I didn’t speak. There was nothing to stop her torn and plundered heart from breaking. “Cry as much as you want,” I whispered.
“I can’t,” she said, her head buried in the crook of her arm, her voice muffled.
It was as if she felt that if she started to cry right then she would never be able to stop. Her tears would fall and fall. They would fill the ocean.
I wished the sun would stop shining right then—even for one split second—to hide its face and acknowledge her despair. But the blue of the sky stayed blue, the light glittering on the water. I waited as Jesse cried and then when she was temporarily done she wiped her face and stood up. We walked along the shore away from the surfers’ beach following a trail of footprints from piping plovers, heading toward the crumbling bluffs where we jumped into the cool water and caught some waves, body surfing. I tried to pretend we were just two day trippers and tried not to think about who we really were: a woman searching for the words to say to a girl half her age who’d lost so much. And who still had to go on.
After a while we came out of the water and as we walked back to our towels, Jesse said, “The worst thing will be when I’m back at college and I meet new people and they ask me, ‘What do your parents do?’”
“Can you turn it into some kind of joke?” I said. “Maybe you can say, ‘I don’t even know,’ and laugh it off. You’re from New York City. People probably think you’re weird, anyway.”
We tried that. She recited those words. They sounded awkward, as if she was an actress rehearsing new lines.
I remembered after my father died when I was 27 and an aunt held me and whispered in my ear, “Poor child. You poor, poor child.” I didn’t want her to call me a poor child. And I didn’t want Jesse to feel like a poor child, either. Yet how could she not feel bereft?
We stayed on the beach all afternoon, getting up now and then for another dip in the water, eating sweet dark cherries, lying there, talking some, not saying a word. Then she said she wanted to scatter Herb’s ashes. “Do you want me to be with you?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “My Dad went by himself one morning and tossed my mother’s ashes here. I want to do it alone.”
I stood by the car. The air was full of the spicy smell of the ocean. The air was full of grief. I called Herb’s mother who was back in Jesse’s New York City apartment with her brother, Matt, who could not write or read and spoke less than a dozen words.
“Did you take care of Herb?” his mother, Claire, asked over the phone.
“Jesse’s taking care of him now,” I said. But what did that mean? Jesse was scattering Herb’s ashes, as soft as silk, poked here and there with stubborn pieces of bone. He was tumbling onto the sand, dissolving into the dust, lying strewn as a fallen star.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m doing,” Claire said.
Then Jesse returned from the beach, from the white sand, the black pebbles, the tall bluffs with their tufts of green grasses, and the waves rushing in and retreating. Draping the shoreline and receding once more.
I hoped the ocean’s sounds soothed Jesse like a lullaby. In and out like her mother’s breaths when Jesse was a baby and her mother held her in her arms. Back and forth like her father’s push on the shallow knobs of her spine as she sat on a swing in the park. The earth sighing, sighing, sighing, for all it knew and for all it could not change or help or undo. This, I knew, was the only gift I could offer Jesse, a long and sad and heartbreakingly perfect day on the beach. There was nothing else I could give her, nothing at all, except to linger in the midst of all that was beautiful and enduring. I knew it was not enough. It would never be enough. But it was all I had—it was the most any of us are blessed with—and it would have to do.