“Mom! Mom!” Danielle yelled from the bedroom all three children would share during the annual beach vacation. “Mom! Kyle and I were playing with my dolls and Peter threw them all over the floor! Make him stop. Now!”
Hearing her daughter yell for the fourth time in the last fifteen minutes, Maggie O’Brien left the unpacking and stomped into the bedroom. The six-hour drive to their vacation cottage at the beach had made her quite cranky, and the latest complaint against her middle child sent her over the edge.
“Peter!” Maggie yelled as she grabbed his collar. “Leave them alone! Go outside and play. But stay in the yard. Don’t start with ‘there’s nothing to do out there’ just find something! Go, now!”
With that she pushed Peter out the kitchen door, none too gently. Once he heard the door slam behind him, Peter’s shoulders slumped as only a seven-year old can. The slump lasted only a moment; he was used to it. Instead, he jumped off the porch and looked around the yard. “Nothing here,” he thought as he headed for the front yard. When he reached the front of the small cottage a few seconds later, he stopped, hands on his hips. “Well, this is not exactly a yard.” He was mystified a three-foot patch of beach grass could be called a yard. Climbing onto the porch rail, he was ready to try his theory of flying again. Just as he spread his arms he heard his mother yell from inside the house. Without a sound he went back to the yard. But this time he went to the edge of the grass and looked out. He had forgotten the sand was right there. He had forgotten the beach was out the front door…literally, right out the front door. As he gazed at the shoreline, his eyes spotted them. Excited, he yelled in through the screen door.
“Mom! Can I go onto the beach? Please? I won’t get wet, I promise!”
“You better not!” Maggie was glad to have him out of the way, and she knew he wouldn’t go into the water. He was small for his age and afraid of the waves.
Running through the sand, Peter realized the tubes he saw from the porch were empty. Disappointed, he looked around for the fisherman. Seeing only a few families, he turned back to the tubes. Putting his hand casually on one, he watched the waves. When he heard his name, he took off running back to the cottage. Peter knew his mother’s cranky, no-nonsense yell. He had no idea why she was so cranky, nor did he know if he did anything wrong or not. She seemed to always be like that with him, no matter what he was doing. But he knew better than to dawdle. Turned out, his dad was back from the store and they were about to have supper.
Next morning, at first light, Peter dressed and crept out of the house. Phil O’Brien heard his son and knew where he would go. Moving silently from the bedroom into the kitchen, Phil turned the coffee on and prepared to sit on the front porch…a silent watcher on the beach. He felt grateful this beach was safe for his children, and grateful, too, he could keep watch without them being smothered. He watched as Peter headed for the three PVC tubes at the water’s edge, each containing a fishing pole. The solitary fisherman stood nearby, facing the sea.
“Hi! I’m Peter!” Manuel Da Costa smiled to himself before he turned. He remembered the voice from last summer.
“Well, hello, Peter! I’m Señor Da Costa. It is nice to see you again!” The older man smiled, warm and friendly. His English strongly accented belied the fact he left Portugal decades ago. “When did you get in, Peter?”
Peter wasted no time telling the older man all the details of life since their last meeting, a year ago. Once they were caught-up, the two talked about life and, of course, fishing. For the next two hours Peter asked questions and Señor Da Costa answered them. Questions about the PVC tubes; about which fish liked what bait; about the fishing poles; so many questions! Manuel smiled often, remembering his questions for his grandfather on a beach in Portugal so long ago. Because he remembered, he was patient with the boy, knowing knowledge would grow if encouraged.
Hearing his other children stirring, Phil O’Brien stood. “Peter! Breakfast!”
“I have to go. Can I come again tomorrow?” Face upturned, Peter looked at the fisherman with happy anticipation.
“Of course you may come again, Peter! The beach is for everyone. And I like the company when I’m fishing. You may come as often as your parents allow. Go now and eat your breakfast.”
As Peter ran across the sand, Manuel looked toward the cottage and waved. Returning the wave, Phil smiled, grateful for the older man’s patience with his impatient son.
A few days later Phil played on the beach with his children while Maggie went to the farm stand down the road. Walking the shore, Manuel recognized Phil and changed his direction with a wave. Peter saw his friend and ran up.
“Señor Da Costa! Are you fishing now?”
Laughing, he turned to the boy. “Not now, Peter. Tomorrow morning. I’m taking a walk now and wanted to say hello to your father.”
‘Oh, okay. Bye!” Both men laughed as Peter ran back to the others.
“Hello. I’m Manuel Da Costa. It’s nice to see your son again, and you of course.”
Phil smiled as he took the outstretched hand. They had not actually met, though they waved at each other every morning. “Thank you for being so nice to Peter. He looks forward to seeing you throughout the year. He starts at Christmas, asking for a fishing pole and how long before vacation.”
Manuel smiled broadly. “Ah, thank you, that is kind. Truth is I really like the boy. My own grandchildren have their own lives and interests and are far from the beach. Even though it’s only a two-hour drive. Peter reminds me I have a bit of relevance still.” He shifted his stance and faced the other way. “Phil, I live in the cottage with the window boxes. If Peter needs a change and I’m not fishing, just send him there. If I’m not in, my wife will most likely be. He will be welcome. I know how it can be sometimes for a young boy with a quick mind and lots of energy.”
“That’s very kind of you, Señor. Thank you. It means more than you know. I will let my wife know.”
“You may call me Manuel if you wish. And I’m happy to see the boy. How long before you must leave our little paradise?”
The two spoke for a little longer before Manuel took his leave, smiling again. Phil watched him walk away and thought of how little patience his own parents had for his children. Not just Peter, but Danielle and Kyle as well. A shadow crossed his face as he thought.
