Meditation on a world we know not.
| Barnegat Lighthouse scrapes the horizon 166 feet above the sea at the northern tip of Long Beach Island. The light is an old friend of mine; my father took the family there in the late fifties, driving up the newly built Garden State Parkway from Ocean City to the south. Now I live to its north, on the mainland perhaps twelve miles away as the famous crow flies. On a clear day I can see the finger of its tower on the horizon when I take the dog to Berkeley Island County Park, which is not an island but a pimple of land at the end of a road on the mainland. For a better view, I must cross the bridge over Barnegat Bay to the peninsula that begins at Manasquan to the north and extends twenty-five miles to its tip, across the inlet from the Light. The southern end of this digit of land is bereft of modest cottages, expensive condominiums, motels and tacky go-go bars that fill the towns from Point Pleasant to Seaside Park. Instead, the State of New Jersey, in its wisdom, offers the visitor Island Beach State Park.|
The park stretches ten miles from its entrance to its southern end and is no more than two miles wide in any spot. Mighty sand dunes prevent the Atlantic Ocean from merging with the Barnegat Bay. Dune grass, berry bushes and gnarled trees keep the sand from blowing out to sea, or into the bay, when Northeasters come every winter. A road runs down its spine; to the ocean side are several bathing beaches, and many spots where fishermen may ply their craft. At Bathing Beach Number Two, a walkway wends from the parking lot, through the dunes to the beach, and, at spots on this wooden path, to the south can be seen the top third of Barnegat Light, six miles away. The structure is no longer a finger, but a cylinder protruding into the sky.
The road south ends in a parking lot that might hold fifteen cars on a busy day. In that spot, sand dunes prevent the lighthouse from being seen, or at least did the day soul mate Pamela and I stopped there in September. We took my sister back to see it one day in October, but the dune was still in the way. On both trips, the intrepid travelers walked the path through the soft sand to the beach. Our car has four wheel drive, but its clearance is too low to permit us to drive to the ocean’s edge, as our angler friends do. On both days we were there, the sand was dotted with SUVs and small trucks of every shape and size. The occupants were busy reaping the harvest of the sea.
On both trips we searched the southern horizon for my friend, but the beach slips away to the southwest and perspective is poor. The tower was not in view. There was a mile of strand that we could hike. Our way would bend to the right, and eventually Barnegat Light would come into view, but our legs were tired from slogging through the soft sand and the ruts of the Jeeps that had gone before, and thus we accepted that the lighthouse was there somewhere to the south, just out of sight. We trekked back to the car, drove back over the bridge and home to sleep.
Pamela and I make our bed on the second floor of a Cape Cod, a design in which the roof slants from a peak to the top of the wall in our bedroom, no more than five feet above where I rest my head. Since we moved in, I do a lot more thinking and a lot less writing. I am sure architecture has much to do with it. The pink plaster ceiling above me is the perfect spot to project words and pictures, and there one day was Einstein. Something hazy was jarred loose in my memory, but it took Greg to bring it clearly into view.
Greg is a client of twenty years; he visited our house in December to get a start on his taxes. He had memories of Island Beach, but as we talked my mind slipped away. I realized I was not channeling Einstein in my dreams, but Jack Finney. Introducing a plot line to one of his books, he mentioned Einstein’s view that the past, and the future are at another place in time, perhaps around a bend in a river, and that if we could travel there, we could meet those gone from us.
Greg surely thought his tax consultant had flipped his gourd when I projected a vision of walking around that curve and seeing not the lighthouse, but my wife, daughter, parents, brother and maybe even Muffin, my last dog. Was the tower there? I don’t know; I couldn’t get the thought into focus, but all these shades I recognized were definitely on a beach. Did Greg humor me? I don’t remember, but I think I told Pamela my thoughts, and when I did, I realized that if this were that other place, it would be pretty damned crowded, so I added this corollary: we would only be able to see those we’d met in life. Pam’s mother and father would not be in my field of sight, though she tells me often she wished they had known me; nor will Pam meet Morgan or Lixie, my wife and daughter.
I don’t recall Pam acting as if I had brought the tablets down from the mountain, so the thoughts went away until I had a letter this week. The return address was that of my mother and father-in-law. Inside was a photocopy of an obituary. Betty had passed at 87. A handwritten note from their son, Morgan’s brother Peter, told me they could not find my phone number in Betty’s papers. It went on to say that her weakened heart had given out, though the Saturday before she’d been dragging them around a mall looking for pants.
I grew misty eyed as I read the poorly written obituary; undoubtedly the undertaker had interviewed Howard, still driving and playing golf at 95, and whose anecdotes were disconnected rambles when I first met him thirty plus years ago. I had a pang of embarrassment when I remembered that Betty was the foil to my first story, one of our visit to Morgan ("GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME RELIGION" ) in an Intensive Care Unit as my dear wife began her trip to that place around the bend.
Betty believed there was nothing after death. I told her one day that Morgan had been reunited with our daughter, whose death fourteen years before hers had crushed her spirit. Betty replied tartly, “I hardly think so.” She was 86 at that time, and I doubt that she made a conversion; that would not be like her. And yet, on this clear, mild Super Bowl Sunday in 2005, if Pamela and I took a drive to the end of Island Beach, walked through the sand and headed south around the bend, we would see ~~~ Barnegat Lighthouse. Oh, the others are there, but not visible to us. We have yet to cross that barrier, that sand bar, the Lighthouse was built to warn we sailors about.
February 6, 2005