The drive to Frisco Beach on Cape Hatteras National Seashore is strange, spinning out quickly from the forests of North Carolina, through the opening salvos of the vacation-destination Outer Banks, passing through tiny little kingdoms with fast-changing ecologies–forest, swamp, and then seashore. Keep driving, and soon you’re skimming along the surface of the ocean on what seem like impossibly narrow islands–a chain of them that stretches North to South along the coast, a tiny branch extending out away from the body of this continent where you can feel stretched out on the water, like you’re escaping, and then bending back toward the beaches of North Carolina.
We had come to the Outer Banks a few times before to camp by the beach in Frisco, in this unassuming little campground where the showers are crammed with pervy little frogs and the landscape is a harsh and beautiful scrub, where there seems to be a perpetual lightning storm on the horizon that occasionally dips by to violently rip your tent to pieces like it was made of paper and drench you and all your stuff like you’re being punished for wandering off the map. It was one of the places that stood out as somewhere Rebecca had been happy before her condition went to hell. She had smiled sitting on the beach. Her eyes had lit up as we hunkered down in our tent and waited for the latest storm to pass. She had laughed ecstatically being carried into the ocean waves by her mother Jessica.
We were here with Rebecca again but only to say goodbye. Our little girl was carried with us in her final form as a few handfuls of ashes. Rebecca had died a year prior, after a lifetime of just 14 years–tiny, short and still somehow a massive life–bigger than any of ours for sure despite its constraints: harsh, rocky, and stormy… fast flashes of forest, swamp, and seashore. Ok buckle up–I can already tell this piece is going to be exhaustingly metaphorical. Anything can be a symbol for anything that’s splintered sufficiently into your consciousness. Just bear with me…
We brought the bag of ashes from the car in our campsite and walked the long boardwalk across wetlands, and then up the hill, to the peak of that sand dune where the shoreline suddenly opens up in front of you, stretching left and right to infinity, where Jessica had taken that one picture with the living Rebecca that still hangs somewhere in our house, me looking like I’ve already hit muscle-failure from carrying her limp body all this way from the campsite because wheelchairs don’t do so great in sand… or maybe we’d abandoned it somewhere nearby, pretty sure nobody would know it was worth a small fortune. I’m sure we must have attempted both methods- bringing and not bringing the wheelchair from the campsite. We were always switching plans and approaches as we experimented our way to the least inconvenient approach. There was no such thing as convenient. Rebecca was a cheerful little chore, all limbs and diapers and bags full of smelly enteral feeding solution and dragging wheelchairs through sand and up concrete steps to get to the places that other people meandered mindlessly into and took for granted… that now we’re learning to take for granted as we practically float our way through the world unencumbered by all those goddamn supplies. I now almost miss the burden of it all, but you can’t expect or ask anybody living in the thick of that to appreciate it. Don’t pity them either–that’s also shitty. You don’t have to lend a hand but do get the hell out of the way, if you don’t mind.
We descended to the beach with our bag of ashes and dug a small hole in the sand where it wasn’t too dry, so that the walls wouldn’t collapse on their own, but far enough from the water that we might have a bit of time before the tide caught us.
I’ve always thought it was weird how if you dig down into the earth, you sometimes hit water. My mental picture of water is that it is separated by land. It can only be where land isn’t. But then when you dig down far enough, the water seeps out of the dirt walls and fills the hole you’re digging. There are these bodies of water beneath us but not in gaps in the ground… occupying the same space as the ground, flowing like rivers and sitting in puddles. You can build small pools by just removing some of that earth, without pouring anything in. I’ve just always thought it was so weird. How many other things must I think can’t occupy the same space but still manage to without my permission?
In no time at all, the hole we were digging started to fill with water, that small magic.
We poured the handful of ashes inside, into the soup of liquified sand, and covered them up. The sand where we’d dug the hole was now softer than before. The ground beneath was mixing with the pool of water that had seeped in, If anybody had stepped in that spot, they’d sink in pretty quickly. I imagined walking away and some jogger hitting the spot like a trap; but we weren’t going anywhere. We sat there and Jessica started to build a small castle on top of the spot where we’d buried the ashes. I watched for a bit. Jess was using this weird technique of dripping wet sand down through her hand like she was squeezing a fruit, building small bumpy spires around the central tower of the castle on top of where we’d placed Rebecca’s ashes.
I joined in the build when it was time to decorate, by placing shells on the structure. We added the best shells we could find in the spot where we were sitting, and the choices were plentiful. Frisco beach is full of tiny, beautiful shells.
