‘Tis a Pity He’s Wallowing in Self Pity

Posted on May 29, 2017


WARNING: Do not read this post. The author is being incredibly self indulgent and is going to engage in an orgy of self pity. Abandon any regard for the writer, ye who enter.

Usually I look forward to the summer when I valiantly try to make headway on the piles of books that have grown exponentially during the year. I tend my garden and reap the benefits in good food, good exercise and some reflective and meditative moments. I tend my grapevines against whatever Mother Nature might throw at them in the hope of a delicious glass of wine to accompany my dinner. I fish two or three times a week, getting my little Whaler a couple miles off the coast, away from civilization, and move into a zone where all is horizon and where one can breathe. I make believe I will get some writing done, and poke at the keyboard, and get lost looking out the window at the Sound. I might get a couple books edited, designed and published. I might think back on the year and wonder what I will do differently in the classroom in the coming year.


This summer’s the same, but different. Different, but the same. Since I was born, I grew up spending summers where I live now on the shore of Long Island Sound off a shallow cove called Giants Neck (named after a Native American of some prodigious height). This place is in my blood. At just shy of one year old, my mother heated my bottle in the fireplace of my grandparents’ house on the beach while Hurricane Carol raged outside, with the surge coming up over the yard and onto the road, surrounding the house. As beaches go, there’s nothing extraordinarily spectacular about Giants Neck. No big surf, and it’s so shallow you have to walk out nearly a half mile at low tide to swim. I’ve been to numerous more beautiful beaches — on Nantucket, on Block Island, in Sicily and in Iceland. But there’s something special — for me — about this place and how it inhabits your soul. Something I’ve written about since I started writing poetry. (And my first poem was about the sea, and “And went down to the ship…” echoes throughout my psyche.) A good friend joked that I should have enclosed a map of this area with my first book of poems. I’m forever grateful that my wife has indulged me, and agreed to move down here from Western Massachusetts. Like my grandmother before me, who on the day she died she woke my mother and asked to go out on the front porch at daybreak so she could see the water one last time, I need to see this expanse, inhabit it.

I’m an only child. Technically. For the first fifteen years of my life, I spent every summer, once school was out, at my grandparents’ house on the beach. That meant living in an extended family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Four cousins were around my age. So we were summer siblings together. One, a boy named Nick, was a year younger than me. We played together, hung out together with the same group of friends, snuck out in the middle of the night together. All through our early teenage years we had to go fishing every morning with our grandfather since the old man never learned how to swim and the prevailing thinking among the elders in the family was that these two scrawny ninety-pound weaklings could rescue a 200-pound-plus man if he ever fell in the water. Every morning we’d have to help him dig bait — sandworms and clams — and then fish with him. Nick would always get to man the little three-horsepower motor for the boat since he was the favorite because he was named after my grandfather. No matter what our luck was we’d have to stay out until all the bait was gone. It didn’t take us long to start throwing worms overboard when he wasn’t looking. And, yeah, to quickly duck any time he stood up to cast. If you weren’t paying attention, you might end up with a hook in your cheek, which happened to another cousin…

Not having any brothers or sisters of my own, Nick was the closest I had to a brother. Some in the family might commiserate on that fact. I’ve had closer friends over the years, but none shared that bond of this small stretch of Long Island Sound that possessed, and healed, our souls. No one else could really understand it.

When I was 14, my grandfather sold his beach house to Nick’s father, my uncle. My parents and I came down the following summer, but at the end of that summer my uncle told my parents that they would not be welcome to come down the next summer. I was devastated. So my parents scraped up what money they had and bought a little three-room cottage on top of the hill by the beach, with a five-minute walk to the water. We still had somewhere in Giants Neck to go for the summer. Many years later, talking with the father of one of my son’s playmates at his daycare that we had invited down, I came to realize how privileged it was to have this place, have this area in my mind, and be able to come down to it every year. At the end of the summer when we either closed the cottage or got it ready for the tenants who’d have it until school let out, I’d say a little prayer to myself (even though I don’t believe in god) that I’d live long enough to come back again the following year. A fervent wish to have the privilege to return. To return to peace.

If there were anyone else who understood the attraction and significance of this place, it would be Nick. Almost thirty years after his father asked us not to come back, Nick’s parents sold the house that our whole family made from scratch (where another uncle almost lost his life digging the well by hand) to a neighbor. Nick, too, was cast out and adrift. Luckily, my parents found a substitute. He didn’t. He began an exile’s existence. When we talked sometimes an appreciative jealousy would creep into the conversation with him, how smart my parents were to find another place, how lucky I was to be an only child, and not have to worry about losing the cottage to a sibling. To lose it due to a fight among family.

Nick followed his father’s footsteps and, studying in Mexico, became a physician, specializing in rheumatology and Lyme Disease. I went off to Boston to be a poet. We both drifted apart. After his parents sold our grandparents’ house and we adopted our son, we started seeing each other more. The nexus: the beach — Giants Neck. When we tore down the little three-room cottage in 2010 and moved down from Western Mass. the next summer, I told him he always had an open invitation, the door was always open. I knew how much the beach meant to him. He went through his own troubles, with his siblings and mother, and with his marriage. All through that the invitation stood. When there was nowhere else to go for a holiday, he came with us here. Sometimes we saw him every weekend (it seemed) through the summer; sometimes months would go by between visits. Whatever happened, he was still blood. And he was still someone who understood what this place means, why it’s so special.

