by Heidi Reinecke
They say that winter in New Jersey is like revenge: best served cold, but occasionally so merciful it’s pitiful. The year of 1984 saw a winter on the pitiful side of things, in more than one way. But it was destined to be the most telling winter of my nearly thirty years.
That particular day, I drove down to “my” beach. I called it mine: was it? I’m sure the county would’ve disputed such a claim. Whenever life began to close in on me, I drove the three or four miles to that beach and paced up and down, letting the sights and sounds and smells soak into my soul; I’d inevitably go away feeling a little better.
I’d had a long week preceding. Boy scouts who wouldn’t listen, PTA meetings that dragged on with no purpose, kids that kept my poor wife, Peggy, running a mile a minute just to keep up; and, on top of all that, my mother.
My mother, next to my wife, was the dearest woman on earth to me. She had taught me, cared for me, rooted for me, and encouraged me through the long years of college, playing baseball, and struggling to write. I had dedicated my last book, detailing the first all-Negro baseball team, to her.
A month before this, she called, asking if she could come spend a few days with us.
“Mom, you know you’re always welcome.” I smiled into the telephone. “But it’s not like you to leave your post just before the holidays. We always come up there, you know.” My mother still lived in the rambling farmhouse I’d grown up in, and Christmastime was a special time to celebrate and remember life as it had been back in the “good old days.”
“I know; I’m just so tired,” my mother sighed. “I think a few days over near the sea would do me some good.”
“Come, by all means; we’ll be waiting for you!”
However, when she arrived, it was plain to everyone she was far more than “just tired.” Something was desperately wrong, but she maintained she’d just been overdoing it. Even so, she began to get weaker and weaker.
I took to the beach that day in early November with this weight hanging over my head. I scuffed along the sand, not taking the time to even look at my surroundings; and that’s when I heard that voice.
I looked around, startled out of my morose reverie. Empty as the beach had seemed, it did hold one form of human life other than myself; a small, blonde-haired, blue eyed little girl. She sat on the ground, surrounded by unidentifiable piles of smoothed sand. She had a purple shovel in one hand.
I nodded, not feeling like talking, but unable to take my eyes off her delicate, fragile face.
“I’m building,” she said, gesturing to the piles of sand around her.
“So I see.” I finally found my tongue, though I didn’t really have much interest in the child. “What is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I just like the feel of the sand.” The little girl laughed, digging a small hole with her shovel and depositing her bare feet inside.
Struck with the impulse of the moment, I slipped my own shoes off and dug my toes into the sand. Cold as it was, it did feel nice.
The little girl looked up as a sandpiper scuttled along the beach. Her eyes widened as she watched the bird run along, pause, and then lift off and fly away with the wind.
“That’s a joy,” she said, pointing after the flying bird.
“That was a sandpiper,” I replied, feeling that I ought to correct the poor thing’s misconception.
“No; my mama says that sandpipers bring joy,” the little girl persisted, dumping a shovel-full of sand on top of one of her piles and smoothing it down.
Another sandpiper flew by, and this time I watched it. Goodbye joy, I thought in gloomy silence. I turned to walk on.
“What’s your name?” A little voice stopped me from going much farther than half a step.
The little girl smiled, a smile sweeter and wider than any I’d ever seen. “I’m Wendy.” She pointed to herself with a dirty thumb. “I’m six years old.”
“Hi, Wendy.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She giggled. “You’re funny.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh, you’re just funny.” She giggled again, and I didn’t press the issue. I didn’t feel particularly funny at the moment, but I laughed in spite of myself.
“I’ve got to be going,” I said, turning to walk back to my car.
“Come again, Mr. P!” she called after me. “We’ll have another happy day!”
A happy day? I thought as I got in my car. I stared out at the beach I’d just left; not at the sand, not at the waves, but at the curly, golden head bent over her building. Surprisingly, I did feel better. Something about Wendy had lifted my spirits. I drove home, determined to make the best of ever bad situation.
