Walking along the sandy shores of lake Winnipeg, our two year old runs ahead waving a big stick, his big sister not far behind. The sun is not yet up but the shade of the sand banks will protect us from its morning rays.
The waves were strong last night, leaving tangles of stones and zebra mussels along the shore. Where there was once only soft white sand, Zebra Mussels congregate in the piles, snarled in small stones, crunching under each step. They have dramatically altered this ecosystem. It is a devastation. They were not here twenty years ago when my mother in law began spending her summers at this lake.
We stop and crouch down in sand piles. Small glass jars in hand, sifting, poking, we search for the treasure. If you have patience and time you can find them, hidden in the sand, under stones, and now, entwined in Zebra Mussel shells. Beautiful tiny shells.
White and delicate, as fragile as a newborn’s fingernails, they are beautiful. So light they are picked up on the wind and land on dry sand, far from shore.
They are hard to find, these perfect little shells. There are not many, so each feels like a gift. Every time we find one we get excited, each cheer louder than the last. And if you are lucky, you will find a ‘Curly shell’ that looks like a microscopic cinnamon bun.
Years ago, it was never possible to find these treasures on the beach below our cottage. You had to be determined, hike over the bluffs, and scale down sand banks to the secluded Secret Beach, where they laid hidden from all but the knowing.
But with the Zebra Mussels blight, they have arrived at our beach as well, carried on the mussel’s backs like little kangaroo babies tucked into their mother’s wombs. Perhaps the only gift of the Zebra Mussels is bringing our most delightful treasure right to our own beach.
Our daughter is the most astute detective, finding more than any of us. At four, she has the patience, time and a keen appreciation for the magic and the preciousness of each discovery.
Some shells are a vibrant white, like a cloud. Others blue or grey. Some twist like little conch shells as if drifting over from blue Hawaiian waters. Each is unique. And each is a treasure.
As we crouch in the sand, laughing and talking for hours, sifting and searching, my mind circles back to my work. My mind is never far from my patients, their cancers, skin diseases, devastating itches– there is always an itch somewhere begging for relief. And I think of how each person is unique and interesting, and I am grateful for the enormous fulfilment I have in being able to help each one.
A loud cheer brings me back to the lake. My blond-tasselled treasure hunter holds up her jar—she found another one. And I know at that moment I want her to always know how unique and precious she is… and I always want her to be proud of me and what I do in my life.
May you find and cherish your own treasures this summer.
Dr. Alexis Botkin