~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~
The island changes every summer with every new season of visitors. The shop owners stand at their doors and wait to see who walks in and who walks by. Is this the summer for towers of oysters and cherrystones? Is this the summer of the raunchy t-shirt? Is this the summer that day-glo finally comes back?
Nantucket remains Nantucket because so few things change. The island farms float on corn and tomatoes this time of year. The southwest breeze powers the surfers and the sailboats. We remain an island of cobblestones, shingles, blue skies, and fair winds. The people change, the stores they shop in change, and the meals they sit down to change, but the island abides.
My grasshopper life does not allow me to own a piece of the bluff or to write a check for the Westmoor initiation fee, but I can spend a considerable portion of the summer watching the waves break on the south shore and not waiting for the lights to turn green. My Christmas bonus comes in August.
Most August afternoons, the boys and I assemble inside a 1987 Volvo station wagon, pick our way over the sand roads as if I was a constipated nun, and park near the beach. The young men equip themselves with their tools of the water trade, I find a chair and a towel, and off we go.
The beach remains the same, although it continues to eat into the dunes and the fields behind it. On great days, the surf comes in chest high, breaks on a sand bar, and washes up on the beach. The young men hurl themselves onto the top of the wave, ride the break in, and stick the landing. On days that are merely good, the ocean rolls up the shore and back down it. The young men bounce over the waves, find the few that will amuse them, and float about in a life that is the envy of the world. So it has always been and will, probably, always be.
This year, the cars in the lot have far outclassed the old Volvo. In the recent past, a few island cars with twenty years worth of beach stickers and rust spots could sidle up to my blue station wagon and the two could regale each other with time gone by, much as my grandfather would chat up the bereaved relations at the “Irish Homecoming” or, as the rest of us would call it, a wake. Recently, however, the Volvo is alone in the sand. Few of the cars lined up in the parking area tip the scales at under $50,000 or over 10,000 miles.
Both of my boys have aged in ways that are both surprising and commonplace. They have grown taller, stronger, and more handsome than I am. I can no longer place one on my shoulders for a round of “Monster Truck,” nor can I heave the other across the water in a “heave-a-chino.” Worse, the younger one has become a better (and lighter) bodysurfer than I am. He rises to the top of the wave and surfs it far up the sand until the water runs out and the seaweed starts. Too often, I am left flashing him a thumbs up from the ocean and waiting for a wave powerful enough to propel my battleship body forward. The waves leave me belly down in the sand, then seep back to the ocean with my youth, pride, and self-respect going with it.
Time will continue to wash up along the shore. The young men are almost at an age when they will want learner’s permits and driving lessons in the moors and winter parking lots. The next step in my ritual humiliation will be having my forehead bounced against the dashboard and my coffee sent splashing over my pants as my youngest son practices. Then, as he has mastered the tee shot, the body surf, and the sonnet, he will master the old Volvo. After the waves wash away more of the beach, my youngest will return to the island one summer with a monster S.U.V.’s decorated with a “Something Natural” flower and a beach sticker to ferry their aged father to the waves.
Autism stops the waves. For my oldest son, the calendar pauses while his birthdays repeat in Lego dreams and Doctor Who fantasy. The years have brought muscle and hair to him. His shoulders have broadened, his legs stretched, and his beard has become thick and nearly untrimmable. Yet, he eats the same things he has eaten for ten years and will probably eat for the next ten: Cheerios, bananas, apples, Tostitos chips, Oreos, and cheese toast. When we go to the beach, he runs into the waves, finds where they will break and stands right there. The surf tumbles him up the sand, spins him, and sweeps him out, laughing, back into the ocean. So it has always been and will, probably, always be.
When you know him as well as I do, and can watch closely, time and tide have worked on him. Years of reading and listening has brought him an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil Rights movement, World War II, and the Space program. He has built up a more arcane mental library of video games, superheroes, and internet memes. In all of that information, a flash of intellectual energy bursts. Potential tries to find a way past the Autism. In him, an ocean seethes and surges against a granite breakwater we can only see the spray from
the biggest waves.
Sooner or later, the old Volvo will suffer an injury that common sense, mechanical know how, and a prudent wallet will not solve. We will place a regretful hand on its hood, remember the good times on the South Shore, sing the old songs one more time and send it on its way. My youngest will move on to better cars and newer waves, with the wisdom and experience of his youth to guide him. Time carries him on the tip of its wave. I do not walk for him.
I walk for my older son. Someday, somewhere, someone will find a way to move his calendar forward and break all that potential out past the granite in his head. I walk for the hope that he, too, can find himself up on the top of the wave.
Editors Note: The Annual Autism Speaks Walk will be held this year at 8:30 am on Saturday, August 15 at Jetties Beach. To donate to walkers, visit walknowforautismspeaks.org