One of the great joys of returning to San Diego with our sailboat Groovy is that the gods aligned our family stars and made San Diego a natural gathering place for the whole family clan.
Sheer good fortune saw Mark’s son Rory get relocated to San Diego right about the same time we sailed into port.
To make things even merrier, his daughter Amanda and her two little girls were just a day’s drive away.
There is nothing quite so fulfilling after being away for a very long time as seeing the happy faces of loved ones.
While we had been caught up in the craziness of bringing our boat north and then selling everything we owned right out from under ourselves, including the boat, the arrival of our two granddaughters made all our cares and concerns melt away in an instant.
Playing with them and watching them cut loose with their mom and uncle made our hearts sing.
They are utterly charming and as different as night and day. As all kids do, they are rapidly growing up, and every time we see them they have changed and matured.
Yet at seven and nine, they are still innocent and free.
Everything is an adventure, the world is an inviting and wonderful place, and whenever life gets a little uncertain, all you have to do is hug a stuffed animal or two.
Reunions like this are so precious, and with both Rory and ourselves immersed in lives that take us to far-flung places, we will all always cherish our family moments together aboard Groovy and on San Diego’s beaches during these happy days.
One of the best things has been listening to them all chatter about their upcoming plans and future goals.
Whether it is the promise of joining the Junior Cheerleading Squad after turning ten, or taking on the heights of Mt. Whitney on a rigorous hike with other twenty-somethings, or simply being able to go home and brag to the other second graders that you did the Atlantis ride at Sea World three times, they are all excited about everything that life has to offer.
The energy of the little girls running around on the beach dragging kelp tails behind them and digging in the sand left us happily breathless.
Where does that energy go as the years pass by?
How is it that we grow from eyes of wonder at seven to eyes of youthful anticipation at twenty-seven to eyes of experience and sometimes exhaustion some thirty years later?
This cycle of life never stops, and the old generation gives way to the young ones coming up behind. Our parents walk before us, just a baby step ahead, passing through each phase of life just enough years in advance that we can pause to think about it for a minute or two before we arrive at that age ourselves.
And so it was that a few nights ago I came back from the gym here at the marina and pranced down our companionway stairs still glowing from a good hard workout and a piping hot shower to find Mark sitting motionless in front of his computer.
I made a smart remark to him about the Beatles music he was playing. In our home there is always a musical tug of war going on between the Beatles and my classical favorites.
Invariably, as soon as I step out the door I can hear Paul McCartney serenading me as I walk down the dock. And as soon as Mark slips away, the cabin is filled with Chopin or Mendelssohn or Brahms.
“It’s John Lennon,” he said flatly.
Sure enough, it was, and I thought nothing of it as I chirped away about my awesome workout. Beatles, Lennon, it’s all the same great stuff. Whatever!
I washed my water bottle and stole a look over Mark’s shoulder at his computer screen. There was a photo of a boy sitting under a big tree.
“Great photo!” I said cheerily. “Did you take that this afternoon?” I thought it might be one of the beautiful huge trees on Shelter Island.
Mark didn’t respond, which was strange.
My eyes fell lower to the words below the photo. “My Mummy’s Dead.” It said. Then I heard John Lennon’s plaintive voice singing those very words on YouTube: “My Mummy’s Dead.”
I came around to Mark’s side and saw tears streaming down his face. Oh no. I reached for him as my own tears began to slide down my cheeks. He didn’t need to say a thing. I knew. His mother had just died.
There are few pains in this world quite as severe as losing a parent. The void it leaves is immense, and the rootlessness it leaves you with is shattering. When my dad died, even though we weren’t close, my world unexpectedly collapsed. And now, even though Mark and I had been anticipating his mother’s death for a long time, we were completely unprepared.
I looked at Mark and suddenly saw the young boy within him. His face was innocent, and his expression no longer had the strong lines of a man.
He was his mother’s beautiful little boy, the son she had held close to her heart from the day he arrived.
Why do we lose our parents, and where do they go? It is one thing to be stranded in a supermarket aisle at age three, terrified that mom has left us forever.