Peter met Manuel every morning. Sometimes the older man gave him a bag of tomatoes, or peppers, or cucumbers to take to his mother. “From the garden behind the house,” he would say. The first weekend Maggie made a blueberry cobbler and sent a smaller, second one to the Da Costa cottage. They were neighbors but not yet friends. It’s hard to become friends when the family spent only two weeks at the cottage. Still, Maggie had Phil ask Manuel and his wife to join them for a cookout before they headed home.
The next two summers were remarkable in their ordinariness. The beach was beautiful. Peter met with Manuel during the mornings. Manuel began teaching Peter how to fish. And Manuel sent fresh vegetables to his family often. Phil kept silent watch and chatted warmly with Manuel when the occasion rose.
The summer Peter was ten had to be his favorite. The first morning at the beach, he ran to his friend. “Hi, Señor Da Costa! Hi! I’m so glad to see you!”
With his characteristic smile, Manuel turned toward the boy. “Peter! How nice to see you! And look how you’ve grown! You’re nearly a man! I’m glad you’re here…come, I have something at the cottage.”
Thinking perhaps Señor had more vegetables, Peter fell in step with his friend. “Guess what? This year we are staying a month! A whole month!”
“A whole month? How wonderful! Why did your parents make such a change?”
“My dad is doing some kind of special project close to here, so they figured we would stay here and he can come here after work instead of staying in a hotel near the city and not seeing us but on weekends. I hope the project takes longer. But I don’t know if we could still stay at the cottage. It might be rented.” Peter continued chatting as they went behind the Da Costa dwelling. Seeing no bag of vegetables, Peter stopped, looking confused. Manuel didn’t respond to the look but just kept heading towards the storage area under the porch. Pulling something out, he turned to Peter.
“Here. It’s time you had your own. It’s not brand new, but it will do you well.”
He placed a rod, reel and tackle box in Peter’s hands, laughing at the boy’s surprised look. Peter noticed it wasn’t a kid’s set. It was the real thing. And he recognized the rod as one of Manuel’s favorite ones; he used it often when striper were running.
“Señor! Señor…thank you! I’m so surprised! And this is your favorite…are you sure?”
“I am quite sure, my friend. You have learned well. I notice you didn’t have a pole with you and I am glad. I got a new one at Christmas and I immediately thought of you. I want you to have it. And now you’re here for a month…plenty of time to use it!”
Smiling, Peter couldn’t stop himself from giving the older man a hug. Laughing, Manuel returned the hug.
That summer was magical for Peter. It didn’t matter how cranky his mom was. It didn’t matter his dad was largely absent for most of the time. What mattered was he could fish alongside Señor Da Costa, and he could fish whenever he wanted whether Señor Da Costa was available or not. At the end of that glorious month, Peter felt filled up. And terribly sad. He shed a few tears saying goodbye to his friend.
“Señor, thank you so much! This summer has been so cool! You have no idea how much fun I had. And how much trouble I stayed out of! Thank you for teaching me, and especially for the fishing equipment. But …would it be okay to leave it here, under your porch? I’m not sure there is room in the car.” Peter’s eyes had the noticeable sheen of tears.
“Of course you may, Peter. But remember to practice, even with a stick. If you can imagine fishing, you will fish. And this year…write to me!”
Nodding as he smiled, Peter leaned in for a hug before handing his fishing equipment over.
All of September, Peter thought of his glorious time at the beach. When he thought of Señor Da Costa, he smiled. Just before they left the beach, Peter learned how to catch striper. At the end of September a card came in the mail addressed to Peter from Señor and Señora Da Costa. Inside was a photo of Peter and Manuel standing at the water’s edge, both smiling broadly, each holding a large striper. Peter’s first fish and Señora Da Costa caught the moment. Peter hung the picture over his desk in his room where he did his homework.
Middle school was hard for Peter. His teacher, a relic of times past, had expectations of silence and obedience for her students that would make the military cringe. She didn’t understand the high energy in Peter and some of her other students. She also didn’t understand that the students, all boys, couldn’t control themselves; it had to be deliberate. Convinced ADHD was a fake diagnosis doctors used when parents didn’t want to discipline a child, she had no idea how to teach these students. And, certainly, she didn’t have any energy left to learn herself. The result? Peter was in trouble every day. Trouble at school meant trouble at home.
His mother grew tired of notes and calls from the teacher. Instead of advocating for her son, Maggie punished him. Sitting in his room, day after day kicking the desk, Peter stared at the photo. He could just about smell the beach if he stared long enough. And if he stared hard enough, he couldn’t hear his mom’s angry voice. Nor could he hear his dad’s deeper voice when they argued. Even if he heard his dad, he could not tell what the words were. Though unintelligible, Peter felt some comfort knowing his dad was on his side. His parents often argued about him and his sister and brother, and his dad…the more patient one…advocated for the kids.
By the end of the school year, Peter felt emotionally exhausted. He worked hard but thought he hadn’t learned anything. His teacher was constantly on him; his mother was constantly on him. Even at church the youth choir leader, Sister Mary, seemed often irritated by his questions. He certainly didn’t mean to annoy. He wanted to learn and he had questions. But no one seemed to want to take the time to answer. Even the carpool to school had been hard. Mrs. Labranch, one of his mom’s oldest friends, treated him a little like his mom, but without the frustration in her voice. And Mrs. Fitzroy was nice, as long as he behaved in the car. But the Labranch and Fitzroy kids could be hard to deal with. The three families were best friends of sorts, and the boys near his age were certainly his friends. But, as boys do, they often picked on each other and hurt feelings caused fights. The girls were worse. Danielle got the girls to gang up on him. A lot. Peter’s frustration showed in everything he did. He never felt good enough and didn’t feel like he could measure up to his “brilliant” sister. His mother and his teacher were both quick to compare him to Danielle. Because his teacher gave up on him early in the year, his grades were barely passing. Peter was convinced he passed only because his teacher didn’t want to have him in her class again. As the school year ended, Peter couldn’t wait for the beach.
