It was about five years ago. I had just walked into the church where the meetings were held. And there she sat. Raging red hair up under one of her beautiful knitted creations. Yellow was the yarn color I think. The people had begun to come in, most going to the back to get their coffee from the giant pots with spouts that were up on the counter in front of the kitchen. It was early thirty in the morning when these men and women of all walks gathered for a spiritual start to their day. On many days to follow, she would be in that kitchen. With those pots, filling giant paper filters with coffee grinds to make coffee for people who needed it. Giving back for what she had received.
But on this day, my first time here, I saw her first. Almost as if she were the only one in the room that had easily a couple dozen sleepy people, exchanging hugs and greetings. Without a word, her look at me spoke volumes. I was guessing it to say, “Who is THIS new person? I don’t know her, and I am not sure I want to.” Deluded by my thought that I could read her mind, I approached her table and sat down, introducing myself, almost defiant. Reluctantly, she received my gesture. She was kind and smart and funny right off the bat, as she sat knitting, which she was always doing when we were at meetings together. We bonded immediately.
I was new to this group, but not new to the rooms. And this became my family and my home. And she was one of my closest siblings there. A former student at Harvard University, she was as brilliant as her red hair. Articulate too. And if you looked up the phrase rigorous honesty, you might find her picture there. I loved her for that, among other things.
I remember one time with her that stands out from the rest. (The rest includes a wild weekend we shared in a room together for a conference with 2,000 other people and her indulging my boy watching when my eyes should have been focused on a podium at the front of the room.) We were all seated in a children’s Sunday School room, a bunch of full-grown children, also known as adults, in tiny chairs, humbling and beautiful in my experience. When it came to her turn, she opened her book to read. This was not one of the books that were stacked up on the table for the use of the members who might grace the meeting on any given day. This brown paper-covered pocket-sized book belonged to her. And you could tell she had used it, loved it, devoured it. Had it been one of those cardboard children’s books, the ones that teething children can chew on and still understand the story, hers was the adult version. Warn from the turning of the pages and the copious notes in her hand there in the margins. That book spoke louder to me than anyone’s share that day. Except for one. Hers. After she read from her loved on Velveteen copy, her opening remark was “This shit’s hard.” I don’t know if she said anything else. And it didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I loved her from that moment on. And wanted to know her better.
She was slightly younger than me, but our inner kids got along great. Two quick wits, both single, commiserating about that and who we each thought was cute that we knew. Her home was humble and spotless. Bed made, dog well-loved. She always had the Cadillac vacuum cleaner, which she used in her cleaning jobs and every day in her home. I have to tell you, I felt vacuum shame. Mine only comes out about once or twice a month. And after learning that she vacuumed every day, I always think of her on those two days a month I get my jalopy out of the closet.
I learned in time that our connection was for good reason. We shared more than just trouble with substance. We had a common bond of being in bondage to brain chemistry that can be quite challenging to live with and painful to be sober for at times. I have been fortunate to maintain my sobriety during the dark times in my life. She was not so fortunate. I suspect demographics and available care and money played a part. Trauma had a starring role. I do know that her journey had been a struggle from the start. But for most of the years I knew her, she always pushed off the bottom. Until she didn’t.
About a year after we met, we were both in the same safe place dealing with those brain chemistry issues that could be plaguing. We had shared stories of our experiences here over the time we were friends. That is a bond only people like us who know each other can comprehend. I can only imagine it resembles the bond of soldiers who have seen action. I only wish she had gone there one more time. For her sake, and for the sake of her two children.
A mutual friend called me today to say that she had died. I learned from another that she had been found, alone. My first thought was that I did not act on it the last time I had the urge to reach out. I am not saying that I think I could have saved her. All I am saying is I wished I had heard her voice one more time.
