Waiting for the Ferry
By Jean Ely
Forty years ago, my mother and I sat on the beach at Orient Point and waited for the ferry. Orient Point had an end-of-the-world feel to it. Never mind that we were merely crossing Long Island Sound to New London, on a boat equipped with a snack bar and other modern entertainments. There was still that aura of an outpost—a tiny ticket office perched on the sands, a last glimpse of the Island before we traveled the great water.
We had stayed with my mother’s oldest friend, her college roommate, at her house on Cove Hollow Road in East Hampton, a house populated with dogs and cats, and also a bicycle that would take me to the beach every day. But now it was time to return home to Massachusetts, and my father was waiting for us in New London to drive us there.
I was sorry to be leaving. I thought East Hampton was an improvement over our own home in Massachusetts, which was a wilder, infinitely more disorganized, even seedy place, it seemed to me— filled with old, dead trees that lay in heaps from forgotten storms, moldy with lichens covering the ancient destruction. Here in East Hampton, nature bowed to humankind’s horticultural desires, pleasing my ten-year-old senses with its clipped hedges, rigorously pampered flowers, and trees with limbs that bent gracefully without breaking and smashing the pachysandra planted at their bases. Here the ocean was warmed with the sun, blue with the sky. In Massachusetts it was gray and uninviting. I didn’t want to go back there.
It was a lovely—even deceptively lovely—day. A dancing day. The seabirds played on the cool breeze that promised the eventual return of autumn, although it was only July. The voices of children playing nearby muffled as the wind bore their sound in another direction. The light buoy at Plum Gut wobbled joyfully. My mother smoked a Pall Mall. She was a long, slender person, with high cheekbones and dark hair, now showing strands of white, which she kept in a plain braid down her back. She wore pedal pushers and a pastel, button-down shirt. On her feet were her favorite summer shoes, flimsy black leather slip-ons she called “suburban sandals.” We sat and watched the birds, and sifted our fingers through the warm sand. My mother had cancer. She wanted to talk to me.
I knew she had the cancer. Weeks ago she had made the announcement, and had reassured me that she was not going to die. We had surmounted my original, paralyzing terror, the tears had dried, and I did not want to discuss it any more. But she wanted to tell me about her plans. When we got back to Massachusetts she would be taking something called radiation, which would shrink the cancer, achieve what she called “remission.” My mother edited college biology textbooks and seemed to find solace in scientific explanations. She talked about viruses, about the fight of the human body against warring intruders like cancer, the help offered by man-made agents like radiation. I found solace in these clinical descriptions also; they buffered against the immediacy, the power and dread, of the conversation. Did I have any questions, she asked me.
I didn’t really. It almost seemed like bad luck to bring it up at all. The knowledge of her cancer had become a solid thing—if not friendly, then at least survivable, if we kept quiet. To discuss it was like waking a sleeping tiger. We ran sand—pickled with tiny pieces of shell—through our fingers as she waited for me to say something.
“Will you get sick?” I finally asked.
My mother answered that yes, she would get sick, but it would be temporary, in service to that greater good, Remission. After that, it would all go back to normal. She examined a tiny golden stone. When I was younger still, on the beaches of Fire Island or Cape Cod, my mother would dig large holes in the sand for me, carving out sand cars with seats and a dashboard on which she had drawn instruments and a circle for a steering wheel. Now I looked at the bright blue water, the brilliant sky and the birds, then back at our hands. I thought about how long and graceful her fingers were, how short and stubby mine were. I did not think about what she might have had to endure to face these moments with me on this beautiful beach. I did not question why we were there in the first place, on Long Island, at the home of her oldest friend. I did not wonder about what discussions they might have had, late into the night, after I was safely in bed. I could not wonder if in fact she might be lying, if in fact there was no hope after all. What I saw was our hands, and then as I looked up, the ferry—a blip on the horizon now, but it would grow larger as it bobbed through Plum Gut. Soon it would dock and its massive ramp open to reveal a yawning cave, and my mother and I would climb the long flight of stairs to the topmost deck, where we would watch as the ferry pulled slowly away from the little beach, and Orient Point would grow smaller and smaller and then disappear altogether, and we would cross the Sound to New London, where my father waited, to take us home.