That night, I sat on the couch with my son, looking through a picture book. His favorite thing to do was grab a wild animals book with lots of pictures, drag it to the couch, and spend untold hours flipping the pages and asking what each animal was. Tonight he leaned over and pointed at a picture of a sandpiper. “Daddy, what’s that called?”
I smiled, my mind flitting back to the beach. I saw Wendy, and heard her say, “That’s a joy.”
“It’s a joy,” I said.
Piper looked up at me. “A joy?”
I laughed. “I heard someone once say that they bring us joy. They’re called sandpipers.”
Piper squealed with a sort of excitement. “A sandpiper, Daddy? That’s part of my name!”
“So it is.” I tweaked his nose. “If you went to the beach, you’d be a sand Piper too.”
“Does that mean I’m a joy, Daddy?” His big blue eyes turned on me.
I hugged him. “Yes, son. One of the best joys!”
He smiled, giggled, and turned to the next page.
The next few days began to build things on me, not unlike Wendy’s lumps of sand. On Tuesday, the boy scouts meeting felt disorganized and it seemed none of the boys wanted to follow instructions. I came home from it in a disagreeable mood.
The following day, another PTA meeting left me in a distemper. I took my frustration out on a nearby lamp-post when the meeting adjourned, much to the discomfort of my left foot.
The only bright side to anything was that my mother seemed to be getting better. She helped Peggy around the house, getting ready for the holidays, and played with the children. Occasionally, I saw a far-off, sad look in her eyes, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Finally, another boy scouts meeting in disarray drove me to the beach. I got out of the car, half-hoping and half-fearing to see Wendy. Sure enough, she sat in the sand again. I was tempted to walk the other direction, but decided against it. I was a grown man; I could surely walk past a child without stopping and losing my train of thought.
Chilly winds breezed off the Atlantic in small gusts. I took a deep breath of the salt-laden air, seeking for the serenity I knew I needed. As I came up to Wendy, she smiled. “Hello, Mr. P!”
I glanced her way, grunting.
“Do you want to play?” she asked.
I stopped. Play? Me, thirty years old and all the cares of the world on my shoulders, play with a six-year-old? “What do you have in mind?” I asked with no small amount of sarcasm.
My sarcastic tone was lost on her. “I don’t know; you pick!”
“How about charades?” I almost rolled my eyes, imagining myself running up and down the beach, flapping like a fool, and Wendy squealing, “You’re a joy!”
Wendy laughed, bringing me back to reality. “I don’t know what charades are.”
That was a mercy. “Let’s just walk, then.”
Wendy picked herself up off the ground and skipped along beside me down the beach.
I looked down at the child at my side. Her skin looked almost transparent, her hair so light and thin. “Where do you live?” I asked.
Wendy pointed over to a row of summer cottages, mostly empty. “Over there.”
I frowned. Strange. “Where do you go to school?”
“I don’t go to school.” Wendy’s voice dropped a pitch. “Mommy says we’re on vacation. I love the beach.”
I didn’t reply; in fact, my mind was trying to come up with a plausible reason for a child and her mother to be staying in a summer cottage on the Jersey Shore in November. Wendy chattered along, I only half-listening. Then she paused and I jerked my attention to her. “What was that?”
“I asked if you have a family.”
“Yes. I have a wife and two kids.”
“What are your kids names?” Wendy skipped a little hop.
“Riley and Piper.”
Wendy stopped dead in her tracks. “Piper?”
I nodded, remembering the incident with my son and the picture book last week. Wendy thought long and hard for a moment. “Is it a girl?”
“No, he’s a boy.”
Again, Wendy thought. Then she smiled, resumed her little hopping, and said, “He must be a joy, too.”
A few more yards down the beach, Wendy said, “I like you, Mr. P.”
“Thanks,” I replied, half-heartedly. “I like you, too.”
I decided to turn around about now, and Wendy skipped along beside me. But before we were quite halfway back, she slowed down and began to walk. Soon her breath came raggedly. I looked down at her. “You alright?”
