Moving Forward, Looking Back: On a bleak Penfield afternoon, tears for Sandy Hook's Jessica
One day this week, with a snowstorm heading our way, it occurred to me to take a walk on the beach.
Outside, a thick cloud cover blocked out the sun and turned the sky into a featureless, grey void. The temperature hovered around freezing, and raw, misty gusts made it feel colder. It could have been colder, wetter, or windier, but all in all, nature had ordered up a pretty bleak afternoon. Perfect.
I pulled on my boots and my parka, and grabbed my car keys. My wife turned down the invitation to come along, helpfully pointing out that I could skip the sunscreen.
With enough motivation, I will visit natural places during "off-peak" seasons.
The beach, for example, doesn't disappear after Labor Day. Long Island Sound comes ashore year-round, and the life it brings is year-round as well. Many creatures either fly or swim away for the winter, but the others have no choice but to hunker down and tough it out. I wanted to see for myself what was going on down there, knowing, of course, that I had the luxury of going home when I'd had enough.
Not surprisingly, the parking lot at Penfield Beach was deserted. I walked up the ramp alongside Penfield Pavilion, transformed by Superstorm Sandy from a sparkling town facility to a moribund eyesore shrouded in plywood, with chain-link fencing and signs warning me not to trespass.
At the top of the ramp I looked out over the dusky beach to the small but persistent waves breaking on the shore, and beyond to the horizon, where the water and the sky met in a monochromatic, battleship-grey haze.
Not a soul was in sight, and not a single vessel was on the water. My little adventure was off to a dreary start.
But over my right shoulder, a flash of pink and turquoise caught me by surprise. It was my first glimpse of the playground erected in memory of Jessica Rekos, one of the children killed in Newtown a year ago Dec. 14.
In front of the playground -- a construction of ramps, gazebos, and slides -- is a sign with a large photograph of Jessica. Her smiling face and posture exudes intelligence and a relaxed, confident presence. Her hair spills over her shoulders onto her shirt, simply decorated with three daisies along the neckline. There can be no more fetching an image of girlhood. The drab, empty beach was no match for Jessica.
I was drawn to walk over to her. I got close enough for me to imagine that I was shielding her from the weather. It was then that I saw that the wind and mists of the beach had placed a drop of rain near the corner of Jessica's right eye at the edge of her lower lid. It was a big, perfect tear.
People have seen religious statues cry tears of blood, let alone divine likenesses in wall stains and grilled cheese sandwiches. I'm not one of those people -- a ready natural explanation for Jessica's tear is enough for me. But however it got there, the imagery of Jessica's tear evoked once again, a full year later, the horror of losing a child to senseless, and perhaps preventable, violence.
I shed a few tears with Jessica, and I shed a few more for her parents, whose pain and helplessness in the face of such tragedy cannot be imagined except by those who have lost children of their own.
I took leave of her and walked along the beach. There was no apparent life except for the sound of the surf and the few gaggles of forlorn gulls poking around the water's edge for something to eat. The sand held an assortment of oyster, clam and mussel shells, the creatures inside them having perished. A soccer ball bobbed in the surf not 20 feet offshore. It made me think of Wilson, Tom Hanks's inanimate companion in "Cast Away," and how stricken he was to watch Wilson -- a volleyball with a face on it -- float away forever into the sea.
My outing had turned into a walking meditation on grief and renewal. The sands and waters of the faded winter beach steadfastly cling to the unseen life within them, and will see it flourish in the spring. The depressing chain-link fence around Penfield Pavilion will eventually come down, and it will once again teem with people.
Jessica's playground, now empty and still, has joined the beach habitat. Jessica, with her timeless smile, waits patiently for the kids who will come and play with her for years to come.
My walk was over, and I stopped to see Jessica again. The tear was still there, and I gently wiped it away.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.