Going to Eternity
Meryl recalls the night Beck first spoke of his plan. They’d been sitting around a cozy driftwood fire on the beach below the house, the girls toasting marshmallows on long sticks, Dana, too small to do it by herself, seated on Meryl’s lap.
Beck had stood, face to the cool breeze. "See the lights on the other side?” They all looked across the dark water, calm with the tide out, to where he pointed at lights glimmering on the far shore. “Those are the lights of Eternity. One day I'll swim there. It'll be twelve miles of black water and me."
And so it had begun, Beck's big dream, his life-long ambition to conquer the often stormy waters of the strait. Every day during the fifteen years they lived at the beach he swam out to where the three-mile buoys clanged in the choppy waves. But despite his confident words he never felt ready enough to tackle the whole distance. "One day" was always next week, or next month.
Things have changed so much. The girls are grown, only Dana still at home, almost fifteen and such a help. They don't live at the beach any more, they live clear across town in a modern complex with mountain views and security gates. High-priced condominiums have replaced the beach house, with private docks for fancy pleasure boats where a simple wharf once rose and settled with the tide. And Beck no longer recognizes the world around him. As if his mind just stopped understanding things, he’s like a child that can't be let out of sight.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Becker," the doctor had told her. "There's no treatment for your husband, nothing we can do. I'll give you the names of some private hospitals. Sooner or later you'll want him institutionalized."
Institutionalized? No. Not Beck! She can't do it, can't quit hoping, won't give up. So they drive around every night, Beck and Dana and her. They drive and drive, and Dana talks to her dad as if everything is normal, tells him about her day, her hopes and plans for the future. Where the other two girls, busy now with their own families and careers, tried to persuade Meryl to take the doctor's advice, Dana won't have it. She's devoted to Beck. They always had a special connection.
Meryl is frustrated tonight. It's starting to rain and she doesn’t like driving in the rain. Beck sits on the front seat beside her, Dana is in the back. Meryl glances at Beck. He looks straight ahead out the window at the slick wet road, but she knows he doesn't see anything.
On impulse she drives across town to the beach. The streets of the old neighborhood are achingly familiar. "Remember, Beck?" she asks. "Surely you remember! There must be a spark of something inside you that can recall the happy times we had!"
He doesn't respond. She pauses on the street above the beach they once called theirs. The condominiums are impressive, all plate glass and creamy stucco, masses of flowers hanging from every balcony. "Look, Beck, our flagpole is still there." It's white, glossy, as if freshly painted, a wet, limp flag curled about the base. "Do you remember?" She waits for a sign, something, anything. He does not remember. He gazes vacantly into space.
The wind picks up, blows bits of paper and broken branches onto the road. Rain falls harder now, heavy splatters that bounce off the hood and drum on the roof. She leaves the beach behind and pulls into a service station for gas. It was a mistake coming here. Beck does not remember, but she does, and she wishes she was alone so she could cry.
With a movement so quick it leaves them stunned, Beck releases his seat belt, opens his door and scrambles out. Meryl shouts something stupid, like, "Stop!"
Dana says, "I'll get him, Mom." Then, she, too, is gone.
Meryl no longer sees either of them. Her heart thunders in her ears; fear is a taste of ashes in her mouth. She pulls back onto the road and drives around, searching, trying to curb her rising panic.
She sees Dana alone on a corner and stops to let her in. "I don't know where he went, Mom. Should we call the police?"
"Wait. I have an idea."
She returns to the beach. The rain has eased and the condominiums are bright with cheery golden light. The flagpole is shiny, just-washed, the flag trying to unfurl in the stiff breeze. She slams on the brakes. The flag had not been up before! In a flash she’s out of the car blinking mist and tears out of her eyes, taking the wooden stairs to the beach two at a time, Dana close behind.
Yes--there’s his coat, discarded on the wet sand, and his shirt, his pants, shoes and socks. Footprints lead to the water's edge. She can't see anything out in the pitch-black water, but she does see the lights of Eternity twinkling like distant stars.
Dana takes her mother’s hand, calmly says, “Mom, he’s going to Eternity.”
The buoys clang like church bells with the rocking of the sea. Meryl smiles. She can't explain this feeling of happiness that washes over her. He remembers. Yes, he remembers. She murmurs, “And he’ll wait there for me.”