She nodded. “I’m just tired. I’ll sit here and play.” She dropped down to the sand and began to dig about with her fingers.
I continued walking, but she called after me, “It was a happy day, wasn’t it?”
I stopped, looked back at her. She wasn’t paying much attention to me now, so I called, “Yes, it was.” Then I continued on down the beach.
These little meetings on the beach sort of got to be a habit. Every few days or so, I’d go down and there Wendy would sit. Sometimes she’d walk with me, sometimes I’d sit with her. She always chattered away for an hour or so before getting very quiet, taking deep breaths as though exhausted. I’d excuse myself then, having received my “pick-me-up” and go home feeling refreshed.
Two days after meeting Wendy again at the beach, I came home from a PTA meeting exhausted and out of patience for anything. I slammed the car door getting out, slammed the door to the house going in. I threw my coat in the hall closet, kicked my shoes off and continued on towards the den. But I suddenly paused at the kitchen door to listen.
The house was dead quiet. No sounds of happy feet running, no music playing, nothing. I entered the kitchen, looking around for Peggy; and that’s when I saw the note on the kitchen table.
We’ve gone to the hospital. Your mother collapsed this afternoon and we can’t wake her up. Come meet us.
My world began to crumble in on itself. I tore that note to shreds, raced back to the car, managing to grab coat and shoes once again. I slammed doors again, too; but this time for a different reason.
After getting stuck in traffic for a half hour, I arrived at the hospital, ready to tear everyone to pieces that stood in my way. I made my way to the front desk and asked for “Susan Peterson.” They directed me to the fifth floor, room 202.
At the door of room 202, I met the doctor. He shook my hand. “You must be Robert.”
“Yes, I am. What’s going on, doctor?”
The doctor sighed. “Mr. Peterson, I don’t know how to tell you this. Your mother is dying.”
I just stared at him. He continued. “We’re not really sure why, but it seems like everything inside her is failing. Has she ever had heart trouble?”
My mind raced back to once, as a boy, when I’d come in and found my mother crumpled on the floor beside the table. I’d raced to her, crying, trying to help her up. I managed to get her in a chair and she smiled, putting her hand over her heart. “A glass of water, Bobby-boy.”
I rushed to get it. “Mama, what’s wrong?” I sobbed.
She shook her head, managed a smile and downed the water. “I just have a weak heart, that’s all. I’ll be alright in a moment or two.”
Back in the present, I nodded. “Yes; she has.”
The doctor nodded. “I suspected so. It’s plain given out on her, Mr. Peterson. I don’t think she’ll last a week.”
My knuckles turned white. “Is my wife…?”
“In with your mother.” The doctor pushed the door open for me. “Go on in. There will be nurses checking on her around the clock, and I’ll be in every seven hours to see how she is.”
I moved like a robot as I entered that room. Mechanical steps took me to my mother’s bedside, where she seemed to be sleeping. The heart monitor pulsed with far fewer and slower beats than it ought to.
Peggy sat on a chair next to Mom, holding her hand with one hand, and Riley with the other. Piper sat, curled up on the window bench, quietly crying.
I went to Piper, picking him up and holding him. Piper clung to me, searching my face. “Daddy, oh Daddy! Have you brought a joy? We need one.”
Tears forced their way out of my eyes. I held Piper close. “No, son. There isn’t any joy today.”
Piper sank into my arms in despair and wept.
For the next three weeks, we kept vigil in the hospital room. Mother never woke up. The slow beating of her heart got slower, and finally one Wednesday morning, I glanced up and watched it get smaller and smaller…and then turn into a straight line.
I managed to compose myself for the funeral. Piper wouldn’t be comforted, but continued to ask everyone he met if they had a joy. Nobody knew what he meant.
After we buried Mom in the old cemetery and I had seen to as much of business as I could, I left my disconsolate family and raced to the beach, desperate for the sea. I didn’t want to see Wendy; and yet, something told me she would be there.
She was. Sitting in the sand just like the first time I saw her. I glanced at the house she’d pointed out so many weeks ago. I almost marched myself right up there and asked her mother to keep the child at home. Instead, I turned and began walking down the beach the other way, pretending to have not seen the girl in the sand.
