Lessons in life and death on the beach in Port Aransas

By: Kristin Finan
February, 2021

In his outstretched hand lay three dead starfish, limp and muddied in a jarring sort of way.

“Do you want one?” the man asks amiably as the foam from an expiring wave offers a last kiss to his white tennis shoes.

My girls flinch and shake their heads at the beachcombing stranger, turning their eyes downward once again to hunt for seashells.

The shore of Port Aransas, our favorite beach, today is offering an early lesson in life and death, nature and nurture. Not that we need more reminders of life’s ups and downs after a year so cruel.

October, in particular, had betrayed me with a string of events so overwhelming that my body had physically rebelled. It’s memorialized now in the fresh Shingles scars on my midsection that are visible, I realize suddenly, through the cutout hole of my otherwise sensible one-piece.

The waves roll in and roll out. I inhale and I exhale.

When passersby on the beach see my multihued family, created by accident through love and foster care, they smile. One remarks that we’ve “built a rainbow.” I never meant to do anything of the sort, but, as my mom likes to say, I seem to collect kids. Once they come to our house, no matter the heartbreak we may all endure, they rarely leave for good.

Parenting six of them, their trauma raw and confusing, was something else entirely for my husband and me during a pandemic, though, and we would have siphoned off all of their pain if we could have. Instead, their emotions became bottled up and shaken and just kept exploding all over everything.

My 8-year-old daughter, who was adopted on a brilliant Valentine’s afternoon and was especially tormented by the pandemic that hit exactly one month later, no longer wants to travel. The uncertainty of the road is too much to bear. “But to the beach?” she asks, brushing her beaded twists out of her eyes. She can handle that. The water, she says, soothes her.

The waves roll in and roll out. She inhales and exhales.

We make guesses as to who is on the tanker ship that’s passing and watch the seagulls swarm a little boy with an outstretched hand of Wonder Bread.

We search for perfect sand dollars and find none. Finally, my 9-year-old, her freckles glowing in the late afternoon sun, gives up on tracking a whole one.

Why, she asks, do we search for the whole ones anyway? Why not the broken ones with the tender middles and unique edges?

She takes two imperfect halves and makes them whole, burying them in the sand together with a little wish over the spot where they lay. If you find things that are special to you and you bury them back, she explains, you will always have a great relationship with the sea.

The waves roll in and roll out. She inhales and exhales.

Unabashed seagulls squawk and frisky dogs chase the breeze. In the open-faced shells that pepper the beach, sand washes in and shines like glitter.

My 12-year-old is building a sandcastle, using an intricate pancake stacking method she learned from a man who builds them as his day job.

Why does she look so small, I think, when she’s digging in the sand? She was small, too, when she visited this very beach for the first time as an infant, her chubby feet tapping the water, her chubby fingers wrapped in mine. Isn’t it this exact spot where we’ve snapped countless photos of her amid Jordan Almond-colored townhouses and rainbow pinwheel kites over a dozen years?

It’s here where all of us have always been our truest forms, I realize, whether shrieking at a surprisingly forceful wave, squealing gleefully at the dolphins in the wake of the ferry or sobbing at the devastation brought on by an unexpected tyrant named Harvey.

There are lessons to be learned at a place that’s been ravaged time and time again and still has the courage to rebuild, brick by brick, year after year.

Maybe, I think as my girls start walking my way, it really is like E.E. Cummings said. That it is indeed always ourselves we find in the sea. Here where the lessons of dead starfish and severed bonds and hard-fought rebirth will always prevail and remind us who we were meant to be.

The waves roll in and roll out. Broken, perhaps, but together, we inhale and exhale.

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