One day right after the school year ended, the Labranches and the Fitzroys were at the O’Brien house. Coming in to use the bathroom, Peter heard the moms talking.
“Oh, Maggie! What a nice vacation…five weeks at the beach cottage!” Peter recognized Mrs. Fitzroy’s voice through the door.
“It’s not a vacation for me, Martha! I have to bring the linens. I have to shop. I have to cook. I have to clean. And do dishes. And laundry. What’s different? I might as well stay here. I don’t get a vacation and I’m tired of it. And it’s STILL a six-hour drive! I don’t think it’s fair. I want to go away. Alone, with Phil. And be pampered. I want a real vacation.” Maggie continued her tirade while the other ladies drank coffee quietly. Mrs. Fitzroy wouldn’t argue. Mrs. Labranch would, but for some reason let his mom rant. In any event, Peter heard enough. They would be at the beach for five weeks!
The day after the July 4th celebrations, the O’Brien family loaded into their small station wagon and headed north to the beach. Phil had packed the car the day before, after the cookout and before the fireworks. Maggie made peanut butter toast, and they got to eat in the car on the way. Peter did his best to be invisible in the car. He even volunteered to sit between Danielle and Kyle. As usual, Kyle fell asleep before they hit the real highway, leaning against the window. Danielle was fourteen now and reading all sorts of magazines, pretending to be an “older woman” of seventeen. Peter sat with a book about fishing in his hands, pretending to read.
Just before the Maine border, Danielle decided she wanted more room and pushed against Peter’s leg until he moved. Then she stretched her arm until her elbow connected with his ribs. All the while she never took her eyes off the magazine. When she shifted her weight away from the door, Peter was now squishing Kyle.
“Danielle, please stop pushing me. I’m already squishing Kyle. Please stop.”
“Mom! Peter’s not giving me any room!” Danielle shot Peter a dark look of victory.
“Oh for crying out loud! Will you stop it? I want to leave you by the side of the road. Phil, stop at the next rest area. They need to get out.” Maggie hit a level of full-blown intolerance now. Peter knew better than to protest, even though it was Danielle’s doing.
When they got back into the car, Peter and Kyle switched places. Kyle fell asleep again and ended up leaning on Danielle. She promptly pushed him until he leaned on Peter. The second Peter started to protest, his mother was on him again. Peter shut his mouth and looked out the window.
“It’s just not fair,” he thought, “not fair.” As he reflected on the past year, he withdrew more into himself. He no longer cared if Kyle was leaning on him, making it hard to even move his arm. Instead, he thought about all the scolding and screaming about his behavior, his grades, his inability to control himself. He felt he could be himself only during the rare times he was alone with his dad. And with Señor Da Costa, of course. Yet, Danielle could do no wrong. No matter what she did, she never seemed to get in trouble. And Kyle…his health problems took a lot of his mother’s attention. Peter didn’t resent the time she spent with Kyle, but he did feel left out. His eyes started to burn, and he turned his head toward the road so Danielle would not see and then mock him. Pulling his cap down over his eyes, he made himself think only of where they were going and of the freedom the beach and fishing with the Señor would bring.
The next morning Manuel watched Peter make his way thoughtfully across the sand.
“Hello, Peter! So nice to see you again! I’ve brought your fishing pole.”
Peter brightened a little at his friend’s greeting. “Hello, Señor Da Costa! It is nice to see you again, too!”
As the two fishermen readied their poles and bait, Manuel asked Peter how the year had been. Peter grew quiet; the sheen showed in his eyes. As he started to pour out his heart, his eyes also poured. Manuel listened attentively, nodding and prompting the boy to continue. Watching from the porch, Phil saw the older man put his hand on Peter’s shoulder and knew his son was crying. When he heard the family moving around inside the house, he didn’t call Peter, leaving him to talk to Señor Da Costa.
“I’m sure my mom doesn’t like me. I’m sure.” Peter took a deep breath and tried to control himself. He had no idea how long he had been talking.
“Peter, tell me about your brother’s health. What’s wrong with him?”
“Kyle? He has asthma. Pretty bad. He has to use an inhaler every day, sometimes more than once. And he has bad allergies. It is better now, a little. But for a long time it seems like he was being rushed to the hospital about once a week. It seemed like he was gonna die, a lot.” Peter stared at the waves.
Manuel put his arm across Peter’s shoulders and looked at the water next to him. “Peter, your mother loves you very much. Very much.” He felt Peter’s shoulders tremble again. “It is so hard for a parent. Your sister can be left alone. It seems like she can do no wrong, but actually she is being left alone. She probably misses her own time with your mother. She handles it differently, though. You need your mother’s attention, and she knows that. Your brother could die, any day. Asthma and allergies are both bad, and people can die suddenly from either one. Your mother needs to keep careful watch over your brother, because he can’t care for himself yet. He doesn’t know how close he has come to dying. It’s your mother’s responsibility to keep him alive. She knows you need her, yet she is worried about your brother. She doesn’t have enough energy to handle all of it.” Both were quiet now. After a few minutes, the older man began speaking again, softer this time.
