My son, G3, calls our favorite bay beach, The Treasure Beach. It sits on a scenic inlet in Peconic on the North Fork of Long Island. The water is deep so that boats can pass through, and even during low tide, I only have to take a few steps before the water is over my head. In preschool and early elementary school, G3 loved that beach because he knew whenever he visited he would find treasure.
We don’t live in New York, but we spend a great deal of time there in the summer because my parents have a tiny house out in Mattituck. It’s my happy place, my sanctuary. It’s on a dirt road which gives the illusion of being somewhat removed from the world, and the yard is big enough that you don’t feel suffocated by neighbors. It’s peaceful. A perfect place to escape. And from the time he was born, it was my son’s palace because my father treated him like a prince. But the treasure was Mom’s idea.
Like many little kids, G3 became obsessed with pirates and the legend of Captain Kidd, who allegedly buried treasure on Long Island. When he was about four, I pushed him on a raft across inlet. He insisted on bringing his big shovel with him, and when we got to the other side, he commenced digging. Determined to find treasure, he dug holes up and down the beach and was disappointed when he finally had to admit defeat. My mother enjoyed his enthusiasm so much a few days later she went to a craft store and bought three small wooden treasure boxes — a tad bit bigger than my fist — and bags of fake jewels.
When we next visited, she handed me the supplies and instructed me to fill each box with a few colorful jewels. Dad added the quarters — a dollar’s worth in each box. At the beach, I pushed my son across the inlet while Dad stuffed the treasure in his pocket to smuggle across the water. He and Mom grabbed their noodles and leisurely followed me. Once across, Dad stealthily handed me the boxes. While my parents distracted my son — heading to one side of the sandy point that jutted into the water — I set off on the other side to bury the treasure, carefully marking each spot with an X made from drift wood or a pattern of sea shells. When my work was complete, I signaled to Dad who guided G3 over to the treasure. Catching sight of the first X, my son squealed, sprinted over to it, and dug like a maniac until his shovel scooped up the box and he tossed it onto the sand. Falling to his knees, he opened it, his entire face glowing with pleasure as he unclasped the lock and treasure fell out. “Pirates,” he declared. “They were here. They left the treasure just for me.”
He enjoyed the game, the discovery, so much that every time we returned to that beach, he grabbed his shovel and went off to see what the pirates left for him. He was never disappointed. But two years ago, when Mom’s legs could no longer handle the long walk across the sand from the parking lot to the beach — it pained her too much — Dad put a kibosh on the Treasure Beach. He hated to disappointment my son, but he didn’t want his wife to be in pain. So he settled on a compromise. Instead of going to Peconic, we went swimming at the local town beach in Mattituck, a beach that was not nearly as taxing on Mom’s legs. But on the days that my son begged hardest for the Treasure Beach, Dad appeased him with a boys’ lunch at McDonalds. They’d leave Mom and me at the beach with sandwiches and then they’d go off to the fast food joint. My son always felt special spending that time alone with his grandfather. However, despite the lunches, G3 had been itching to go back to the Treasure Beach. He missed the swim across the inlet and his quest for hidden treasure.
Back in April, Covid-19 killed my father, the man who made many of my son’s dreams come true. The man G3 loved more than anyone else. We had intended — my son, my parents, and I — to hunker down in Long Island for the duration of the Pandemic. But then Dad got sick and died, and our plans completely disintegrated.
Dad’s death devastated my son. G3 has two moms, so my dad was more than a grandfather. In many ways, he fulfilled the role of father in my son’s life. He was his primary male role model. The man he adored. And to go from looking forward to seeing him to knowing he would never see him again, never be hugged or have another “boys’ outing” crushed him. While it wasn’t his first encounter with death, it was by far his most intimate experience. And the lockdown resulting from the pandemic exacerbated his grief. It made it more oppressive, more debilitating.
Due to restrictions on public gatherings, we couldn’t have a wake or a funeral. There was no period of public mourning where we could celebrate Dad’s life. We couldn’t have a Mass — Dad was Catholic — or a repast, a gathering of our close friends and family. There were no hugs — who know their absence could be felt so acutely — no shared stories of happier times.
