Affinity

Middle-age compels re-assessing, parenthood too, along with any blunt-force diagnosis to either yourself or a loved one – cancer, schizophrenia, ALS, autism, anything. Karen delivered Shannon when we were forty-one, the ingress to middle-age, and twenty months later Shan was labeled autistic, making a profound confluence for re-calibration.

Faith often tops such reflective shufflings. Middle-aged atheists, for instance, even skeptics, often doubt their unbelief as mortality edges in. First newborns, too, are famous for eliciting the sense of a higher power, whereas the suffering induced by a fatal disease or a burdensome mental disorder can shock the faith of even the most devoted, or at least throw into question the character of a heretofore loving God. Rather than any such reversals, though, Shannon’s diagnosis invoked in both Karen and me stark affirmations, ones adumbrated nearly the moment we got together.

“Do you believe in God?,” I’d asked her a couple of days into our brief courtship. Having never asked anyone so directly, I had no idea what prompted the question.

We’d met a couple of years before when I’d come back from Alaska to visit family in Connecticut. Though we were both seeing people at the time, neither relationship materialized, and two years later Karen emailed from New York, where she had lived most of her adult life. Forty year olds have an urgency that the young don’t, and by chance I was scheduled to go to a conference in Maine not long after we started corresponding. We both wanted kids, and with two lifetimes of dating between us knew that at our age such tender-footing likely wouldn’t produce offspring. Having grown intimate by email, we sided with immediacy, and with that decision I probably guessed that all other barriers had collapsed as well.

“Do you believe in God?”

Seated on the ground just off a path, enough moonlight bled through broken cloud cover to glisten the Atlantic’s gentle washings of the dark stones below, while the approaching swells lilted a few moored sailboats.  Karen seemed as surprised by the directness of her answer as I had by that of the question’s.

“I do,” she said. “Yes. I do.”

Veiled in struggling moonlight, we sat silent for a while, with only the waves and an occasional halyard clank ruffling the quiet. Born in 1968, each of us grew up in the Northeast, ensconced in the long, braided shadows of Lyell, Darwin, Hubble, and decaying orthodoxy. If belief hadn’t fallen out of fashion within our demographic, admission of it certainly had, and among countless others Karen and I had learned to bury our respective faiths. Within that simple exchange, though, we’d exhumed them, flooding in oxygen, and if I’d been drawn to her before, in the silence following her confession I knew I was with somebody I could love.

“Me too,” I said, reciprocating her disclosure.

Neither of us could readily define what exactly we believed in, only that despite every evidence to the contrary we shared an intuition that a creative force of some kind existed, one that still – bucking even longer odds – laid hands on earthly affairs.  This shared hunch would serve as a great stabilizer in the storms to come, ones that unbeknownst to us were just then startling Karen’s womb.

Commencement

Through summer the bay lumped it up in patches some days, others not, but by now, Halloween, the red kelp carpeted the beach every morning, where the tides re-compiled it hour to hour. Having been out of New England for thirteen years, I’d nearly forgotten about Indian Summer, though 2010’s wasn’t so much a re-instated warmth as a continuation of it. While still fifty-some sunny degrees, then, scarcely a soul wended the Rhode Island sands that two months prior were awash in beach blankets, impediments Shannon and I navigated with effort just to gain the surf.

Now, with the expanse largely clear and the carousel and pavilion shuttered up, she picked her way through the seaweed mats, bending for detritus ranging from gull feathers to plastic spoons to candy wrappers to a ravel of striper skin tattered out from an eyeless skull. Gulls foraged the weeds’ fringes, and Shan occasionally broke off to give brief, passionate chase before the maroon plant mush drew her back. Having called her name many times only to receive the accustomed no reply, not even a glance, I mostly busied myself in the same mush, mid-shin in places, toeing crab claws and amphipod husks while finally feeling the onset of revelation, watching my nineteen-month old wordless daughter plunge herself in the world.