However, after a few moments, I heard the pounding of little feet behind me. “Mr. P! Mr. P!”
I stopped as Wendy caught up with me. “Look, I think I’d rather take a walk by myself today.” My words came out harsher than I intended them to.
Wendy looked like I’d just announced I was going to the moon. “Why?”
All the emotion pent up and shoved down for the last three and a half weeks burst forth. “My mother died! She’s dead! Gone! I just buried her yesterday!”
Wendy’s eyes fell. “This is a bad day,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes,” I continued, voice louder and more cutting than it ought to have been. “So was yesterday, and the day before, and the week before—oh, just go away, kid.” I turned away, tears running down my cheeks.
Wendy’s little voice stole across to me. “Did it hurt?”
“Did what hurt?” I flung the question over my shoulder, not daring to face her with tears still fresh on my cheeks.
“When she died.” Wendy’s voice sounded very, very small.
I whirled around to face her. “What do you mean, did it hurt? Of course it hurt!” I snapped. I couldn’t see farther than the end of my own nose, and assumed she meant if it had hurt me.
Wendy’s eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t take anymore and strode off down the beach, leaving her where she stood.
It was late that night when I returned to the car, exhausted from my long walk. My emotions had spent themselves; now I only felt defeated and helpless. I got into my car, and sat there, thinking back to the tears in Wendy’s eyes. I rubbed my forehead. That really wasn’t any way to speak to a six-year-old. I shook my head.
I looked over towards the row of summer cottages. All the lights were out. I pulled out of the lot and drove away.
On my way, I pulled over to let an ambulance by. It screamed on past, headed for the hospital I’d been almost living in for the past month. I watched the flashing lights disappear, thinking about the sandpipers at the beach, and my Piper at home, who still asked me every day if I had a joy. I had a sudden urge to follow the ambulance, to see who was inside. But I put it out of my mind, pulled back on the road, and went home instead.
Several days later, after the details of my mother’s will had been taken care of, I drove myself to the beach. Piper begged to come along, but I told him, “Not today. I have something I need to do.”
I got out of the car and scanned the beach for Wendy. For the first time, she wasn’t there. A light rain drizzled on the sand, and I thought perhaps the weather kept her indoors. Ashamed of my behavior from a few days prior, I went up to the cottage and knocked on the door.
A soft footstep sounded inside, and a young lady opened the door. She was probably in her thirties, pretty face, blonde hair. She forced a smile. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m Robert Peterson, ma’am.” I cleared my throat. “I’m the one who’s been walking with your daughter on the beach. I see she’s not out today and I wanted to say something to her.”
The lady closed her eyes a moment, then opened them and pulled the door open wider. “Please come in, Mr. Peterson. Wendy spoke of you so much.”
I came inside, looking around at the simple furnishings. The mother showed me to a seat. “I’m afraid I allowed Wendy to bother you, Mr. Peterson. Forgive me if she was a nuisance.”
“Not at all!” A nuisance? Wendy? I suppose I had treated her like a nuisance at times, but she was anything but! “She’s a delightful child. I’ve come to the beach more often just to spend time with her. I saw her a few days ago, and I’m afraid I spoke too harshly to her; you see, my mother just passed away quite suddenly and I wasn’t in full command of myself. I’d like to apologize to her, if I may.”
Wendy’s mother bit her lip. “Mr. Peterson, Wendy died three days ago.”
The color and light went out of that room. I sat back in my chair, stunned. Only now did I notice the black clothes the young woman wore, and the neatly stacked pile of toys in the corner.
“What happened?” I finally managed to gasp.
“She had leukemia; didn’t she tell you? I thought surely she had.” Wendy’s mother sat down herself now, swallowing a few tears. “We found out about three months ago that she was in the advanced stages of it, and the doctors prognosis was six weeks. When Wendy asked to come to the beach, I couldn’t say no. My husband and I have been separated since Wendy was three; but he was equally concerned and rented the cottage here for us.”
