A Small Story

This morning I walked to get some coffee, trying to perk up before being in a day long interviewing panel for my department at work. I was wearing the light jacket lining of my double layer coat because it wasn’t too cold. It’s a bright morning, no drizzle. I felt in the pocket of my coat I found a sea shell fragment. Fairly small, it must be something I picked up at the beach last summer. It reminded me of another coat I wore 15-20 years ago.

That coat was a leather jacket- nothing at all like the cloth coat I’m wearing this morning. I lost it one day when I left it in our unlocked car while watching a movie with my family. It was a winter day something like today. I brought the coat along but decided that it was too warm to wear and so left it behind when we went into the theater. I didn’t lock the car- I rarely locked anything in those days.

After the movie I immediately became frantic trying to find it. Had I put it in the trunk? Was it behind a seat? Nope, it was gone. Gone gone gone.

On the way home I started crying. It wasn’t because it was an expensive coat, although it was. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t get attached to things because they have some material value.

This is the thing: In that coat was a small drawstring pouch. In the pouch were some rather ordinary looking beach rocks and shell fragments. These are what I mourned; mourn is not too strong a word.

Going even further back in time I can see myself walking on the beach with my daughter. First born, these memories begin before my two sons entered the world. She would see rocks and shells she liked everywhere. Then she would hand them to me to carry, not wanting to fill her pockets- for reasons I still don’t understand.

Over a dozen or so years this pattern never changed. She always found many things of all sizes that she just had to have and I just had to carry.

When she was about 13 and she was nearly full-grown, a sassy teenager, we were once again walking on the beach. This time her younger brothers were along. They found things on the beach and put them in their own pockets.

In those days Erin and I argued often and I found myself often annoyed. She found stones and shells- and told me to carry them.

I responded with irritation. I said, no, I wouldn’t carry them- she should carry them herself. She took my hand and looked me in the eye with a very serious expression. For once she didn’t respond to my irritation with her own. She said these words: “Really, Dad. Please take these. You will want them later.”

These days I look back and wonder how I had become so hard.

A bit confused I put the “beach treasures” and others she found in my pocket. She didn’t ask for them when we got back to the room and somehow they stayed in my pocket. That was our last trip to the beach with Erin.

I don’t know how many times I have revisited that day- thousands?- at least. Wishing I could go back and be a different, more understanding father.

Within a few months Erin was dead. She completed suicide in her room on April 5th, 1993. The small stones and shells became very precious to me.

I put these in a small cloth drawstring pouch and carried them everywhere. They helped me remember her but even more they helped me remember how precious was each moment, how irreplaceable was each opportunity to be gentle, compassionate.

Different coat today. No stones, just  one shell. I still cried.

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