By Tessa Raebeck
For those growing up on the East End, beachcombing is as much a hobby as swinging at playgrounds or riding bikes. Children traverse the shorelines for hours, finding beach glass, washed up blue crabs and rare shells, skipping rocks and chasing seagulls.
Exploring the beaches to find nature’s treasures was one of Nancy Stewart Bagshaw’s favorite ways to spend time with her niece, Katy Stewart, a beloved young member of the Sag Harbor community who died in 2010 from a rare form of liver cancer. In her new book inspired by those days spent at the beach, “Finding Five,” Ms. Stewart Bagshaw encourages others to embrace the memories of those who have died, rather than shying away from mentioning them out of heartache and grief.
“I feel as though sometimes it’s an unspoken rule not to discuss those who’ve passed, because I think people are cautious about being hurtful or mentioning something that’s painful, and I think there are the right times and the right places to have those conversations,” the author said Monday.
On the day her niece Katy first went to the hospital complaining of a stomachache, Ms. Stewart Bagshaw found a remarkable piece of beach glass in bright turquoise, nearly as big as her palm with unique ridged markings. She was thinking about Katy when she saw the smoothed glass, the most beautiful piece she had ever seen.
The vibrant sea glass became a charm for Ms. Stewart Bagshaw after Katy was diagnosed with cancer—a connection to her vibrant young niece, who still loved combing the beach with her.
“It kind of morphed,” she said of the sea glass, “and I thought, ‘this is life, you get things that are tough, like broken glass—it can cut, it can hurt—but time seems to smooth that away, and that’s maybe a connection to the book too—it takes the edges off of grief.”
Katy died nine months before her 13th birthday. Anxious and unsure of how best to commemorate that day when it came, her aunt decided to walk the beach, thinking of all the time they had spent combing the shores of Sag Harbor and Riverhead, Ms. Stewart Bagshaw’s home.
While honoring her niece’s birthday with their favorite activity, she found a piece of blue sea glass that matched Katy’s eyes. A minute later, there was a sand dollar, an unusual, exciting find. During that walk, feeling as though her niece was somehow guiding her, Ms. Stewart Bagshaw found a remarkable total of five sand dollars.
She was able to address her grief through the happy memories of combing the beach with Katy, and the sand dollars seemed to be a symbol that Katy was still there with her in some way. She found comfort through the continued appreciation of what Katy loved.
In “Finding Five,” Ms. Stewart Bagshaw hopes to encourage other grieving families to remember those who have died by sharing memories, laughing over happy stories and continuing to enjoy their favorite things, rather than avoiding them out of heartache.
“Connections are what we need in relationships, so if you take time to encourage those and think about those, I think you’ll do yourself such a huge favor, so I’m hoping that’s what people will get from the book,” she said.
The story, which she calls “a little book with a big message,” started as a short assignment in Dr. Erica Pecorale’s class at Long Island University, where Ms. Stewart Bagshaw, who teaches Spanish at the Bridgehampton School, is earning her second master’s degree in literacy. Soon, it evolved into a full story dedicated to Katy and her younger brother, Robert. Published just last month by Seagull Books, an imprint of Leo Publishing, “Finding Five” is already one of the 100 best selling books for social issues on Amazon, and is also available at Barnes & Noble.
But it began on the beach.
“To me, the beach is the best place—the view is never the same any two days, the weather changes, the tide changes, the shoreline changes,” Ms. Stewart Bagshaw said.
“A lot of the writing process, as far as thinking things through, did take place on beach walks. I thought of how I would begin it on a beach walk, I thought of how I would end it on a beach walk, I decided to connect the five petals on a sand dollar with five things that Katy loved on a beach walk,” she added.
Those beach walks not only helped pin down the vision for her book, they also allowed Ms. Stewart Bagshaw to work through her grief by embracing her many memories of beachcombing with Katy.
The turquoise sea glass Ms. Stewart Bagshaw found when Katy was first sick, which stayed in her pocket through the ups, downs and surgeries, now sits in her window with the light shining through it, a daily reminder of her niece’s own vibrancy.
“She was just amazing, because she was always interested in what people were doing and what they enjoyed and it’s almost like her natural curiosity kind of sparked this [focus in ‘Finding Five’ on] what do people enjoy, just that question, what do they care about?” Ms. Stewart Bagshaw said. “Because it tells so much about a person—when you know what they love, you really have a better understanding of a person. That’s why I want to encourage people to know what the people around them love.”
“Everyone has to individually see what that grieving process is like and go through it as best they can,” she added, “and if they see [‘Finding Five’] as a bridge across a challenge, a helpful tool to make things a little bit easier, then I couldn’t ask for more.”