“I have four children. But I had five. My third son had something called cystic fibrosis. Have you ever heard of cystic fibrosis, Peter?” When Peter shook his head, Manuel continued. “Cystic fibrosis is a killing disease. Mucus builds up in the lungs and makes it very hard to breathe. It almost always kills, but it is a long death. Every day I worried about him! For years we rushed him to the hospital often. For years we took care of him every day, thumping his back and trying to break it up. For years I jumped whenever the phone rang at work, thinking it was another hospital run. Years. I so much worried about him I could not enjoy my other children. I had forgotten how to be happy.” He stared at the waves for a while.
“And then it happened. One night he was bad and we took him to the hospital yet again. But this time we didn’t bring him home. He never came home again.” As he wiped his eyes, Manuel felt Peter’s arm tighten across his waist. Despite his tears, Manuel smiled.
“Being a parent is hard, Peter, very hard. With each child your heart is both full, but it can break too. Your mother loves you very much, but her worry about your brother consumes her. And she feels guilty she cannot give you the time you need. Guilt and worry make her seem like she is always mad. She is not. She is hiding her heart, afraid it will break. But you can help, Peter. Go to her frequently. Give her hugs, tell her you love her. It might seem awkward at first. But do it anyway. I promise you, it will help.”
“What happened with your other kids? After? After your son… after…?”
“After he died? Ah, Peter, it was hard for a while for all of us. We had forgotten how to talk to each other. We had to get help. Therapy. We all went to therapy to talk to a counselor. Individually, and we went as a family. For a long time. One day my eldest son came to me. He hugged me and told me he loved me. I cried. I took my anger and frustration out on him during those years. And still he loved me. We hugged and cried for a long time. But we got better. And then all of us figured out how to get better together. It took a long time, but we did get better. It started with a hug.”
“Do you think it will get better with my mom?” Peter whispered, almost afraid to hope.
“I don’t know, Peter. I don’t know. But…it can’t hurt to try. And it sounds like it can’t get too much worse. All you can do is try.” They both looked out at the water for a few moments. “It might be awkward at first, but try anyway, Peter.”
“Thank you, Señor. If it doesn’t work can we talk about it again?”
“Of course, Peter. You may talk about anything with me. Always.” He squeezed the boy’s shoulders again. “Isn’t it about time for breakfast? You can come get some vegetables later and let me know how it goes. Yes?”
Peter nodded. “Thank you, Señor.” One last squeeze and he was running across the sand towards the cottage.
All through breakfast Peter thought about what Señor had shared and the advice he had given to him. Both his parents could tell he had been crying; his eyes were still red. And both said nothing. Phil suspected he knew the cause. Maggie knew that her middle child had a heavy heart. She, too, felt bad about the school year. After breakfast, Peter, unsure how to approach his mom, took the broom and began to sweep the floor. When Phil suggested Peter come with him to the store, Maggie had other plans.
“I thought Peter would stay with me, and you take the other kids.”
Phil raised his eyebrows a bit, but only nodded. When they had left, Maggie turned to Peter. “I thought we could make something together. Señora Da Costa brought a lot of vegetables over. We can cut them up and make kebabs for dinner. The Da Costas can join us. Sound good?” Peter nodded, his eyes shining.
As they worked, Maggie and Peter chatted lightheartedly about life at the beach. They shared memories of past beach vacations, laughing at times. When they finished, Maggie wrapped the kebabs and put them in the fridge while Peter wiped up the table. His normally sunny disposition restored, Peter was chatting about fishing on the beach. Tossing the sponge into the sink, Peter put his arms around his mom from behind and squeezed.
“I love you, Mom! Thank you! Can we walk on the beach now?”
Maggie smiled and took his hands in hers. Turning around, she gave him another hug, then she led him out the door. While things were different between them after, they weren’t healed yet. But it was better, so much better. That year at the beach began a healing time for the O’Brien family. Maggie and Peter both felt less tension. Danielle started to treat Peter more as an equal and less as a punching bag. Phil’s chest felt looser as he watched his wife and first son laugh together often. And for the first time, Kyle had no asthma attacks the whole time at the beach.
Peter wrote to Señor Da Costa every month during the year. And Señor Da Costa responded just as faithfully. Neither wrote more than a few lines but the correspondence grounded Peter. As they headed to the beach that summer, fourteen-year-old Peter felt secure knowing that everything would be good there. The first morning there, as usual, he headed out at first light. Running across the sand, his eyes opened wide, he saw only two of the PVC tubes in the sand.
“Señor! Señor! I’m back! I’ve missed you!” Manuel smiled and turned toward the boy.
“Peter! How nice to see you! And look how you’ve grown! It is nice to see you again, my friend. How was the trip?” He said the same thing each year, and they both laughed.
“Better than some years.” Peter smiled ruefully and Manuel smiled again. “But, Señor, why only two tubes?”
“One for you. Your pole is already there. And one for me…there.”
“Why only one for you? You always fish three poles, Señor.”
“Ah, Peter, I should have known you would remember. I find myself tired more often these days. Following three poles has been difficult. One I can manage well. So I fish one.”
Peter nodded but felt uneasy all of a sudden.
“Señor, are you ill?”
Manuel smiled at his young friend. “Not that I know of, Peter. Not that I know of. But I am old. And I am tired.” His smile faded. “There are some days I only fish for an hour. I am often more comfortable sitting on the porch. Some days I’m not comfortable doing that, so I sit inside. But while you’re here, please come to the cottage anytime I’m not on the beach. I do like your company, and the Señora is always looking for someone to cook for!” His smile reached his eyes. “Tell me, Peter, how long are you here for this year?”
