Long Walk on the BeachBy Tim Anderson
January 24, 2011
Dad always loved taking the long way to wherever he was going. If there was a way to get to school, church, or the Little League baseball field that involved twisting and turning our way through the backroads of Raleigh until all us kids were turning green and ready to hurl, that was the route Dad preferred to take. Just like in that Robert Frost poem.
When he, Mom, and my two older brothers moved to Raleigh from Gulfport, Mississippi, in the late 60s, one of the first things Dad did was get out his Raleigh roadmap and trace out a route from our house in the newly developing suburbs of North Raleigh to our church downtown that involved a more satisfying amount of winding roads, stomach-churning turns, dizzying hills, and gnarled asphalt.
This was all fine with me, for the most part. As a boy I was never in a hurry to do anything that involved going somewhere. But I did have to go to school. My 8th-grade year I transferred to a school downtown after a few years of tedious bullying at my local middle school, and since Dad worked downtown at the power company, he took me to school every morning. Our lengthy commute into town gave me more time to enjoy the idiotic antics of Gary and Nola on the Morning Zoo on 94Z every morning as I bit my nails and stripped cuticles off my fingers in bloody anticipation of another horrific day as a 13-year-old.
I was bequeathed the “take the long way that’s kind of tedious to other people” impulse by Dad, and it used to make my high school friends nuts because I was the only one with a car, so in order for them to hitch a ride they always had to go to the bayou and back to get anywhere. (And they’d be forced to listen to all of my awesome musical cassettes while enjoying the view.) But most of the time in my adult life I’ve never been able to indulge it because I’ve always been running late. I was never able to sit back, relax, and calmly make my way through the unnecessarily labyrinthine journeys Raleigh had to offer—or rather, I could, but I had to do it very quickly.
But I could always rely on Dad to take the scenic route whenever we would go somewhere on my visits. The journey, to him, was at least as important as the destination.
Even in the latter stages of Dad’s Alzheimers, when we had to take his driver’s license away from him, his meandering continued. He couldn’t sit still. He would constantly be wandering around looking at things, trying to sneak out of the house, and moving toward some unspecified and probably nonexistent target. The further he wandered into the fuzzy headspace of his disease, the more he seemed to want to get up and go places. Of course, this behavior stemmed directly from the Alzheimers, but it was nice to think more fantastically—that Dad was rapidly aging backward, say, and that he wasn’t a sick 79-year-old man but rather a cheeky 6-year-old full of wanderlust, curiosity, and mischief, stalking frogs, leaving dog turds on doorsteps, and choosing his own adventure.
When our family gathered at our time-share condo at North Carolina’s Atlantic Beach last August for what would be our last beach trip with Dad, he was restless and fidgety. We had to keep a constant eye on him to make sure he wasn’t slipping off to do some exploring.
“Crap! Where’s Dad?!” I said after dinner one night, realizing that he was no longer standing in front of the television with his dog Lilybit in one hand and the clicker in the other, clicking. He’d quietly wandered off as mom, my sister Laurie, my brother Kevin, and I were talking at the table. Everyone looked around, got up, and started searching. I went out the front door into the hallway and, sure enough, there was Dad trying, unsuccessfully, to turn the doorknob of the condo next door.
I popped my head back into our place and there was mom, on her way out the door to look for him.
“Found him,” I said. Then I turned and walked toward Dad.
“Hey, Dad, what are you up to?”
Dad stopped trying the doorknob and headed toward the staircase leading down to the boardwalk, muttering, “Oh, I’m just going over here.”
“Okay, that’s fine. I think I’ll come with you.”
“Nah, you don’t have to do that,” he said, seeming a little annoyed.
“I’d really like to. Let’s go for a little walk.” I tried not to sound patronizing—when he was in this kind of mood he was easily stirred up.
“Oh,” he said. “Okay.”
I followed him as he shuffled down the hallway, down the stairs, and onto the boardwalk that led out to the beach. There was a pool off to the right and down some steps where kids screeched and splashed and their parents lounged and chatted. Dad was walking pretty slowly, and while I was following him I zoned out as I gazed over at the wet children flailing about the pool. I watched as a little boy pulled a girl’s bathing suit strap and snapped it back against her back. Without missing a beat the girl twirled around and slapped him across the face.
This excited me, obviously, because who doesn’t like to see a child get bitch-slapped by another child? Is there anything more life affirming? I smiled and looked back over at Dad, hoping he had seen it and would give it a thumbs-up. But he was still moving determinedly ahead on the boardwalk, now at a quicker pace, out to the little gazebo area overlooking the pool on one side and the boardwalk trail out to the beach on the other.
At the gazebo he stopped and sat down, so I sat down next to him. We watched people pass by, greeting them with smiles and soft “hello”s as they passed. Dad never seemed to be looking at anything—rather, he was looking past everything into an ethereal realm that perhaps he alone could glimpse.