 *    *    *    *

Sometimes we’re shown the thresholds we cross, others we see for ourselves, while still more are sensed days or even months before life eventually shoves us through. My wife Karen and I were twelve weeks from Shannon’s official diagnosis, eight from first hearing a professional voice say ‘autism’, and two from calling the initial therapists to our apartment for an assessment. Having spent nearly every hour of every day with Shan since her birth, however, many of them here on Newport’s Easton’s Beach, I was finally receiving tinglings that no matter what lay ahead, as a family we were destined for unkempt, unanticipated corridors, even if such a warren remained nameless.

“Shannon,” I said, trying again, repeating once more to the air.  “Shannon.”

The light off-shore breeze still comforted this late in the year, and I watched it spin the towering wind turbine a half mile inland, beneath which Karen worked at a social services agency, having taken the job a year before to get us out of Queens. I’d been living in Alaska when we met, and with both of us forty we knew that a protracted settling in period would jeopardize the tremendous desire each of us had to have children. Subsequently, having corresponded by email for a couple of months while a continent apart, we met in Maine for a few days. Two weeks later, with me back in Alaska, she called, pregnant, a rapidity we hadn’t expected. Two and half weeks after that I moved to her Queens apartment, and eight months later became a full-time parent. If Queens was far more pleasant than I’d anticipated, particularly after ten years in small-town Alaska, Karen and I agreed that it was too cramped to raise a child, and we took the first outside job that offered. Soon enough places like this beach became familiar to Shan and me nearly sand grain to sand grain.

Earlier, in June, maybe July, blue crabs had come in, to breed I’d guessed, mostly stationing along the beach’s corners. At the southern face of Aquidneck Island, itself at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, Easton’s Beach backs a horseshoe cove, where rocky cover protects sea life as the sands end on each side. Bailey Brook feeds it, but what had once likely been quite a salt marsh has been converted to a reservoir across the busy road. The crabs, though, still seem to find enough nursery habitat along the cove’s rocky portions to migrate in every summer. With orange-tipped claws the only discoloration staining a metallic blue armory, they’re well-named. I’d caught Shan a few, but they’re far too aggressive to much more than show a toddler from distance. “Crab,” I said three or four times with her yards away, before dropping the claw-clacking creature to water. Words still drew her then, and she looked over each time, eyes lighting where the hard-shelled body had plopped. She’d stride over, pawing the shallows a while before resuming her own insular play.

At some point the crabs left as fast as they’d appeared, but here, squatting in the kelp at the end of October, fingering dead plants and the hordes of wild rice-like invertebrates they housed, I found one, or at least its remains. Twisting it from sucking weeds, I brushed it clean, with the limp, buff legs drooped off a blanched carapace. Holding a single claw, I spun the rind round like a mobile, then held the shell out. Sunlight breached it, with everything beyond shimmering in opaque blurs, including my daughter.

“Shannon,” I called, pitching my voice to cut both the wind and the thirty yards between us. “Shannon. Look. Crab. Crab. Crab.”

Rising, I stepped through the slush-like weeds until I could squat beside her. She’d been stomping the kelp to watch it spatter all around before dropping the next foot. Dangling the body near her face, I brushed one of many kelp nits off her cheek before speaking.

“Crab, Shannon. See? Crab. Crab. Crab.”

Tight-knit coercion still arrested her, particularly with such a plum offering. Her hand reached, the fingers feathering hollowed armor like squid arms. She squealed, grabbing the shell firm and tossing it far. Walking on, she reached the mat’s rear, where sunlight had crusted its surface. Every stride left a perfect hole behind, and several times I tried again to turn her.

“Shan. Shan. Shan.”

Five mergansers – fish ducks, winter ducks – flew overhead, traveling inland, framed in the big windmill above Karen. When I looked back to our daughter, walking away, she’d begun stomping again, puncturing kelp crust to geyser up the red ferment below like blood from a deep, sudden wound.

“Good Lord, Shannon,” I thought. “Where are we going?”