She was six years old when I first met her on the beach near where I live. I drive to this beach, a distance of three or four miles, whenever the world begins to close in on me.
She was building a sand castle or something and looked up; her eyes as blue as the sea.
"Hello," she said.
I answered with a nod, not really in the mood to bother with a small child.
"I'm building," she said.
"I see that. What is it?" I asked, not caring.
"Oh I don't know, I just like the feel of the sand."
That sounds good, I thought, and slipped off my shoes. A sandpiper glided by.
"That's a joy," the child said.
"It's what?" I asked, uncaring.
"It's a joy! My mama says sandpipers come to bring us joy."
The bird went glissading down the beach. "Good-bye joy," I muttered to myself, "Hello, pain..." and turned to walk on. I was depressed; my life seemed completely out of balance.
"What's your name?" She wouldn't give up.
"Ruth," I answered. "I'm Ruth Peterson."
"Mine's Wendy... and I'm six."
"Hi, Wendy," I offered.
She giggled. "You're funny," she said. In spite of my gloom, I laughed too, and walked on. Her musical giggle followed me. "Come again, Mrs. P," she called. "We'll have another happy day."
The days and weeks that followed belonged to others: a group of unruly Boy Scouts, PTA meetings, an ailing mother. The sun was shining one morning as I took my hands out of the dishwater.
"I need a sandpiper," I said to myself, gathering up my coat.
The never-changing balm of the seashore awaited me. The breeze was chilly, but I strode along, trying to recapture the serenity I needed. I had forgotten the child and was startled when she appeared.
"Hello, Mrs. P," she said. "Do you want to play?"
"What did you have in mind?" I asked, with a twinge of annoyance.
"I don't know. You say."
"How about charades?" I asked sarcastically.
The tinkling laughter burst forth again. "I don't know what that is."
"Then let's just walk." Looking at her, I noticed the delicate fairness of her face. "Where do you live?" I asked.
"Over there." She pointed toward a row of summer cottages. Strange, I thought, in winter.
"Where do you go to school?"
"I don't go to school. Mommy says we're on vacation."
She chattered little girl talk as we strolled up the beach, but my mind was on other things. When I left for home, Wendy said, "It has been a happy day."
Feeling surprisingly better, I smiled at her and agreed.
Three weeks later, I rushed to my beach in a state of near panic. I was in no mood to greet even Wendy. I thought I saw her mother on the porch and felt like demanding she keep her child at home.
"Look, if you don't mind," I said crossly when Wendy caught up with me, "I'd rather be alone today." She seemed unusually pale and out of breath.
"Why?" she asked.
I turned on her and shouted, "Because my mother died!" and thought, my God, why was I saying this to a little child?
"Oh," she said quietly, "then this is a bad day."
"Yes, and yesterday and the day before that and—oh, go away!"
"Did it hurt?"
"Did what hurt?" I was exasperated with her, with myself.
"When she died?"
"Of course it hurt!" I snapped, misunderstanding, wrapped up in myself. I strode off.
A month or so after that, when I next went to the beach, she wasn't there.
Feeling guilty, ashamed, and admitting to myself I missed her, I went up to the cottage after my walk and knocked at the door. A drawn-looking young woman with honey-colored hair opened the door.
"Hello," I said. "I'm Ruth Peterson. I missed your little girl today and wondered where she was."
"Oh yes, Mrs. Peterson, please come in."
"Wendy talked of you so much. I'm afraid I allowed her to bother you. If she was a nuisance, please accept my apologies."
"Not at all—she's a delightful child," I said, suddenly realizing that I meant it. "Where is she?"
"Wendy died last week, Mrs. Peterson. She had leukemia. Maybe she didn't tell you."
Struck dumb, I groped for a chair. My breath caught.
"She loved this beach; so when she asked to come, we couldn't say no. She seemed so much better here and had a lot of what she called 'happy days.' But the last few weeks, she declined rapidly...." Her voice faltered.
"She left something for you.... if only I can find it. Could you wait a moment while I look?"
I nodded stupidly, my mind racing for something, anything, to say to this lovely young woman.
She handed me a smeared envelope, with MRS. P printed in bold, childish letters. Inside was a drawing in bright crayon hues—a yellow beach, a blue sea, a brown bird. Underneath was carefully printed: A SANDPIPER TO BRING YOU JOY.
Tears welled up in my eyes, and a heart that had almost forgotten how to love opened wide. I took Wendy's mother in my arms. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," I muttered over and over, and we wept together.
The precious little picture is framed now and hangs in my study. Six words—one for each year of her life—that speak to me of inner harmony, courage, undemanding love. A gift from a child with sea-blue eyes and hair the color of sand, who taught me the gift of love.
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Note: According to www.snopes.com, this story has been circulating on the Internet since 1997, using the names of Ruth Patterson, Ruth Peterson, and Robert Peterson as the person relating the story. However, the actual author of the piece is Mary Sherman Hilbert. The Reader's Digest picked up the story and offered it in condensed form to its readership in 1980. Hilbert was not the one who had the encounter with the child; she is merely repeating a story she heard years earlier.
The sandpiper tale attempts to impart two lessons. First, it instructs us not to let our own grief and suffering blind us to the travails of others. Second, it uses the power of narrative to advise that even in the face of unfolding personal horror we should strive for all the "happy days" we can, as Wendy did.