With schools closed and extra-curricular activities canceled or moved to Zoom, my son had no peers with which he could interact, no friends to divert his thoughts away from his pain. With museums shut, and movie theaters shuttered, there were no places we could take him to escape, no place we could go to distract our minds, no happy adventures that might allow the healing to begin. For months, my son was trapped at home with grief as his constant companion. It was suffocating. Everything reminds him of his grandfather. And because his grandfather was so present in his life, Dad’s death has left a huge hole in his heart. A hole I don’t know how fill, an emptiness, I don’t know how to heal.
Shortly after Dad died, my son and I finally escaped to Long Island, but it was no longer the sanctuary it used to be. Instead, memories like ghosts, haunted us. G3 missed his grandfather more as the days went by, he missed all the things they used to do together, all ways Dad demonstrated his love — going to the beach, McDonalds for lunch, trips to Greenport for ice cream and rubber duckies. Sorrow seemed to paralyze my son — all he wanted to do was sprawl listlessly on the couch and watch TV — until one hot day in June he asked, “Can we go to the Treasure Beach?”
My initial thought was, the Treasure Beach without Dad will make him more depressed, but he was broken, we needed to do something that might be fun. Something that might restore his ability to enjoy life and find pleasure in the world. But there was also the question of treasure. Would not finding it shatter his spirits even more? Or at ten, was he too old to believe in pirates who left treasure just for him? As I packed up the car — lunch, towels, books — my son rummaged around in his room until he found his oversized shovel, the one he always used to dig up treasure. I sighed, wondering if I should tell him the truth, that the mystery pirates were really me, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t force myself to devastate him further. But on the other hand, I certainly couldn’t distract him, and hide the treasure at the same time. One way or another he would find out the truth. I didn’t know what to do, and so I just drove.
The minute we got to the beach, G3 ran down to the water, set up the umbrella — which used to be Dad’s job but my son declared, “I’m the man of the family now. I’ll do it,” — and then he dove into the inlet and swam across, shovel in hand. I watched as I applied sunscreen. My son tore up the beach, digging hole after hole as tears trickled down my cheeks. Every child grows up. Every child stops believing in Santa Claus. But watching my son’s shoulders fall, watching him toss the shovel and sit down defeated, burying his head in arms, I felt as if he had grown up way more than he should have in such a short time. It’s as if he had gone from a little boy to a young adult in three months, and it crushed me. I stood up with the intention of swimming over to him, but he was already making his way back.
“It was you, wasn’t it? You were the pirate? You hid the treasure?” He spoke matter-of-factly, as if it didn’t really trouble him, but he didn’t wait for an answer. Before I could respond, he reached for his inflatable crocodile which Dad had bought him two years ago — trading it in for the shovel — and jumped back into the water. “Push me across,” he straddled the crocodile’s back. “Please.” I smiled, happy to have something to do. When we reached the other side, we walked down the beach until it turned sharply to the left and suddenly the sand seemed to be moving. We looked closer. It was low tide and the fiddler crabs were rushing out of their holes and scurrying across the ground. G3’s jaw dropped, his eyes widened, “There are so many of them.” I bent down to scoop one up. Cradling it in my hands, I showed my son who took it from me and examined it closely.
After the crabs, he plucked periwinkle snails out of the water. He placed them on their backs and watched how they turned themselves around. He repeated the experiment several times, explaining to me the scientific process and its necessity for understanding how things work. From periwinkles he moved on to whelks and then sand crabs.
My plan had been to stay until four o’clock, but when I announced it was time to go, my son begged me to stay. He was having too much fun. He was enjoying the wildlife — the discovery. There was no pressing reason to leave, and so we stayed.
That night, G3 pulled out a basket of shells his grandmother had collected over the years and one by one he asked me to identify each one. He then reached for his tablet, clicked onto google, and individually ran the names of the shells through the search engine. For three months he had rebelled against remote learning, the idea of being forced to learn via modern technology, and the day after it all ended, there he was, hungrily searching out information, wanting to learn more. I sat down next to him and we looked at charts, and diagrams. We read about about various habitats and sea life that lived in New York.
The following morning, when I got back from my walk, my son met me at the door, “Are we going back to the Treasure Beach?”
“You want to go back?” I asked somewhat surprised. “But you didn’t find any treasure.”
He smiled and pointed to the shells. For the first time in ages he looked happy and excited, momentarily free from the grief that tormented him. “There weren’t any pirates,” he said, “but I think we might find something.”
Elizabeth Jaeger’s description of the impact of her father’s death, ‘When Daddy Died’, can be read here