I thought about how full of little sparkly trinkets Rebecca’s life had been. We would do just about anything to her room if we thought it might make her smile, if it might keep her happy as she lay awake in her bed at night. I remember spending hours trying to wire these electric glowing orbs we’d invented to hang from her ceiling around the sparkling chandelier above her bed. We bought countless little light shows to cast spinning, glittering light-shows and star maps above her.
We found the most decorative shells and rocks within reach and placed them on and around the tiny castle…
and as we did
The tide came in.
The water rose, slowly. It crept up, one small surge at a time–the ocean breathing in and out, its exhales drawing closer each time as we built the tiny castle whose foundation was mingled with the muddy ashes of our dead daughter.
For a long while, there was this slow back and forth as the water lapped up and touched the small structure we were building and we made attempts to rebuild what the water had done to it. The touch of the water like a curse that softens the structure and makes walls slide. It was happening too quickly. I wanted to keep building this castle for longer, as though given enough time it might actually serve as a worthy memorial.
Perhaps if we could build it with stone… Perhaps we could be like those people who build a full-size castle in their front yard out of stone or car parts or glass bottles or whatever. This could be our life now…
And as the water drew closer, the sand all around the castle saturated. The spires sank and one by one collapsed.
It became apparent that trying to keep the spires up was a lost cause, so at a certain point we just focused on the small central tower, making sure it still had a few embellishing shells, for as long as it made sense to.
The castle shrank, and still we kept tending to it for just a little longer.
And then it was time to let it go.
Then we sat and watched as the sand flattened and smoothed.
There is no arguing with the ocean. It is more vast and persistent than we can possibly contend with.
In 2010, a group of scientists released a report saying effectively that due to sea-level rise, by the year 2100 a significant portion of the Outer Banks would be underwater. For a number of reasons including climate change, the communities, houses, shops, and recreation areas that litter that tiny island-chain have little time left to be occupied or enjoyed. In response to this report, the local development community rose up in protest. A bill was introduced in the North Carolina House that outlawed using the report’s predictions for planning and policy decisions. A moratorium on regulations responding to climate-change was passed.
Life happens, whether we’re watching or not. We can be such stupid children, hiding our eyes from forces that don’t give a shit whether we’re looking. We bury our heads under couch pillows even as the sound of the structure fire around us grows to a deafening inferno.
As the tide came in and Jessica and I patched up and quietly decorated the dilapidating castle, this analogy was already in my head. This castle was Rebecca, and this conversation with the ocean was how her 14 years of life had gone, our conversation with the forces that crept up and pulled her away from us.
We had poured into her, building her up, patching her and trying desperately to fill the space between the demolishing breaths of her fatal disease with these small, broken little fragments of joy. She had been so diminished in the last year of her life that we often wondered what we were doing anymore… besides waiting for something impossible to happen, and as we waited she suffered and only declined.
And it was time to let her go, or rather it became clear it had been time for some time now. There was no arguing with the vast, persistent force that was always going to take her away. To fight that losing battle any longer was already cruel, and obviously futile. For all the effort we put in over the years, it’s possible that the kindest thing we ever did was to finally let her die. To just hold her close as her body did what stupid bodies do at the end–spasm and kick for one more miserable breath. At a certain point, the rate of decline and decay is just so high that all you’re doing anymore is giving them those last painful moments over and over again, moments not even the slightest bit worth living.
And here’s where I say plainly that I believe in death, and the right to death.
I resent having to watch Rebecca suffer like that–her body the cruel, rogue, runaway machine that just kept churning away so long as we kept feeding it, so long as we didn’t stop it from its long senseless sputtering.
We live in a society that made me feel bad for all that time I wished her death would come faster. I don’t feel bad about that any more. My regret is instead that we waited too long–a whole year bullied by a polite society, that hides from its dead and dying, into scooping soupy sand out of water and dropping it back in, a farcical attempt at the bullshit task of building a sandcastle underwater–left with no choice by a system and culture that hide the gross reality of death far too effectively.
We might seem like outliers, but this experience is common. It’s just hidden, because people are afraid to come anywhere close to the topic of the right to die, the right to kill with compassion those who have no agency.
We did right by her eventually. We fought to keep her life good and then we got it through our thick skulls to fight for something else, something even kinder than comfort.
And here is the flat ground where once there stood a tiny castle with four spires and a central tower, joyfully decorated with pretty shells and shiny stones.