he was my favorite person. I don’t know if many little girls want to grow up to be like their granddads, but I did.
At my grandparents’ house by the water, I discovered Sherlock Holmes, another of the men I decided I’d be just like when I grew up. I was curled in an armchair one morning, my nose buried in a fat volume of Doyle’s complete Holmes stories, walking the foggy lamplit streets of London far from the mosquito-laced summers of the Northern Neck. Granddad marched in, arms filled with neatly-rolled papers. “You’re going to learn to chart a course at sea,” he announced. Reluctantly, I set Holmes aside. When Granddad decided something was going to happen, it did.
I sat at the dining room table, looking out across the wide creek that stretched flat and dark green to the tree-thick opposite shore. Granddad unrolled his charts and set about teaching me how to navigate by them. As I write, two of them hang on the wall of my room. I suppose they’re unremarkable to look at, with their pale blues, dull tans, vast expanses of white for deep water, and thousands of minuscule numbers everywhere, indicating depth. I think they are magical, and when I look at them, my imagination explodes. When I look at them, I taste salt air. The inscrutable depths swell beneath me, and pirates and sea monsters are possible.
Now, my grandfather is battling his final monster, the one that will get him, that will finally accomplish what all of Nazi Germany couldn’t manage. He survived the B-17, exploding ordnance, a crash-landing in Iceland, to wash up at last on the alien shore of the disease that is eating his brain.
There is so much I want to say about my grandfather. He had an utterly mischievous sense of humor. He was raised by two deaf parents and taught his two little brothers to speak. He mixed Bloody Marys in the evenings, and he could dance—oh, he could dance. And he has raged against the dying of the light with a vigor that would have impressed even Dylan Thomas.
A thousand thoughts. Toes of egrets stirring silt into clouded water. Crabbing in Parker’s Creek, and feasting on steamed crabs spread out on newspaper. Clambering over yachts on Coast Guard Auxiliary inspections. Fireworks reflecting off the water on an unbearably humid night in July. I am sad for all the kids who will grow up without knowing what it’s like to celebrate the Fourth with the Greatest Generation.
The light is dying. The elves are leaving Middle Earth. Scyld Scefing lies in his boat, ready for his final voyage, and I am bracing for the invisible impact, the shockwave that will ripple across the universe when a little of the magic goes out of this world.
Yesterday, we found a little plastic fish in the yard. An old one, obviously, not from the seven years I’ve lived here with my wild little family. An artifact from the past, a scrap of another childhood. The past is always surfacing from this red clay soil, working its way up, a reminder. Time passes.
I hold the fish in my hand. I imagine that I could drive four hours to the Chesapeake Bay and set it in the water, and that its dull green plastic scales would flicker, flush with shimmering light. Beneath them, muscles would ripple, fins twitch, gills expand. I would chart a course, send it off, to carry a wordless message to a far distant shore.