Young girl with arms wide open sitting in a canoe on a lakeOne last evening on the pier

On the last beautiful evening of what has been an almost flawless grandchild visit, we make our way down the beach. The children are like puppies, dashing in and out of the water. Our granddaughter turns serial cartwheels, commanding after each, “Watch, Grandma. Tell me if this is better than the last one. On a scale of one to 10.”

Her brother dashes up and down the dune wall—heedless of my admonitions not to add to the erosion of already-high lake levels—finding tiny treasures in the sand and then handing them to me to stuff into my pockets for a collection he promptly forgets.

This outing has become our after-dinner ritual, the final trek of the day. Our destination: the end of the pier that borders the north end of our beach. There, we’ll sit with our legs dangling over the raised concrete wall, looking straight west over Lake Michigan, a front-row seat at a sunset which is different every night and almost always spectacular.

We’ll be joined, on our side of the channel between the big lake and the lake in town, by a handful of neighbours and evening walkers. On the other side, 100 yards (about 91 metres) away, a large crowd of visitors to the public beach will gather.

At this moment each day, any gap between us evaporates. Both sides applaud with equal cheer as the sun disappears beyond the horizon, a local salute to this singular last moment of the day.

A week of no screens and no worries

In some ways, these are different children from the ones we collected at the Detroit airport exactly a week ago. Those children were a little careworn, even at seven and eight years old; a little pale from the confinement of the school year; still slightly drugged from their addiction to screens of every size and shape—or perhaps just exhausted from trying to negotiate their use of screens with their lawyer parents.

No screens in Michigan, though. Just the beach, the lake, actual printed books and all the stops on our yearly itinerary: horseback riding, canoe trips to town, the ice cream parlour and the candy emporium, dune buggy rides and especially daily visits to the Casino, a turn-of-the-last-century building on the beach now devoted to kids’ activities.

Here, our grandson and his buddies spend hours turning a hose loose in the sand to create a river and then floating things down it, now and then stopping to construct a dam and make new tributaries.

For our granddaughter, there’s been an enormous expanse of sand on which to practice cartwheels and a coven of age-mates with whom she can turn embroidery floss into friendship bracelets.

They’d arrived full of worries, these children, fearful that they’d broken a rule or forgotten an assignment, left an obligation unfulfilled or pretended to fulfill one they’d ignored. But here, those worries have evaporated. After all, the only rule this week is that we know where they are and, oh yes, no swimming without an adult. Their only obligations are to clear the dinner table and remember not to drop their wet towels on the floor.

Despite my most conscientious efforts at sunscreen, their pale skin has grown browner and freckles have sprouted across their noses. And no one has mentioned any more worries!

Death, old age and wheelchairs

That is, no one’s mentioned any worries until that last night on the channel. I think it begins when I throw my arms heavenward as we walk out on the channel wall, declaring, “Isn’t this the most beautiful place in the world? Haven’t we had the most wonderful week?”

I believe it’s at that exact moment that a cloud passes over our grandson’s face. Walking behind me, he says, almost sotto voce, “I’m starting to worry again.”

“Worry?” I respond, turning to take his hand. “No worries! Look how beautiful the sunset’s going to be!” But his cloud doesn’t lift.

I stop and crouch down, so he has to look me right in the eye. “What are you worrying about?” I ask. “Come on. Tell me. Bet it’s nothing.”

“Oh, it’s something,” he says, defiantly. And then, turning his face away, “I’m worrying about D-E-A-T-H!”

“Death?” I say, stopping to turn him towards me to make sure he can hear my words. “Bean, that’s silly,” I say. “You won’t die for a million years!” But his face doesn’t clear.

After a moment he says, again very quietly, “I’m not worrying about my dying.” He looks at me meaningfully.

“Oh,” I say, slowly catching on. “You’re worried about my dying.”

He looks down at the concrete pier and after a long moment, nods silently.

“Well, that’s silly, too,” I say blithely. “Look how healthy I am.” I twirl to prove my point. “I won’t die for at least another 25 years. I promise. And look! You’ll have all this to remember, to remind you of what a good time we’ve had,” I go on, waving my arms effusively. But by now, his transparent blue eyes are filled with fat, leaky tears.

“You see,” he declares, “You admit it. You’re going to die.”

“But not forever,” I say, recognizing my error too late. “Twenty-five years is a really, really long time. By then, you’ll be all grown up and married and maybe you’ll even have children the same age as you are now. I’ll be such a little old lady that you’ll have to push me out here in a wheelchair.” He looks at me skeptically.

“How could I push a wheelchair out here? It’s too rocky,” he responds, ever the pragmatist. Seeing that somehow he’s turned a corner, I continue.

“Well, then you can canoe me out here for the sunset or pull me on the stand-up paddle board, or you and Daddy can sail me in the Sunfish.” I laugh and so does he. Phew, I think, crisis averted, and we continue our walk to the end of the pier.

A snapshot worth saving

But now, where’s our granddaughter? I turn to look for her, expecting her to be in mid-cartwheel, or leaning too far out over the channel wall, or running at seagulls to force them to scatter, a newly discovered power she loves to assert.

Instead, she’s stopped. Her face is serious. Her fingers are squared over one eye, in the universal language of taking a snapshot. She’s pointing at her brother and me. “Just a minute,” she says. “I’m taking a picture.”

“A picture of what?” I ask.

“Of everything,” she replies. “Of the channel and the sky and the two of you.”

“Oh,” I say, “Well then, wait while we pose.”

“OK,” she responds, and then, skipping towards us, photographic assignment apparently fulfilled, she declares, “Good shot!”

“But why do we need a picture?” I ask, resuming our walk.

“Oh, you know,” she says, heading into another cartwheel. “So we’ll have it in 25 years!”

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by Karen O’Neil
image: Loving Life by Virginia State Parks via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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