My son is entranced by the iridescent purple glow as I snap the lightstick and bring the liquid to life. My hasty purchase at the Boardwalk 5 & 10 proves cheap entertainment for a four-year old that has thus far screamed and cried through most of our vacation. I slide the string through the hole in the miraculous tool, knot it, and show Kenny how to twirl it around his finger, the phosphorescence making a bright arc in the night sky. He laughs and claps his hands together.
“Again, Daddy!” he commands and I obey, but this time I let the string slip from my grasp and the purple glow ascends into the black sky, arches, curves back to the beach. Kenny runs to its landing site on sturdy legs and I follow close behind, despite my practically new leather loafers quickly filling with sand.
It is good to see Kenny laughing, enjoying himself. It seems as if everything at this beach resort has scared him or worries him, from the agonizingly long car ride to the ferocious pounding of the surf against the beach to the crowds and whirls of color at the amusement pier. All have been a source of pain for my young son.
Kenny picks up the glowing stick and tosses it over his head. His eyes are bright with excitement and his alabaster cheeks reflect a faint purples glow from the light stick. The cylinder loops over his head, a single bright ray in the inky darkness.
I glance back toward the boardwalk where Beth and the girls are still busy feeding quarters into arcade games. It is hot and noisy in the arcade. This has been the final agony for Kenny, who began a non-stop wail to the embarrassment of his three sisters and the exasperation of Beth. Her patience with Kenny is phenomenal, but I recognize that she, too, has limits. This is her vacation as well as mine. And so far, Kenny has made relaxation a dim hope. So I conceive my strategy and whisk Kenny off, leaving Beth and the girls with whatever peace and quiet reigns in a noisy arcade.
Here the beach I feel alone, cut-off with only Kenny for company. The lights and the sounds of the vacationers do not penetrate to the water’s edge. Even the sound of the surf is quiet, muffled by the velvet night. Kenny revels in the coolness of the sand. Chubby fingers soon untie sneakers and peel off socks so he can dabble his toes in the same ocean that made him scream only hours ago. He splashes water at me—little imp—and I kick off my own loafers and roll up my khakis, joining him in his frolic.
He is a beautiful child, my longed-for son. The moonlight reflects pale silver on his blonde head. His pert nose is charmingly pink with sunburn. But it is Kenny’s eyes that usually illicit comment, large hazel orbs that change color with his mood. His sisters are jealous of his long, curled lashes and perfectly arched brows. “Wasted on a boy,” they say and rumple his hair affectionately.
It is the intelligence I see in his eyes that I admire and long to unlock. Born after only twenty-six weeks, Kenny spent his first six months struggling to survive. Beth and I logged countless hours at the hospital, hovering over his isolette, but it was Kenny who fought to breathe and move on his own, to keep his miniature heart pounding and blood rushing through his infinitesimal veins. “The size of sewing thread,” said one doctor.
Kenny—unlike many infants born too soon—made it home, to us. He made it home to a life that continues to frustrate and challenge him and likely always will. I sigh deeply and pray that my grief is for Kenny, not my own shattered dreams.
“Look, Daddy!” shrieks my son with Glee. He is trailing the purple light stick in the bubbles along the surf, tinting the water with purple rays. “Pretty!”
“Wow, Kenny! That’s great!’ I holler back. He grins. Vacation miseries are forgotten. His world is reduced to only this light, this beach, his father’s rare undivided attention.
Kenny has had a difficult year. So has Beth. Twice his under-developed lungs sent him to the hospital. Ear infections and sore throats have plagued him. His speech therapist has reckoned Kenny’s vocal skills to those of a two and a half year old. There is no way of knowing yet if his early birth affected his IQ.
But Kenny’s eyes, so alive, convince me that somewhere inside my small son is an intelligent being. He tosses the light into the air, misses it, laughs at himself, does it again. He flashes me a beatific smile and tosses the stick to me. “Daddy, catch!”
And I do. For a few moments, we are only a father and son, engaged in a normal game of catch. Then I cannot resist the urge to teach my son something new and I grab the glowing light stick. “Watch, Kenny!” I sketch a letter “K” into the dark night with the iridescent light, and a streak of faint purple remains for a brief moment. Kenny stares intently and I know that, on some level, he is analyzing this trick of his old dad. I draw the letter again, and say, “K. K is for Kenny.” And the purple glow fills the night as I sketch K and after K after K.
Moments pass. The glow of the purple K’s fades. Kenny, gently, takes the light stick from my hand. Slowly, carefully, he traces a line in the sky. Then another at a 45-degree angle. Then a downward slash. Solemnly he says, “K. Is for Kenny.” Then he points the purple light to his chest. “Me.”
My mouth opens wide. I want to tell Kenny how wonderful he is, how magnificent, all I ever hoped for in a son, but I say simply, “Yes. You.”
He laughs. His little arms encircle my leg briefly. Then the fascination of the light calls him again and he tosses the stick further up the beach and races for it.
Beth and the girls will find their own way back to the hotel from the bright lights of the boardwalk. Kenny and I race along the beach, the waves gently tickling our toes and our shoes forgotten, as he chases after his light, the faint purple glow a beacon in the night.