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Temporary Lourdes

Sangirardi, Stephen

Department: Speak Up

Stephen Sangirardi is a high school English teacher who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y.

I am at Montauk Beach in late July. I'm not inclined to hazard the water because the waves will surely knock me down. I do the next best thing for someone with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. I lie at the edge of the sand where the waves finish their course and run under my legs and sometimes over my bathing suit. I'm lying on my back, propped on my elbows. When the water first hits my feet, ankles, calves, thighs, and up the somatic ladder, the left side of my body — the problematic side — spasms. Some strong residual breakers sweep across me, and when they recede into the ocean, it seems I too am being swept into the sea.

The sun glares, and the wet sand beneath me, carried back into the fray, carves vertical ditches under my legs. I watch people in the waves swim and play. Gradually the water grows warm wherever it touches, and my spasms cease.

To beguile the time, I talk with my wife, Denise, who's brought the beach chair to the water's edge. Before I know it, I've been lying on the shore two hours, inching back every 10 minutes because the tide's coming in. I then lift myself into the vacant chair. I watch waves rush over my ankles and occasionally my calves. I enjoy every tug of wavelet washing over me and entrenching my chair more deeply in the sand when the water retreats. For a 50-year-old who hasn't been to the beach since being diagnosed with MS, I am entranced.

Finally, I head for the blanket 40 yards away. I worry that I will stumble when I get up from the chair, when I pull the chair out of the sand, and when I walk up the incline to join Denise who's ready to leave. But I make it back to headquarters as steady as can be. There's none of the usual soreness that always plagues me when I walk. Not even the uneven sand impedes me, as it did when we first arrived.

For a minute I sit under the umbrella before putting on my sneakers. A current is running through both legs. Electrolysis. A quiet revolution. Ghostlier demarcations. Keener sounds. Any second now, and spirits will emerge from my flesh.

Something miraculous has happened. I tell Denise that I'm taking the chairs to the parking lot a hundred yards away. Rolling her eyes, she tells me not to be silly, that I don't have to carry a thing, and that she will stand by me as we make our way to the car in case I need a place to lean. I assure her there's no need to worry, and before she can stop me, I'm halfway to the car, chairs in tow. Eyes in the back of my head tell me she is astonished at the rapidity with which I walk. I make it to the SUV in a jiffy, leave stuff by the side of the car, and return to the sand to carry more. I wrest away the boogey-board and umbrella from the lady's hand and scurry to the car. I must be dreaming. I have not walked like this in seven years!

Hoping the miracle won't leave, we drive to the Point, and Denise says that no matter what the cost we're buying beachfront property in Montauk. Right. We walk around the Point, near the Lighthouse, and I'm keeping pace with the people. Much of the time we are silent, and I love her for respecting my oceanic eyes that have grown since the beach. She knows that I am stunned, for the ambulatory don't understand the gift of the ambulatory man. I am walking again, sans the soreness and the pain, sans the fear of stumbling. Something in the water — the waves jousting my legs, the sand, sun, duration, the warm saline sacrament — has restored me for the moment. Nature has conspired in my defense. Have I been to Lourdes?

Temporarily, I guess. When we get back to the motel, I take a shower, and in no time the soreness returns. I suppose I never should have showered again for the rest of my life.



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