The last time I was on a beach was the summer I turned 14. It was also the last time I walked.
The doctors had given me a reprieve before I was to report at the hospital and get encased in plaster to spend a month in a body cast. My hips were inflamed with juvenile arthritis, making it difficult to walk, causing deformities. The body cast was supposed to give the joints a rest, allowing the JA to simmer down and restarting me on the road to health.
The two weeks were bliss. My parents had rented a cottage in Jutland and I remember that time as the perfect summer. In my memories, the sun is shining, warming the sandy earth and pines outside the cottage, my favourite scents blending with the smell of wooden walls. I remember simple summer dinners and going for ice cream with fresh strawberries for dessert. My friend AB joined us. We visited Legoland and drove around Jutland, seeing the manor house one of my ancestors had lost to a stable lad in a card game.
And we went to the beach. I remember it being within walking distance, my mom or AB pushing the manual chair we had borrowed from the hospital, my three-year-old sister walking next to me. I remember being on the beach, burying my toes in the warm sand. And I remember walking, supported by my crutches, from that warm sand into the cool salt water of the ocean. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the waves caressing my legs.
Ever since, I’ve longed to be back there. Where the surf meets the sand.
The body cast didn’t work. Instead, my hips fused and I lost the ability to walk. I spent the next two years in a hospital bed waiting for custom hip joints. When I was 16, I got two brand-new titanium hips, a power wheelchair, and went home.
That wheelchair — and the so far three upgrades that followed — took me many places. It gave me the freedom to go to school, to work, to dance, to buy groceries, and so much more.
But there is one particular place that the wheelchair can’t go and that’s the beach.
Sand and wheels don’t mix well. A wheelchair needs a flat and hard surface in order to be propelled forward and sand is anything but. Billions of tiny grains bounce off each other, creating an ever shifting surface. If you drive a power wheelchair onto sand, you will very quickly become stuck.
I discovered this firsthand last year on our first trip to the Islands. I was giddy with having regained some range and truth be told, not quite in my right mind. When we walked by a small beach, with a beautiful sandy path leading down to the shore, I somehow got it in my head that perhaps the basic properties of sand had changed in the last ten years and went for it.
And then The Boy (my partner David Govoni) helped me get unstuck and back on the paved path.
I have found some special places where I can get close enough that my camera’s excellent telephoto lens can photograph that space where the surf meets the sand. It’s close enough to smell the sand and the water and I can see close-ups of the waves breaking on my camera’s viewscreen and later on my computer’s monitor. It’s had to be enough. But inside my soul and my heart, it never was.
Three years ago, I brought forward some accessibility concerns in accessing Sugar Beach to Waterfront Toronto. A few months later when they took me on a tour, there was a new addition to the beach: a wooden dock out into the sand and with its own pink umbrella. I was overwhelmed and impressed and it’s why I’ve volunteered on their stakeholder advisory committees since.
I still remember the first time I drove out on that dock and parked myself under the umbrella with The Boy beside me in a Muskoka chair. Sitting there, enjoying the beachon the beach, rather than by the beach, was a profoundly moving experience. In that moment, I became like everyone else who uses Sugar Beach.
In the past year, since I got my range back, I have visited the Toronto Islands with some degree of frequency. Okay, if I had my druthers, I’d go every weekend. Well, actually I’d prefer to move there, but nevermind. One of my favourite walks goes from the pier on Centre Island west along the shore of Lake Ontario. I watch the lake as I drive along the road, giving my camera plenty of exercise. I have hundreds of photos of the shore and the waves where the surf meets the sand.
Last weekend, The Boy and I went back to Centre Island. Coming off the pier, I saw a light path on the sandy beach. “Is that a ramp?” I asked my beloved. Ever cautious about getting my hopes up, he opined that it looks flimsy, was maybe just a piece of plastic.
It wasn’t. Since I was last there a week or two before, a ramp had been installed on the beach leading to a platform close to that spot of heaven, where the surf meets the sand. Well, not that there’s much surf there — this is a beach intended for families, with shallow water protected by a bulwark of rocks. But in that moment, the tiny waves didn’t matter as I scooted towards the platform and down the slight hill as far as I could get.
And for the first time in almost 40 years, I was by that space on the beach where the sand is wet. I looked around, getting a completely different view of the lake, the pier, and the multi-coloured beauty that is a large body of water.
As I drank it all in, I could feel the tears crowd my eyes and a catch in my throat. A profound sense of gratitude filled my heart. I don’t know the City staff responsible for this gift, but I hope to find them and thank them personally.
This is what accessibility — true, full accessibility — does. It allows people with disabilities to go where they have previously been barred. It creates a firm surface where the ground shifts so everyone can enjoy all that life and our beautiful world has to offer.
Now I just need to talk to that City staff about getting a platform on the beach just a wee bit down the road. It has bigger waves.