In those days, though, she always turned up again, with the help of a kindly store clerk, and we always found out she just went to the next aisle and didn’t realize we hadn’t followed.
Not this time.
Or maybe, just maybe, with the grace of God who will eventually steer us the right way, perhaps it is just the same this time.
When I held the small marble urn containing my father’s ashes at the edge of his grave, my world reeled out of control.
How could my father, a huge, six foot tall, three hundred pound man whose brilliant mind was filled with dreams and theories and really strong opinions and beautiful music possibly fit into this tiny urn? Where was he really?
It seemed a curtain had been closed between us. A thick, rich, dark red, velvet curtain now somehow kept him from me.
Sadly, we too will eventually pass to the other side of that curtain, and our kids and loved ones will be left standing right behind us, just as baffled as we are now, trying to heal their broken hearts while wondering where we went.
The very next day Mark’s son picked us up early to go on a little hike. “It’s got some scrambling,” he said casually, “but it’s not too hard.”
Besides getting some fresh air, we were all looking forward to some photo ops. How fortunate we are to share a new-found love of photography. Mark was ecstatic to have an opportunity to pass on all he’s learned to his apt and eager son.
At the trailhead, we didn’t notice the sign that said, “Extremely steep and rugged terrain.” “Strenuous conditions.” “Technical climbing.” and “Proceed at your own risk.”
It was an epic hike that pushed us physically. Between the blazing sun, the scraped knees, and the dirt covered rumps, all traces of our emotional pain were blissfully swept away.
Mark and I watched Rory effortlessly glide over the challenging terrain while we pussy-footed and tripped and wimpered here and there.
I was reminded, yet again, of what a strapping, handsome and able young man he has become while his little boy self is but a memory that Mark sometimes wistfully shares with me.
As we hiked, he swung across a crevasse with a rope and leaped down from a great height with the kind of ease and grace we are sure we once had.
We scrambled along and managed those feats too, but our movements weren’t as fluid or as confident, and there was a cautiousness about us that reflected the three decades that stand between us.
As Mark said at one point while watching Rory’s beautiful physique rippling like a tiger’s, “Why don’t I have muscles like that?”
I’m so grateful I got to know Mark’s mom Gladys when she was a spry 69. She and her beloved husband Joe radiated joy, and from what I could see they had it made in the shade. Retired and loving life, they traveled between Michigan and Florida with the seasons and didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
Anywhere they went, whether visiting our house, or staying in a rented house in Florida, or living in their own house in Michigan, their presence always made the house a home.
I remember coming in from work one night, dog tired and a little bit cranky, to find the two of them, now our houseguests, sitting on our sofa watching TV, as content as any two people could ever be.
The lights were low and they were smiling.
A sense of calm swept over me.
The house was warm, and the kitchen smelled yummy, and I noticed Gladys had left a delicious dinner waiting for us in pots on the stove.
As Mark and I scarfed down her tasty home cooking, I suddenly felt like a kid in high school. It didn’t matter that I was forty-four and that it was our house; for a few days Gladys and Joe made us feel like we were living at home with our parents again.
Gladys and Joe were married over six decades, and they truly seemed to blend into one. In everything they did there was a seamlessness between him and her. They were our mentors in many ways, and Mark and I hoped we would be as lucky in life — and as gracious — as they had been.
But time marches on, and now, as we rummage through old photos to find pics of Gladys before her illness, we find pics of the grandgirls when they were just babies and pics of Mark’s kids in high school and pics of ourselves getting married.
We have always felt the press of time to pursue our dreams. Who knows when the big velvet curtain will be drawn across our lives. Too often we meet people who have postponed their dreams beyond their time, not knowing their time would be up so soon.
Our tears are still close to the surface as we reach out for that hollow place where Gladys used to be. Just moments ago, Mark said quietly, “I can’t believe my mom is gone,” and the tears flowed once again.
Yet, at the same time, our kids and grandkids are growing, and their dreams are expanding, and their lives are open books still in their earliest chapters. We will soar as they soar, one wingtip ahead of them in the paceline.