Peter smiled again, but the uneasiness nagged at his mind, just a bit. “Two weeks! I hoped we would be here longer, but Mom says there’s too much going on at home to stay longer.” He shrugged.
“Ah, how are things with your mother?”
“There are still times, but mostly it is better. I’m older now. She knows I’m curious and active. But I don’t do anything dangerous. That she knows of.” Peter shrugged, smiled, and they both laughed.
When they heard Phil calling Peter, Manuel stopped him before he ran. “Peter, please ask your father to come to the cottage when he has a chance. I have a question for him.”
“Will do, Señor. Bye!”
After breakfast, Phil headed to the Da Costa cottage. Lourdes Da Costa greeted him, and invited him in. Manuel was sitting at the kitchen table.
“Ah, Phil, thank you for coming. Please, sit.” He waved his hand toward an empty chair while he reached for another cup, placing it before Phil. Manuel didn’t ask; he just poured the coffee for the younger man. “Forgive my directness, Phil, but I wanted to ask. Peter told me you would be here only two weeks this year. Would you consider leaving Peter with us for a bit longer? He is a nice boy, and we do enjoy his company. We could work out getting him back to you. Either meeting somewhere, or we could take a little trip. Lourdes has family not far from you, and we owe them a visit. I know you will need to speak with your wife. But I ask you, please keep it a secret from Peter. It would break his heart to hear our request and have it denied, no matter the reason. You understand.”
Phil nodded, somewhat surprised at how well the older man knew his son. “He can be a handful, Manuel. I do appreciate the offer, but you may not know what you’re in for.”
Lourdes spoke to Phil who was standing next to the stove. “We know Peter is curious, and active. But he is polite, respectful, and funny. We have talked about it, and there are lots of things we old ones would like to pass on. Our own grandchildren almost never come here. Manuel can give him gardening tips, and I will teach him to can, and preserve, and cook. Oh, I’m sure his mother has taught him some cooking, but this is old school, farm-type of cooking. In short, Phil, we want to feel relevant again, and we want to have fun with a grandchild again, even if not our bloodline.”
Phil nodded again, thoughtfully. “I deeply appreciate both of you, and your kind hearts toward my son. It can be hard. Maggie’s parents are gone. My own parents are not exactly kid-friendly. And I think it would do him well to spend time where he’s free, and freely loved. Thank you so much. Really, thank you. I will talk to Maggie. Give me a couple days, though. It’s hard to talk privately here.” He smiled.
Three full days passed before Phil could talk to Maggie. To Phil’s surprise Maggie was more concerned about getting Peter back home than about leaving him. She seemed almost relieved at the prospect. When he mentioned it, Maggie shrugged.
“Danielle has a lot of things to do before she starts her junior year. Team sports, school prep, and there’s the college fair. Kyle has a number of doctor appointments coming up. Because Dr. Singer was away, all the usual appointments after school let out were pushed a month or so. It would be easier if I didn’t have to keep an eye on him while juggling the other two. And it’s not like they are strangers. We’ve known them what…eight years? nine years now? Peter adores them. If he was going to summer camp he’d be with people we don’t know. But… I’m not driving up here to get him again. So you figure out the logistics with Manuel, and if you can make it work, it’s okay with me. He has enough clothes and toiletries to stay. If they want him, they can have him.” Maggie said this matter-of-factly, with no anger or frustration.
After he and Manuel worked out the travel details, Phil waited. The next morning, instead of calling Peter for breakfast, Phil strolled across the beach to the fishing tubes, unannounced. When he spoke, Peter jumped.
“Dad! I didn’t hear you, I’m sorry! Is breakfast ready?”
Phil and Manuel were laughing now. “No, son, I needed to speak with you and Señor Da Costa. Señor and Señora Da Costa asked if you could stay here with them another couple of weeks this summer. Mom and I feel it is a good thing, as long as you want to. Whaddya think, champ?”
Peter’s facial expressions went from concern to shock to pure joy to wild excitement in less than a heartbeat. He swiveled his head between his father and Manuel several times, leaving both men laughing hard.
“Really?? May I? Oh thank you!!” He hugged both men tightly, then started jumping up and down on the sand.
“Manuel, are you sure you know what you’re getting into?” Phil laughed. Meeting Phil’s eye, Manuel nodded.
Peter stayed with the Da Costas nearly three weeks. He was so busy enjoying life with them that the time seemed to crawl and fly at the same time. Manuel taught him to garden, and how to tell by smell when a pepper or tomato was exactly ripe enough to pick. Lourdes taught him to can and preserve, using all the vegetables and berries from the garden. Peter and Lourdes often took the ancient bicycles to the farm stand, and the market farther down the road. With Manuel, Peter replaced screens, painted the porch, and built a larger firepit. He learned to cook his own meals using garden produce and the fresh fish he and Manuel caught every morning. Peter loved all of it, but what he loved the most was that they trusted him. The Da Costas would let him stay by himself when they went to visit neighbors, or if they had to go into town. He could have gone with them, of course, but he liked being alone. Peter thrived.
The night before they would take him back to Rhode Island, the three were sitting on the porch, enjoying a cup of tea and the fireworks on the beach. Peter felt happier than he could ever remember. As he had every night, he wrote in his journal. He had written instructions for screen repair, canning vegetables, making preserves; he had documented everything that the Da Costas had taught him.
“Señor, Señora, thank you for everything. This has been the best time in my whole life. I almost don’t want to go home.” Shyly, he reached out and put his hands on theirs, one on either side. They each took his hand and held on until the fireworks were over.
