When my sister, Karen, heard I was going to Nags Head on the Outer Banks, she said, “Bring me some seashells!” Karen loved seashells, and I was looking forward to gathering a ton of them for her. Unfortunately, none were to be found; the beach was nearly washed clean. However, I did find a very small piece of something that looked like a stone. I was attracted to it because of its smoothness. It was just a fragment, but in it I could see a myriad of colors and patterns, deep grey merging into taupe, a creamy cloud of ecru on the underside which echoed the overcast sky. I took the fragment to my brother, the marine ecologist, who had accompanied my husband and me on the trip along with my sister-in-law.
“Is this a rock or a shell?” I asked him. Without hesitation, he said, “It’s a shell, a clam shell actually.” “How do you know?” I asked, astonished at his certainty. “You can tell by its distinctive patterns,” he said. “Even though the ocean has polished it smooth, it maintains its shell-like characteristics.”
I thought about that as I rubbed the shell over and over with my thumb, how the sea changed its feel but left its characteristic pattern in tact so it could still be recognized for what it was. I also marveled that my brother had no trouble knowing what it was, when to my untrained eye, it looked so much like a stone.
Yesterday was the first anniversary of my sister’s death and I thought about that day on the beach at Nags Head. I thought also of a line from one of my grandfather’s favorite hymns, “When sorrows like sea billows roll…” The image of the billowing sea bringing sorrow after sorrow as it had with the death of my mother, then my father, and now my little sister, was mixed with the image of the sea polishing a shell into something stronger and even more beautiful made me wonder if there weren’t some lesson here.
Sorrow can weaken you, make you crumble, as perhaps the ocean destroyed the rest of my little clam shell. Or it can take what’s best about you and make you stronger. Yes, maybe a part of you will be gone, but what is left is the part that is distinctly you, your essential element that makes you recognizable. And that makes me think of the last line of my grandfather’s hymn. Yes, “it is well with my soul.”