One of the things that Anne Mei and I did after the three kiss-offs was to take Laura down to the beach at Spring Lake. It was a truly beautiful sunny day at the ocean. A November chill, but there were hundreds of people walking along the boardwalk at Spring Lake. Dogs frolicking in the surf. Laura kept stopping to gaze at the vast ocean, the waves, the gulls massing on the sand as the tide pulled out.
Since Laura died, my brother Patrick, ever the physician who cared for elderly and dying veterans, always asks me clinical questions about my mental status. Checking for signs of depression. He visited just before Hurricane Sandy. In response to his usual inquiry “How’s your health? How are your spirits?” I said that my spirits were fine. The day after Sandy, I opened the New York Times to see a large picture of the foundations of the Spring Lake boardwalk, and started sobbing. Not just tears rolling down my cheeks, but loud sobs. The boardwalk from which Laura gazed on her last visit to the sea—was gone. The bench where she sat for our last pictures of her with Anne Mei and with me—was gone. The ocean she watched has come and gone. The sand on which the gulls and Anne Mei played while she watched has moved up and on. Impermanence may be one of the signs that we exist, but her absence is always here even when it’s not present.
Joan Didion (2007, 107-118) calls what happened to me the “vortex effect.” It can be brought back by going back bodily to places with strong “associations I was trying to avoid,” by going back mentally in playing the “what if” game. In this case, I was taken back by a newspaper photo. I didn’t seek out the dart, but when it was lying there on the breakfast table, without thinking I picked it up and stuck it in.
I have since gone back to Spring Lake with Anne Mei and walked on the new boardwalk. They still hadn’t replaced the benches.