Early the next morning they left. No fishing today. Thanks to the conversation between Phil and Manuel, Peter’s fishing equipment had been packed in the car the night before. While Peter was sad to leave the beach, and the Da Costas, he was glad to be going home. He had never been away from his family for so long.
Maggie, glad to see her son, noticed immediately his maturity and independent spirit. She felt somewhat awkward realizing she could not control him as she had. But she and Phil soon figured out how to deal with their son quickly. As a result of their changed parenting, they all enjoyed a more comfortable relationship. Maggie wondered often if the change would have happened had he not stayed at the beach.
Peter felt glad the tension between himself and his mother was mostly gone. She grew to trust him more, and they enjoyed having more open conversations. Kyle’s improving health helped, too.
Every month Peter wrote to the Da Costas. Every month Manuel wrote back and included comments from Lourdes. Just before his birthday, Peter received a package with a card and a lot of pictures. As Peter looked at the photos, he was delighted to see so many from his time with the Da Costas. Fishing, screening, gardening, riding the bikes, nearly all the activities he enjoyed. So many pictures, he wondered who had taken them, especially since both Señor and Señora were in the pictures with him. At Christmas his parents received a card from them, with a few of those pictures blown up. Peter smiled when he saw them. Danielle commented on how cool they were, her voice wistful.
The next spring Phil changed jobs, which meant less vacation time for the year. Maggie was unwilling to stay at the beach without him, so they planned to be at the cottage only one week. Peter hid his sadness and privately hoped he could stay with the Da Costas again.
As with every year, Peter was up at first light heading for the beach. Phil heard him go out, but saw no need to watch from the porch. Peter was nearly sixteen now, and almost six feet tall. Phil laughed to himself thinking how Manuel would react to the growth spurt.
Peter headed for the water’s edge, confused by the lack of tubes. “Where is Señor?” he thought. Scanning the beach in both directions, he saw only the guys fishing at the jetty, but not Señor Da Costa. Remembering that he had said he was tired last year, Peter fished alone. After breakfast, he headed to the Da Costa cottage. The front door was open, a sure sign they were up. When he knocked, Lourdes Da Costa came out right away.
“Oh, Peter, I was expecting you. How you’ve grown! Please, come in.” She gave him a hug as he passed her. Peter noticed she was trembling.
“Señora, it’s nice to see you How are you? Where’s Señor?”
Lourdes didn’t answer as she moved toward the kitchen. “Peter, would you like something to drink? Juice? Tea? Coffee perhaps?”
Peter didn’t answer right away, his chest feeling tighter with every heartbeat. “Señora, what’s happened? Where is Señor? Are you okay?” His voice was gentle, but urgent.
Lourdes turned toward the coffee pot and slowly poured a cup. After a deep breath, she turned back to the table and sat down.
“Peter, you remember how tired my Manuel was last year? It was his heart. It wasn’t functioning properly. He…we…didn’t know. It would not have mattered though. There was nothing anyone could have done. You remember his last letter to you? Just before school got out? Manuel mailed it and he died the next day. My Manuel died.” She put her fist to her mouth, crying silently.
Peter went to her and put his arms around her shoulders. Lourdes leaned into his chest. Peter was crying now, too. “Señora, I’m so very sorry. I…I…I wish I had known. I would have found a way to come to you, come to the services. I’m so sorry.” Together they cried for a few moments.
Lourdes took her coffee and drank a bit, then took a deep breath. “Peter, Manuel asked me not to tell you until you came. He was always thinking of us, of you and me. Even at the end. He wanted me to tell you in person as much for me as for you. Oh, Peter, how he loved you! You were the grandson he always wanted. He loved the others, of course, but you! You took such an interest in him, and you always made him smile so much. You really were the grandson he always wanted.” She drank more coffee, and breathed deeply again. “Thank you, Peter, thank you. You made his last years so happy!” She smiled at Peter, eyes shimmering.
Peter sat down and laid his head on his arms on the table. After a few moments, he picked up his head, face wet with tears. “Señora, I need to tell my parents. Are you okay if I leave?” When she nodded, he continued, “I’ll come back later. I need to tell my parents.”
Walking back to his family’s cottage, he could feel his throat tighten. Phil was on the porch with coffee, reading. He smiled as Peter walked up, but the smile disappeared immediately when he saw Peter’s face. Standing, he reached out his arms. “Peter, what happened?” Turning slightly, he raised his voice just a bit. “Maggie! Can you come out here, please? Now?”
Putting his arms around his son, Phil waited a few seconds until he heard Maggie’s steps coming to the door. “Peter, what happened?”
“Oh, Dad, he’s gone. Señor died in May. He died.” Sobbing, his shoulders shaking and his face buried in Phil’s chest, Peter let the grief of his broken heart pour out, unchecked. Maggie left her husband and son and went straight to the Da Costa place. When she came back later, it was obvious to her husband and son that she had been crying. Later in the day she mentioned to Peter that Señora Da Costa wanted to see him again; she knew the O’Briens were there only for a week.
Peter didn’t leave the cottage for two days. He barely ate. His siblings wisely avoided him, not knowing what would make him cry or angry. The second night Phil took Peter for a walk on the beach.
“Peter, I think you need to fish in the morning. I know it’s hard, so terribly hard. But I think you are doing Señor Da Costa a disfavor by not doing what he loved to do with you. You need to honor him now. I don’t know if you will feel better…grief is always painful, but you need to honor him now. Fish tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. But go see Señora Da Costa tomorrow before she thinks you either are rude or just don’t care.”