After a few silent minutes he stood up and started walking—faster now—along the last leg of the boardwalk out to the beach. I got up and followed him, struck by the determined pose he assumed: hunched over with his upper body bowed forward and arms swinging resolutely as he barreled ahead. He moved down the stairs and slowed down briefly as he began slogging through the soft sand near the dunes.
I followed on his heels, trying to keep up without looking like I was acting as his minder. We were heading east toward Fort Macon State Park, and toward the jetty at the corner of both the park and the island. He and mom had walked down to the jetty for years during our beach trips, early in the morning. But he hadn’t been able to make it to the jetty last year or, sad to say, this year. He would tire out when he was about halfway and be encouraged, by mom, to turn around. He’d tried again yesterday again, but . . .
So was the jetty where we were heading now?
“So how’d you like that chocolate cake we had tonight, Dad?” I ventured. Dad always hated chocolate. He loved dessert but hated chocolate. But after dinner tonight when mom started cutting slices, Dad requested one, and, to the shock of everyone at the table, he ate the hell out of it.
“It was pretty good,” he mumbled under his breath, as if he was saying it to himself. His eyes were still looking straight ahead.
“Yeah, you seemed to really like it,” I laughed, finally breaking even with him.
His pace didn’t decrease, and I began to worry that he would tire himself out again and that we would be a mile away with him not able to walk.
“So where are we going, Dad?”
“Just down here,” he said, gesturing ahead with one arm.
“Okay. We probably shouldn’t go too far, though,” I said gently. “I don’t want you to get too tired.”
“Just over there,” he said, pointing ahead again.
Up ahead a few hundred feet I saw the green sign announcing our entrance into the grounds of Fort Macon State Park, the halfway mark on the way to the jetty. I squinted my eyes and gazed beyond it trying to gauge how much farther it would be to the jetty, and while I was lost in those complicated mathematics, Dad slipped off. When I surfaced from my advanced calculus lesson I realized he was no longer beside me. Looking around I saw that he had darted off into the dunes, clomping awkwardly over sprouts of beach grass and sand stumps. Uh-oh.
Recently, Dad had taken to going outside to go to the bathroom. At the house in Raleigh Mom had regularly started finding him out by the trashcans with his pants down taking a whiz. Fearing for the worst, I quickly hopped over to the dunes to see what he was up to.
“Dad, where are you going? I thought we were walking on the beach.”
“You don’t have to follow me,” he said irritably.
“I know, but I just want to make sure you don’t fall.”
He stopped and looked around the area of dunes. Was he looking for a place to pee? I hoped not, because how do you tell your dad not to pee somewhere?
He stepped passed me and started moving back down toward the beach. Following him down, I sighed with relief.
We continued on in the direction of the jetty, passing a few shirtless guys fishing in jean shorts. Up ahead in front of another series of dunes and close to the Fort Macon sign two abandoned beach chairs were perched, their flimsy seats and backs flapping in the wind.
“Oh, these are ours,” he said, pointing them out.
“No, I don’t think they are,” I, the insufferable literalist, responded as Dad sat down in one of them. It occurred to me to say we probably shouldn’t sit in these, they’re someone else’s, but then I thought so what/who cares?, shrugged, and sat down next to him.
We sat and watched the waves roll in together.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” I said.
“Uh-huh,” Dad replied dreamily. “Sure is.” He looked ahead toward the sea stretching south toward the Bahamas and onward to oblivion. I followed his gaze, my mind wandering again into his headspace, wondering what he was thinking about, where he wanted to go, and if I’d have to be stronger in urging him to start moving back to the condo. Then I got lost in another thicket of time and distance measurements, wondering how long it would take to jet ski to Grand Bahama island and would there be anywhere on the way to stop for snacks…
Dad stood up, walked over to the Fort Macon State Park sign, and then stopped. I got up and walked over to him. He looked at the sign and out to the sea.
“I think we can turn around now,” he said. And with that, he touched the sign and turned to start heading back.
“Oh, okay, are you sure?” I said.
We walked back passed the seats we’d just been lounging in, passed the shirtless fisherman tossing their lines out, passed the dunes where we had detoured, all the way back to the soft sand and the boardwalk, up to the gazebo, and over to the faucets where we could wash our feet and legs off. Then we went down the boardwalk stairs onto the grass. I looked over to the pool: there were fewer kids running around now, and, sadly, none of them were slapping each other. Dad made his way up the stairs to our second-floor condo. I followed him up and we went back inside.
A few hours later we were playing cards at the dinner table while Dad sat on the couch with the clicker, clicking. At one point I looked over to the couch and saw that Dad was gone again.
“Crap, where’s Dad?” I said. I started to get up to go out to the hallway and check that he wasn’t trying to open anyone’s door.
“There he is,” Laurie said, pointing out to the balcony overlooking the beach.
There he sat in one of the plastic chairs on our beachfront balcony, a little boy with a television clicker in his hand and his dog on his lap. Staring at the sea.