our island, at last

Summer’s final act has brought unexpected joy, and a chance to reflect.

One day last week, it dawned on me: summer is ending, and Earl hasn’t seen the ocean.  I realized further: we hadn’t visited Long Beach Island since before my cancer diagnosis almost five years ago.  The place was calling to me.  It was past time for a visit, no matter how brief.

We made our first trip to LBI completely by accident, probably in the late ‘90’s, a few years after we met.  We wanted a weekend at the beach; why not LBI?  We settled on Beach Haven as our destination, and it immediately became Our Spot.  On one of our first summer weekends there, we discovered that my father’s family had connections to the island, and that my great-great grandfather had owned a home there in the early 20th Century.  Strange coincidence, perhaps, but in hindsight, it made sense, given the way the place got its hooks into me.

In 2003, we were married on the island.  The wedding planning and the day itself were notable for numerous near-catastrophes and violent weather.  But when the storms on the night of our so-called rehearsal dinner had cleared, we were left, the evening of our wedding, with lightening skies, a gorgeous sunset, and memories for a lifetime.

strolling to the bay at our wedding reception

We went back to Beach Haven the next two summers after our wedding, but as a married couple, and with the hope of starting a family burning strong in us both, being there started to feel different.  Suddenly, it seemed, we were adults playing at carefree adolescence.  We were surrounded with people our own age, perhaps even younger, with children of their own.  We talked about what it would be like to come to the island one day with our kids; we didn’t for a minute realize how long it would take for that dream to come true.

But maybe I did.  Here in the midst of this month of ovarian cancer awareness, I am reflecting on my symptoms, all the things that were telling me that something was wrong, for all that time.  Looking back on the months and years leading up to my diagnosis, I wonder if maybe I did know how things were about the change, that life as I knew it was about to end.

A year or so after our last visit to Beach Haven, I was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer.  All dreams of summer weekends at the shore with our children were put on hold  – indefinitely, if not forever.

It’s hard to know why, in all the summers since I finished treatment, we hadn’t returned to LBI.  Perhaps it would trigger too many powerful feelings of loss.  In my bitterest moments after diagnosis, I would think back to our wedding day, the hope and joy that overflowed there, and then think about how cancer had ravaged our dreams, my body.  The heartbreak was more than I could bear.  It was easier, I suppose, to stay away from the place that symbolized everything our life was supposed to be.

Our first summer with our son would mark our return to the island.  With limited time and money, an extended visit was not in the cards.  But our new home on the Jersey side of the Delaware affords us the luxury of little more than an hour’s car ride to the ocean.  So I announced with solemn purpose one evening last week:  I want to take Earl to the ocean, to LBI.  It’s important.

My husband works extremely hard at his job; he treasures his lazy weekend days.  Extended car travel with our 8 month old can be a gamble; scream-fests are always a risk.  But he knows that I work extremely hard, too, and when I pressed my desire to spend a precious weekend day at Our Spot, he got it.

The day could not have been more perfect.  Cloudless blue sky, brilliant sun, cool breeze.  We lunched at one of our favorite spots on Bay Road.  We strolled along Centre Street, past the bed and breakfast where our parents and aunts and uncles stayed and where we had our rehearsal dinner in a driving rainstorm.  We took a quick spin past the restaurant where we had our reception, all the while narrating for Earl the meaning of each spot.

Our time on the beach was pure bliss – Earl’s reaction to the crashing waves and endless water was priceless.  We stopped and rested along a jetty, where Earl took his bottle while gazing out across the watery horizon.  He put his little toes in the sand and squirmed with delight.  Finally, it was happening. – this dream, made real.

tootsies in the atlantic ocean

We ended our day at Barnegat Lighthouse; we climbed 217 steps (me with Earl strapped to my chest) and took in the panoramic views of the bay and the ocean.  The wind blew hard in our faces, but at a hundred and seventy-two feet in the air, my soul soared.

It was a day of magic, one that called up so much of the journey that has brought us to this place of dreams finally realized.

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