Picking up a piece of driftwood, Peter swung at a remnant of a sand castle, throwing sand everywhere. After hitting the sand a few times, his anger dissipated and searing grief took over again.
“How? How, Dad? How do I go on? He was my friend. He considered me his grandson. And he’s gone. How?” Peter sat on the sand as the tears came again.
When he had calmed, Phil spoke. “Peter, I’m so sorry you lost him. I know what Manuel meant to you. And I’m glad it is affecting you so. It means you loved him deeply. How do you go on? One breath at a time. Breathe in, breathe out. With every breath in, you think of the happy times with him. And with every breath out, you let a little bit of the pain go. It takes a long time, but eventually you will be happy again thinking about him, and the tears will be much less. And you do the things you enjoyed with him. You fish. You walk the beach. And you visit Señora.”
Peter nodded and leaned against his father, still crying. But his tears were gentle now.
The rest of that short week Peter fished. He visited Señora every day. They rode the bikes to the market and had lunch together. And they chatted about the fun when Peter had stayed with them. They talked about the many things Manuel had taught Peter. Lourdes spoke often about how proud Manuel was of Peter, how well he was growing up, what a fine young man he was. Many times they cried together over the next few days.
The night before they left, Peter visited Señora Da Costa for the last time. She gave him two of Manuel’s newer fishing poles, plus the PVC tubes to hold them in the sand. And she gave him a sealed envelope. “From Manuel, for you. But read it alone, not around your siblings or friends. I don’t know what it says, but I’m sure you need to be alone.” Peter nodded, then hugged the older woman tightly.
“You take care, Señora, you take care. I’ll be back next year, and I’ll write to you during the year. I love you, too, not just Señor.”
“You are a sweet boy, Peter. I know you do, and I love you, too. Stay well.” She kissed his cheek and turned away as Peter left the porch.
Peter put the poles and PVC tubes on his bed, the letter in his pocket and headed for the beach. He sat about halfway between the cottage and the surf, arms around his drawn up knees, staring at the water, crying. It was long past dark when he finally headed back to the cottage, exhausted.
Maggie had often wished her son would be quieter over the years, but he was so quiet now, it scared her. She didn’t know how to reach him, how to help him. Giving him space and time, she hoped he would talk to either her or to Phil. It had been over a week since they returned from the beach, and still Peter had barely spoken. He answered if he was questioned, though the answers were brief and right to the point.
Peter had to wait over a week once they got home before he was alone in the house. He knew, somehow, Señor’s letter needed to be read when he was truly alone and not just alone in his room. He found it hard to talk. His throat was tight and his eyes burned most of the time. And he was tired. So tired.
Finally the house was empty and would probably be so for several hours. Closing the door to his room, he took the letter out of his pocket and sat at the desk, his hands trembling.
Look how you’ve grown! I jest, but I do not as well. You are nearly a man, and you’ve matured so nicely! I am so proud of you. I am sorry I did not tell you of my … my illness. I knew you would want to visit, but I wanted you to remember me on the beach. Not in the chair in the living room, unable to walk far, unable to live fully. It was hard, very hard, not being able to turn the garden, or fish, or even walk the beach. My mind wanted to, but I could not. I did not want you to experience my physical failure. I apologize for my selfishness. Truth is, you could probably have managed it quite well. You have a keen mind, a quick wit, and a beautiful heart. I have enjoyed watching you grow these past years. It has been my great pleasure spending time with you each summer, and especially last summer…we had so much fun, did we not? It did my heart so much good. I hope you enjoyed it too.
Peter, you must let me go. Remember the good times, and perhaps the lessons. But you cannot grieve forever. I appreciate your tears, but death is part of life. And we need sorrow to appreciate the joyful times. Please remember our last summer together. And the laughs we shared, you and Señora, and me. We laughed a lot. Please laugh again for me. And you, dear Peter, you have so much to live for!
You have a keen and beautiful mind. You find solutions to problems without realizing that’s what you do. But your real super power? Your heart. You love deeply and freely, despite not always getting the love you deserve. Your ability to forgive those who have hurt you is most remarkable. And your choice to love first is inspiring. You have taught me much over the years. You have taught me to forgive, to not be mad at God, to love freely, and you taught me to never stop learning…even if learning is about myself. Thank you, Peter, thank you for teaching me. Thank you for learning from me. But most of all, thank you for loving me. I’ve felt it from the first summer. Thank you. I have also loved you from that first summer. I wish you were mine…truly mine. My grandson. But if I wasn’t so many years older, I would wish you to be my son. Instead we were blessed to be connected by our hearts. We will always be connected by our hearts. And that is where I will always dwell…in your heart. Until we meet in heaven…
Folding the letter, Peter stared at the pictures of the beach and of Señor Manuel. He cried a little, but not as much as he had already. Suddenly he felt closed in and like he needed air. Leaving a quick note for his mother, Peter headed down the street to the trail into the woods. When he got to the rock on the hilltop, he sat overlooking the river and thought. He thought about the letter. He thought about the lessons Señor had taught him, most without seeming to teach. He thought about how often Señor shared his heart, and his life. And he thought a lot about his encouragement to live on, remembering it in his heart. When he had been there a long time, he whispered to the sky, “Señor, thank you. I will see you in heaven.”
It was twenty years before Peter went to his beloved beach again. He may never have gone back, but for his wife, Kelly. Kelly heard the stories so many times and felt his sadness each time. When they were looking for a vacation spot, she talked to Maggie and did some research on her own. She rented the same cottage the O’Briens had rented for so many years, so long ago. When Peter heard, he could barely breathe, and he didn’t know whether anxiety or excitement caused it. Finally, their time at the beach arrived.