Every once in a while our talks would wander into “future” plans. We both wanted our ashes scattered in the waters off Giants Neck. This summer he’ll see his plan realized. (Yes, well, it’s a plan we’ll both not be around to witness, but others will realize it for us.) You see, he died April 9 in a car crash. He had just bought a Porsche Boxster — he loved sports cars and one of his pride and joys was a Triumph he had rebuilt years ago — and something went wrong while driving on a highway near where he lived and grew up. His car crossed the median, flipped and landed in the opposite lane where another car immediately slammed into it. He died on impact, doing something he loved (driving a sports car). All who knew him think some sort of mechanical failure — blown tire, locked brake, seized cam shaft bearings — led to his demise.

This summer I was hoping to pick up from where we left off last year. Last Father’s Day, my treat was going out fishing with him, farther out than where we used to when we were teenagers with our grandfather. I was looking forward to more such afternoons or mornings (depending on the tide) with his company. I was looking forward to him getting his life back on track. It’s going to be hard knowing no one else knows what the fuss is really about living here. (Maybe my son would have an inkling. Who knows? Time will tell.)

Also, since last summer my back has gotten progressively worse. The last few years, I’d head down to the water for a float to relieve the pain, usually late afternoon before I’d start making dinner. Whatever aches my back was giving me during the day, that watery respite would alleviate them. However, this past fall, when it got too cold to swim (for me, late October), the pain would start building and accumulating. At first, I couldn’t walk more than a half mile before I’d have to sit down to quell the pain shooting down my leg to my foot. By Xmas, I could not walk more than 2 blocks in NYC without having to sit. By spring semester, I could no longer stand, and pace in front of the whiteboard, as I taught. I had to sit. Right now, I do so much miss taking a leisurely stroll on the beach. So, to gain some semblance of normalcy, after a month of physical therapy that helped a little, I’m opting to have the disc that’s bulging and pressing on my nerve removed. Supposedly if all goes well, it’s outpatient surgery: in by 7 a.m.; out by noon; back to normal in a week. But being a great believer in Murphy’s Law, I’m not looking forward to going under general anesthesia. Or one slip of the scalpel…

But it does mean that the summer will be half gone before I can get my Whaler fixed up and in the water, and my back healed to take the wear and tear of its hull slamming onto waves. Half the fishing season gone. I’ll get out my violin and let the tears flow on that. There’s an indescribable deep stabbing in the heart that happens when you look out on the water on a perfectly sunny day and know that you can’t get “out there.” Only those who have been “out there” can quite know what, and how, this feels like.

Generally, for a “creative” type, I’m fairly practical and scientific. But there’s also a small part of my brain that’s still reptilian, that’s mired in superstition. If something bad happens, it’ll take me weeks or months before I’ll wear the shirt again that I wore when something bad happened. (The shirt I wore the day my godmother died in 1998 is still hanging in my closet unworn since.) On Sundays in fall I’ll read The New York Times in a particular order lest the New York Giants lose. I’ll worry that deaths seem to occur in my family in batches of three, and another cousin’s husband died the day before the election and Nick this spring, leaving the third slot open…

This is also a momentous summer for my son. He graduates high school in a couple weeks. He has his whole life ahead of him, and he’s incredibly stressed by the weight of that prospect. I can’t blame him. I remember back to when I was his age, and it’s a significant burden to place on a teenager just starting to get their adult sea-legs under them. All those choices. And which one will be the right one? And, it’s no longer going away from home for a week or so for camp. It’s being on your own for weeks, possibly months. A whole new way of life. I feel for him. I worry for him (if he doesn’t worry enough, which is nigh impossible). And I know I will miss him. Like me, he’s an only child, but he never had the benefit of a Nick in his life. I wish he had. To be honest, I’m not looking forward to an empty nest. Even though parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted, there will be a void. I do truly enjoy his company (when not flavored with the drama of teenage angst) and hope that we can truly fashion a new relationship wherein we appreciate what we both bring to the table, and that we share some things — possible this neck in the Sound, definitely music — that we love.

After all this whining, I don’t mean to say this summer will be completely dreadful. There’s that hope that all manner of things will unfold well for my son, that he’ll appreciate what he has and look to the future with excitement and not dread. And looking forward to making good on a promise his mother and I made to him: namely, that when he’s old enough we’ll travel back to Romania where he was born so he could see the country, and know in his heart where he came from so he’ll know better where he is going. Now he’s old enough. So, the end of June we’re making good on that promise…

I do know that that will be an adventure. And there’s the garden. And the grapevines.

Yet, one other thing I do know this summer. Nick’s prayer to return went unanswered. Or maybe answered once and for all in a different way…


Dr. Nicholas B. Formica (1954-2017)