We had friends, Kim and Jeremy, invite us to their beach house for the weekend. They have a place in Duck. We went for a long weekend last July 4th but returned home in time to go see fireworks with Nelson Oscar. It was just one of those things that had become habit. I asked him to go to see fireworks and he said yes. I held my breath and asked again the next year and again he said yes. I’m not sure how many years he came with us but it felt like several. It was enough that the 4th was going to be a big deal for me. And it was. I ended up not going to see any fireworks this year and sat at home alone and cried instead. It sounds pathetic but I could not rally. The idea that we would go and do normal things just didn’t resonate with me. Anyway.
So we got this invitation and my first inclination was to say no. No, no no. I can’t spend a weekend acting like everything is fine or crying in front of people I don’t know well enough to cry in front of all weekend. They have kids too; a son Nelson’s age and a daughter who is five, I think. Good people, like-minded and I know the invitation was an act of kindness to our family but it was a hard invitation to accept.
Nelson and I drove down Friday morning. The ride was sweet and lovely. We went down Route 460 which is an easy, nostalgic drive. I thought about Nelson a lot. Route 460 is mostly country road sprinkled with small towns that somehow reminds me of North Dakota and summer car trips with my mom and dad. Nelson Cooper read books to me and played on his ipad. I listened to a book that made me cry.
Nelson was also worried about the weekend. He told me on Thursday night when I picked him up from camp that he had seen a little boy crying at camp for some unspecified reason and Nelson said he couldn’t go near him because he was worried he would start crying and not be able to stop. He was concerned about crying in front of his buddy, Luke. We talked about it and agreed that we might just have to cry and that we could search each other out as needed for comfort. I also assured him that if it was too difficult we could come home. I’m not sure I told him this but I had decided that we would go mostly because I feel like we have to try to accept kindnesses when they are offered and we need to try to remain engaged in our lives as much as possible. I haven’t been back to work yet and am not maintaining routines very well. I sense that I could easily slip into isolation so I have to try to say yes to opportunity.
Nelson and I arrived a bit after 1pm. Our friends were in their swimming pool so we suited up and joined them for a bit. They fed us lunch and in general made us feel really good about being there. We headed to the actual beach later in the afternoon. Jeremy was kind enough to feel my pale girl pain and got me squared away with an umbrella. And then Nelson got to play. I had been dreading the idea of going to the beach this summer because Nelson and Nelson were such good beach buddies and I kept having these visions of Nelson Cooper standing at the water’s edge alone. Having the opportunity to watch Nelson play with friends helped me release that image at least for the time being. And I found myself feeling relaxed and able to talk about something other than Nelson Oscar’s death for a bit. I had pangs of guilt when I’d realize that I was just engaging in normal conversation but I was able to hold myself together and remain present which were both big accomplishments in my mind. We stayed on the beach for hours and enjoyed the ‘golden hours’ where the light turns beautiful and the sun and swim crowd slowly slip away leaving most of the beach to us alone.
Judd arrived that evening after we had a dinner prepared by Kim and Jeremy. They teased me for my chicken and cheese dinner but it was perfect and carb free. Tasty and keto for the win. And the best part? Jeremy was on the back deck grilling the chicken. It was well past dusk. He called me to come to the deck. ‘Look there’, he said pointing to a grouping of trees directly across from us. ‘Do you know see that? It’s one of the owls.’ he explained. They have two owls that they have named Bennie and Joon. Bennie and Joon – from the movie. Bennie the brother looking after his complicated sister Joon. Irony. It had a happy ending. Hollywood. But there it was an owl which all by itself reminds me of my brother. To twinge this moment even more Nelson Oscar – an owl lover -had actually seen these owls himself a couple of years ago when we happened to be at the beach at the same time as Kim and Jeremy and spent an evening at an outdoors concert with them and then went to their place to make smores. It was a lot to mentally digest and I didn’t tell them all these connections of course but I stood there on the deck barely breathing watching that owl until he flew away. It was gorgeous and sad.
The kids went to bed close to 10pm. The day just got away from us. We ended the night putting together a puzzle. I was pretty drained by this point and just sort of sat watching and trying to appreciate the company and the fact that I was there.
I won’t lie, I cried myself to sleep ruminating on possible triggers for Nelson’s suicide and had nightmares all night but the next day I was able to pull myself up and get dressed and walk to the bookstore with Judd, Jeremy and the kids. It was super hot and humid (Yay North Carolina!) and was drenched with sweat and a bit dizzy if I’m to be honest but we went to the bookstore and got Judd coffee and books for the kids and a “Happiness Project’ adult coloring book for me because I could use some happiness. We walked the elaborate series of board walks along the sound and looked at birds and turtles. I was just another beach goer taking in the town of Duck culture and it felt good. I did think about Nelson Oscar often and had moments where my breath would catch in my throat but I also had moments where I could talk with genuine interest about owls and the community of Duck and the endless things that fascinate the kids.
We went to the beach for the afternoon. The water was cold, cold, cold. I think Judd got in once and I touched it with my toes. Nelson spent almost the entire afternoon in the surf. It’s not so bad he said. He’s 8 and clearly not to be trusted. Kim brought lunch for everyone down to the beach – file the act under kindness because she specifically brought me a Caesar salad and cheese and salami because my eating habits aren’t normal. We all need friends like this.
Judd taught the kids how to do word searches and soduku puzzles and I watched Jeremy fly his drone. Each family is so unique and their habits and routines so their own. It was both comforting and foreign to be able to lean in to another family group and just go with their rhythm for a while. Part of their rhythm is to take advantage of the restaurants and bars in Duck. Kim made us a dinner reservation at the Paper Canoe a place Judd and I didn’t even know existed despite vacationing in Duck for many, many years. She arranged pizza and a babysitter for the kids. We rode to the restaurant in the Jeep with the top down. I held my hair in place like a rock star vomiting. I ordered the chicken because it came with sugar snap peas. They were insanely good. Judd and Jeremy both got shrimp and grits and loved them. Kim had an overcooked steak and sat in front of an overly efficient air conditioner. We talked college years, dating and neighbors. It felt easy and good.
Leaving dinner we were greeted with a rapidly darkening sky and thunder rumbling a little too close by for comfort. We raced back to their house to stow the jeep and jump into Judd’s new car. We hightailed it over to their favorite cocktails and sunset spot and made it under the covered outdoor bar area with seconds to spare before the sky opened up. Needless to say, no sunset. But they had a nightcap and I had an ice water and we sat outside and watched the lightning all around us and counted down the thunderclaps. We talked books and raising kids in this complicated world. I told them about my planned rock garden for Nelson Oscar and we took (stole) a rock from the landscaping of the outdoor bar for this purpose. Later Jeremy would give me two more rocks from the river rocks lining the side of his beach house. How are awesome are these people!?
This morning we went back to the boardwalk to replace the Geocache box their family maintains. Geocaching is a not something we have ever done and we got an education about all the experiences we could be having. I think Judd may just give it a try.
Nelson did great this weekend and for the most part his biggest concerns revolved around getting sunscreen in his eyes. This morning he did tell me that while in bed last night he was thinking about Uncle Nelson and had gotten very sad and wanted to cry. I asked him if he had and he said he was scared to start crying because Luke was already asleep in the next bed. We had a long hug.
It will be a long time before we are able to really go and let go for a weekend without feeling the loss and hurt that is still so fresh and real for us but this weekend gave us a safe and comforting place to practice the motions of normal life – the kind of normal life that involves friendship, food, laughter and ocean waves. Tonight I sit here feeling sad but also grateful.