“See this room? This is where Daddy, Aunt Danielle and Uncle Kyle slept. Daddy slept on top of the bunk bed over there, and Aunt Danielle slept on this bed. And you Lydia will sleep here. Grant, you get to choose the top bunk or the bottom. Tomorrow we will walk the beach and see if we can fish. Sound good?”
Kelly smiled at the excited little boy coming out of her grown husband.
The next morning Peter took Grant to the beach. To his surprise PVC tubes were set up near where he remembered the Señor had set them. Grant was already running up to the man next to the tubes, chatting away. Peter smiled, remembering his own enthusiasm at Grant’s age.
“Dad! Dad! This is Mr. Da Costa! He’s FISHING! And he doesn’t even have to hold the pole!”
Laughing, Seth Da Costa held his hand out to Peter. “I’m Seth Da Costa. Nice to meet you. And welcome to the beach!”
“Hi! I’m Peter O’Brien. And I see you’ve met my son, Grant. Grant Manuel O’Brien. Any chance you’re related to the Da Costas who lived here about twenty years ago?”
“Peter O’Brien? I’m Manuel and Lourdes grandson. Are you the Peter? The young boy who my grandfather spoke of so often?”
Peter nodded. “Your grandfather was a very special man, and he always made me feel so special. He taught me to fish at this very spot. Grant is named for him.”
Seth smiled and swallowed hard. “I would very much like to chat with you at length, Peter. Is it possible for us to have coffee, perhaps alone? I feel I need to fill you in on some of the details of the past. Please?”
Peter nodded at the older man. “Of course, Seth. Let me take Grant back to my wife and let her know what’s happening. Meet you on the porch?”
Ten minutes later Peter and Seth were sitting, coffee in hand, on the porch facing the water, just as Peter and Manuel had done so often.
“Peter, I’m not sure where to begin. It is so unexpected to meet you. Although I guess meeting you here makes perfect sense.”
“Seth, you don’t have to tell me anything. I’m delighted to meet you and to know this cottage is still in your family. Your grandparents meant the world to me. They were extremely kind to a curious, high-energy boy many years ago.” Peter smiled at the memories.
Nodding, Seth said, “Thank you. I want you to know the whole story, because you meant so much to my grandparents. But especially to my grandfather. I’m sure you wondered why his grandchildren were never here? Or why none of the family ever came?”
“Well, the only thing he ever said was the grandchildren had their own lives and didn’t have much time to come to the beach. And Señor Manuel told me of his son who died, and how the family all had to go to counseling for a while after. What more do you need me to know?”
Seth took off his glasses and wiped them as he smiled. “Truth is, we all adored him. Every chance we could be with Vovo, we jumped at it. Vovo is grandfather in Portuguese. We came often as children. Back then my grandfather was still working, and they lived inland. They bought the cottage many years ago. He rented the cottage out most of the time and came here for a month in the summer. We all came and went as we could during the month. When he retired, they sold their house and moved to the cottage permanently. It reminded both of them of Portugal. My father was the eldest of the kids. Three boys and two girls. After my uncle died, there was a lot of pain to work through. For all of them. My aunts both left the area. One moved to California, to become an actress. She ended up marrying a landscaper, having children, and coming back East only at Christmas, usually. My cousins adored our grandparents. My other aunt joined the Navy and literally saw the world. She never married. My uncle Tomas, the youngest, became a priest and was assigned to a diocese in upstate New York until he retired. He lived here with me for a couple of years until his death. And my father. My dad had four kids. I’m the youngest. My sisters and brother loved coming to the beach. There were always a bunch of us around Vovo. until I was probably ten. Then we didn’t come much anymore. My mother had demons she was fighting. My father would never ‘throw her under the bus’ as it were. My grandparents never knew how ill my mother was because my father refused to tell them. The sad result is we kids rarely got to spend time here, and never alone. And the truth is, my grandparents would have been supportive of us, and of my father. Of my mother, too. My mother was hospitalized every so often, and only then we would come here. By the time you started coming, I was several years into a career and the allure of the beach had gone. My grandparents didn’t know the truth until my mother died and my sister told them. We only had Vovo another few years after Mom died. Avo…our grandmother…only lived two years longer. But thankfully we were all able to make up for lost time, at least a little.”
He paused to sip his coffee, eyes distant with memory.
“Seth, I appreciate your openness. But, why do you feel I need to know?”
Looking at Peter a moment, sipping his coffee again, Seth answered deliberately.
“Peter, I need to know who my grandfather was through your eyes. I never felt I had him long enough, never deep enough. I know he loved me, and I certainly loved him. But you got what I didn’t. There were always a bunch of us around. I never had him alone. You got him. You got his time, his heart, his wisdom, you know him better than I did and I want what you had. Please tell me? Somehow I felt I needed to share why we weren’t around. I’ve been wishing to meet you for many years. I even tried to find you. Any idea how many Peter O’Briens there are in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts?” They both laughed.
“What has your father told you?” Peter was gentle in his question.
“Dad’s been gone ten years now, the last of his siblings. He told me what he could, but there was always an air of sadness. I’m over sixty now. There’s a hole in my being and no one in the family can fill it. I’m hoping you can.” Seth’s sad smile reminded Peter so much of Manuel’s sad smile when he spoke of his children.
“Well, Seth, I’m happy to share my experiences with you. But honestly, I think you know him as well as I do. I’m willing to share as much as you want to hear. Pretty sure there won’t be much new. The important thing is we were connected by the heart.”
Seth’s eyes opened wide at the words he’d heard his grandfather say so many times. And he smiled.