Joy at 15: A Childhood Lost

FB_IMG_1519741983860The warm sand cradled her exhausted body as Joy collapsed on her back in a secluded valley hidden deep within the dunes. Through swollen lids she stared at the sky as it slid from blue to grey to a night darker than she had ever known.  The pounding heart of a lost child squeezed hard beneath her sore breasts.  The heart of another pulsed low in her swollen belly.  As stars began to appear she sat up, remembering her purpose.  Reaching into the waistband of the girdle she wore to hide her fast growing secret, she removed a folded piece of aluminum foil.  She opened the folds to find the pills she had taken from her mother’s medicine cabinet the night before.  Salt tears stung her chapped cheeks as she remembered the good-byes she’d said to her family that morning as she left for school – good-byes known in their finality only to her – and to one other.
Her throat closed around his name, the memory of his face set cruel against her pain, his cold insistence that she better not fail him.  He would take his own life, he promised, if she did not end hers as they had planned, and on that day. She only half believed him.  It made sense that she should be the one to do it, he told her, since the mistake they had made lived in her body.  It was she who held the power to erase the shame, to fix his life, to restore him to his promising path of worldly success.  Thus was the logic of a seventeen year old boy, raised on this island where it was always men who mattered most. It was a logic she only half accepted. If he died she’d be left to raise the baby alone, in South Jersey, in 1967, at the age of fifteen.  That was impossible.  She had waited months, hoping for another way.  But her body threatened every day to betray her. Her time had run out. She had to act. He wasn’t going to save her.

She swallowed without water one bitter pill after another, struggling to open her throat to the promise she had made to him.  She would die here in these dunes. She patted her bra, checking to be sure the note she had written to absolve him was still there to be found with her body.  He was her first love, her only boyfriend, but her note said he was not the father of the child she carried.A dense fog rolled in from the sea, covering her as she slept. She woke now and then dazed, and wandered over the dunes searching in vain for her shoes.  Her bare feet felt numb in the damp chilled sand of that cold May night.  Her face burned from salty tears and sea spray as she finally curled her body onto a boulder on the jetty that held her just above the pounding waves of the vast Atlantic until dawn broke.Her small body was invisible to the rescue crews scanning surf and shoreline that night. Their search lights reflected back on them in the impenetrable fog.

Her thin dress and spring coat were all she had to shield her from the night.  Her bare brown limbs and dark hair, damp and stiff from the saturated air, lay exposed with the seaweed left behind on the jetty with her, as the sea began to recede in the early light.The search crews had given up and gone home by the time she stood on shaky legs to survey her surroundings.  Sea gulls circled above her in the gray-pink haze of lifting fog as she remembered her dream. Her mother had come, telling her to meet her at the house.  ‘What house?’ she wondered as she stepped from one slippery rock to another, heading toward the long stretch of barren beach that had brought her here.  There were no homes out along this inlet.

The sand shifted beneath her stinging feet, cut by barnacles and broken shells as she’d wandered the night before, drugged and unaware. She had yet to discover the scratched and torn flesh on her legs from the sharp dune brush she walked through and fell into time and again before she made her way to the jetty. She would wear the scars of that night for decades to come, but she didn’t know that yet on this first morning after her failed attempt at suicide.As she climbed to the top of a dune she spotted a small building. Not free yet of her dream cloud she decided this must be the house where her mother waited. She made her way down one dune and up another as the sun rose over the sea behind her.  She made her way over a series of thick wires as she crossed a stretch of sand behind the small house.

Suddenly she spotted a figure, frantically waving arms in the air, and moving quickly toward her.  As the person came closer she could see that it was a man and that he seemed to be very upset. She turned to run back to the shelter of the dunes, but tripped and fell face down in the sand.  She heard the man shouting as he approached her. She froze as she felt his hand touch her shoulder.“Are you trying to kill yourself?  These are high voltage wires!” he said.She looked up and saw genuine alarm on his face.  He stepped back and drew in his breath.“Are you lost? Are you the girl they’ve been looking for?” he asked, seeming to know the answer before the words left his lips.“My mother is waiting for me at the house.” That’s all that she could think to say.  Why did he think she was lost?“They’ve been out searching the beach all night,” he said, “What happened to you?”As she stood up to face him he looked down at her legs, then up at her face. He frowned, his mouth open but silent now, his eyes asking all the questions.  She looked at her legs. They were covered with blood-encrusted sand. She began to back away, tugging at the hem of her coat.  He shook his head gently and said, “Let me help you.”Without another word he lifted her and carried her across the field of wires and into the small building.

He offered her a chair. He brought her a cool wash cloth for her sand covered face.  He asked her name, and she told him it was Joy.  She was fifteen, her father’s name was Jim – Jimmy Godfrey.  He nodded; everyone on the island knew her father.  The man offered her a Coke and a bag of potato chips, apologizing that he had no other food to offer her. “I work here,” he said. “This is the Coast Guard electronics station. You could have been electrocuted out there.”  She barely heard what he was saying to her, nearly deafened by a pounding pressure in her ears.“I have to call your father,” he said. “Or shall I call the police?”  She heard that but could she choose?The potato chips and Coke were burning and making the skin on the roof of her mouth peel away as she tried to eat.  She had an awful taste in her mouth and her legs itched. She was tired, so tired, too tired even to fully remember the depths of her usual fear of her father’s predictable wrath.“You can call my father,” she whispered through her sore mouth.  Then she added, “But can you wait a little while?”

“He must be very worried about you,” the man said gently. Can you give me your phone number? She recited the familiar number, and he walked to the other side of the room where a phone hung from the wall.  Tears welled up as she watched him begin to dial.  He continued to speak gently to her, assuring her that it would take half an hour for her father to get there – she’d have a little time.Something vast opened inside her as he began to speak into the phone, no longer to her.  She sunk into a deep pool of surrender as she waited for all that would come next.  Her young body had refused to die on the beach that night, but nothing could restore her lost childhood to her.  The child who was Joy would wander that beach, forever bereft.  But this child, scarred and scared now in that desolate place by the sea that she loved, would one day give birth to someone new.  She would bring to life a free woman, who in time would find her way back to Joy.