: Kevin is seven years old. We are driving to a beach and he and his sister Celeste are each looking out a window at the passing traffic and roadside. He is meticulously counting the number of cows and horses we pass. Kevin loves animals.
We get to the beach and start the trek from parking area to sand. The sand slips in between our toes through the sandals and the kids shriek with glee. The sun bearing down and the sand swishing, whispering at our feet. My husband Shawn slips his hand into mine and chuckles as we watch the kids race ahead of us. Kevin is the one to find the spot where we will set our things.
We pull the blanket out and it flaps in the air. I briskly snap it out so that it will settle on the ground nicely. The kids know the drill: sandals on the corners, so it doesn't get whisked away. They run gingerly to the shoreline, gasping and jumping with each step as the sand perfectly reflects the heat of the sun.
We are at a lake but to Kevin it is like the ocean. Any body of water will do, so long as it is vast and can hold some secrets. Kevin is a little bit nervous about submerging, he rarely will swim under water. He does love to look into it though, and share his observations and discoveries with me. One day soon I will show him what the ocean is really like. I will hold his hand and watch his rapture as he feels the salt spray on his face and smells the fresh, damp air. I will glance at him sidelong and drink in his wonder at the life brimming just below the surface of the water. A perfect reflection of the life beneath the surface of his skin.
Celeste loves the water for other reasons. When she was very little, she used to pretend she was a mermaid. She loved the way her hair would float around her in the water. She used to take extra-long baths because she wanted to see what it was like living as a fish. Sometimes I think if she was given the choice, she would take water over land. She gets this from me. It is in her blood and it courses so fully through her, that I cannot fault her for it. She leaps into the water as though into the arms of a long-lost love, and it fills me with a strange sort of mixture of joy and calm to see the rapture on her face as she emerges from the water. Her laughter is infectious, and Shawn will toss her from his shoulders in to the lake again and again until they are both gasping for air from laughter and mischief.
Kevin loves to collect artifacts from the places we go. A leaf, a feather, a rock, a stick. A shell. He brings them to me, eyes full and the words describing his discovery will tumble out in such a rush, I have to remind him to slow down. "Look, mom, this stick looks like a spider. Look mom, what kind of feather is this? Do you think the birdie will mind if I take it home? Look mom, this rock has a fossil in it! How old do you think it is?"
On this day at the beach, he finds a little shell. He immediately puts it up to his ear. Then I note he puts his mouth to the opening of it and starts murmuring. I am intrigued but I do not want to intrude. I keep watching him to see what he will do. I expect him to come to me in excitement and show me his latest treasure. He does not. Instead, he puts it up to his ear once more, and then once more murmurs something into it. Then he does something unexpected. He tosses the shell into the water, as far as he can throw.
I don't press him for information; instead, the day goes on as lazy days at the beach do. We picnic, get an ice cream, swim some more now and again. Kevin and I dig for treasure, while Celeste laps up the last of the waves and Shawn snoozes on a towel. Half an eye on Celeste, half an eye on Kevin, I use a stick to draw things into the wet sand you usually find a couple of inches under the surface, if you dig enough. Kevin thinks this is great fun and then he decides to dig some moats, fill them with water, and float his toy cars into them. He makes buzzing car noises and "oh noooo, he fell into the ocean!" and he and I are giggling. Celeste comes up and splatters water all over us, laughter and the sun.
It is time to go, and we collect our things. Wash the beach off and change into clean clothes. Kevin makes one last trip up to the shoreline to rinse off his sandy feet one last time and looks down. He finds the same shell he had thrown a few hours before. He picks it up and dusts it off and looks at it thoughtfully. He puts it in a pocket and brings it with him to the car. On the way home, he barely sees the cows, barely sees the horses. His eyes wink and blink and then fall slowly to a close. Sweet mouth breathes in and out; Kevin is asleep. Celeste, beside him, recounts her adventures of the day, one by one. She herself is fighting off the sleep; she is nine, she says. She doesn't need a nap anymore. But she is no match to a day full of clean air and sunshine and exercise in the water. Soon her eyes fall heavy and she too is sleeping.
We get home and Shawn carries them one by one into the house. Pretty soon he won't be able to do this. The kids are growing in leaps and bounds. I follow him up and tuck them each in. Celeste first. She mumbles a thank you for the fun day. I straighten up some mussed hair out of her face and oh, child, please don't grow up too quickly. Then I move on to Kevin. He is in that half-sleep state, eyes fluttery and he's clinging to something in his hand. I gently pry the fingers open and see his little shell. His eyes open and he says in a sticky sleepy voice, "Listen to the shell, mum. I told it a secret." I put the shell to my ear and hear whistling air. I tell him I couldn't hear it quite right. He says "Oh, the ocean must have kept it." I gently rub his back, a ritual we sometimes share when he is feeling extra sleepy. He says "I know it isn't really an ocean, mommy." I say it's okay to pretend that it is. Pretending is the best part of being a kid.
"I know," he says, and lets out a big yawn. I kiss his forehead, and while I am close he says "Mommy, the ocean will always keep your secrets. That's why it's so salty you know - it's full of your tears." I am taken aback and I don't quite know what to say to this, so I say "Is that what the little shell told you?"
I wait for an answer, but none will be given. The ocean is still. Kevin is fast asleep.