She took a deep breath, then went on. “Once we came, she seemed to get so much better. She sat on the beach almost all day long, playing in the sand. She started actually running here and there, and skipping. She couldn’t do it beforehand at all: it took all of her energy just to walk anywhere. She was almost her old self again, and almost everyday told me that it was a happy day. At a check-up several weeks ago, one of the doctor’s told me privately that it was possible for a child to beat even advanced leukemia. I cherished that hope. But then, three days ago, she came in looking very sad. She didn’t tell me anything more than today was a bad day.”
I cringed. I knew what had made it a bad day; and suddenly, the flashing lights of the ambulance returned into my mind. I saw myself sitting beside the road, even thinking about following the ambulance on a whim.
Wendy’s mother paused. “That night, she started crying and choking, gasping for breath. I called 911, and they rushed us to the hospital, but Wendy died within an hour of arrival. We’ve buried her in the local cemetery, as close to the ocean as we could. I’m sorry.”
I dropped my head into my hands. Wendy, gone. Dead. Buried. Tears dropped onto the carpet. “I’m so sorry,”I whispered. “I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”
Wendy’s mother dried her tears. “Wendy left you something, Mr. Peterson. I’ll go and get it, if I can find it again. Can you wait a moment?”
The young lady disappeared, and I shuddered with remorse. I now knew why, on our long walks, she had been gasping for breath before the end. I now knew why she would chatter for an hour, then stop as if she couldn’t talk any more. I now knew how much it had cost her to run after me three days before; and I knew, in abject horror, that it was my lack of control that had caused the last day of that precious girl’s life to end as a bad day.
Wendy’s mother returned, holding a crumpled envelope. “She was holding this, Mr. Peterson, when I found her gasping that last night.” She held it out to me.
I took it. The front had a bold “Mr. P” on it, in childish letters. I opened it and pulled out a folded piece of paper. On the inside of the paper was a bright crayon drawing: a blue ocean, yellow sand, and a small brown bird. Underneath, in printed, tilting letters, were the words, “A sandpiper to bring you joy.”
When I returned home, Peggy met me in the entry. “What took so long?” she asked.
I held out the envelope. “Peggy, I’ve been such a selfish fool.”
It took a little while to tell the story, but when I finished, Peggy had tears in her own eyes. She hugged me tightly, and then, Piper appeared in the hallway. I noticed him and knelt on the floor. “Piper, come look at this.”
Piper came down and stood in front of me. I handed him the picture.
“What’s this?” he asked, running his fingers over the thick crayon strokes.
“It’s a sandpiper,” I replied, smiling through my tears.
Piper stared long and hard at the paper. Then his eyes lit up. “It’s a joy, Daddy! You found a joy!”
When we visited my mother’s grave the following afternoon, Piper clutched the picture to him. He knelt beside the headstone and put his hand on it. “Grandma,” he said, as if she really were there, “Daddy found a joy. I wanted to show you.”
Peggy and I smiled at each other. Then I noticed the headstone next to my mother’s. It looked new, like my mother’s. It was shiny marble, like my mother’s. On it were the following words: “Wendy Armstrong, 1978—1984. She was a joy.”
I knelt beside the little grave and put a handful of flowers I’d brought for my mother on it. Piper noticed me. “Whose grave is that, Daddy?” he asked.
“This,” I said, putting my hand on the headstone, “was a joy.”
In the study of a large farmhouse in Pennsylvania hangs a small frame. Inside is a child’s drawing: a blue ocean, yellow sand, and a small brown bird. Underneath, in printed, tilting letters, are the words, “A sandpiper to bring you joy.”
Note: I read this story in an email forward years ago. The man, Robert Peterson, passed away in 2006. He was a writer who grew up in Pennsylvania. Some details in the story have been left out or modified or added, simply because the story in the email forward was very bare. The point is not to make a 100% accurate biography of Robert Peterson, but to tell a story of love and real joy. I hope it touches your heart as it has mine.