After hearing this news, I tried to do what was in front of me. I walked into the grocery store to get a few things. And before I could get to the fifth and final item on the list, I broke down in the aisle. I was on the phone with a friend and while I stood there sobbing, A woman walked up to me, seemingly out of nowhere. She was several inches shorter than my 5’10” frame, had gray hair, neatly done, pretty blue eyes behind perfect fake lashes and she was wearing black. She reached up to me, gave me a hug, as if she had been assigned to me and spoke deliberate words into the ear that did not have the phone to it. “I understand. My father died yesterday.” And with that, she turned on her heel and was gone.
I had debated stuffing my feelings until I got in my car. I was shaming myself for even feeling sad. But I permitted myself, with the inner pep talk to say there was no shame in grieving out loud in public. And look what happened. My grief was seen by her grief. And we were able to comfort each other, even if for just a moment. Then, as I turned towards the next aisle, my friend still holding me up on my phone against my head, I looked through tearsinto the eyes of a man in a golf shirt mouthing the words, “Are you okay?” And the woman with the cart coming up behind him came to see if I needed anything. These words cheapen the experience. But it was spiritual. God was all over that grocery store.
I got my fifth item, a drink called Peace Tea, which I am sipping as I write, went into my day with the reminder that life is fleeting, precious, and can end at any moment. I had already been mindful of this because I had been reflecting on the fact that this weekend, I will be 19 years free of breast cancer. And a couple of days after that marks the one-year anniversary of a longtime close friend’s death, who also went to that church for morning coffee, from Covid. So all of this has me wanting to honor their memories, while giving proper respect for their loss, by living my best life. Something I take for granted at times.
The picture I chose here is one I have hanging in my house. I bought it in the months after Kate Spade’s death in 2018 to go with my black and white polka-dot Kate Spade bedding. I named it Kate in her memory. Her death made me sad too. But for my purposes here,I thought it was a beautiful way to picture my friend who has passed on, perhaps in a blue knitted hat around that beautiful, long red mane.
This poem by Emily Dickinson, was sent to me by a friend who was also a fixture in that same kitchen I referred to earlier. I think it is a good goal to aspire to.
I recently heard a story about a man whose grandmother swam out to sea, intending to die and succeeding in doing so. I can relate to her.
I am writing this as a woman who just moved from land locked status of 51 years in several states to the beautiful Florida panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico. I am 10 minutes from the beach and I go most every day. I have been here nearly a year and have only gone in the water over my head twice. Because I am afraid of the water.
The funny thing is, I love being near the water. This is a quote from President JFK that he made on September 14th, 1962, to a gala dinner held at The America’s Cup sailing event. It has always resonated in my soul. The painting, above, is mine and has that quote, plus sand from my beach on it.
“All of us have in our veins the same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea-whether it is to sail or to watch it-we are going back from whence we came.”- JFK
I must have been four or five years old when I began my swimming lessons. They took place in the swim lanes of our all white Yacht Club, between ropes strung with big red bumpers. The same color as my kick board that was assigned as a teaching tool. I hated swimming lessons. The water, which made up the swimming area, diving area and beach area was walled off from the Long Island Sound, so it was salt water.
As I recall that moment like it was yesterday, I was terrified by the instruction to hold my little arms as far as I could out in front of me, while holding the only thing I thought could keep me from drowning, my red kick board. From my child’s eyes, the gap between me and that board felt like a mile because I could not see through that water and feared that the dark space below would swallow me up whole. This was in the early 1960’s.
I lived in New York and Connecticut from age zero to nine, formative years with the trauma of the death of my young father being part of the story. He was 42. I was 7. He went to bed on a Friday night, and was a no show for our standing cartoon date the next morning. Because during the night, he had a grand mal seizure, which stopped his heart. For good. And the family fell apart after that.
Before he died, family outings to the ocean were regular practice, as my father loved the sea. He had a boat at the yacht club named for my brother and sister, who were here first, eight and nine years ahead of me. They were sailors too, and while I was in swim lessons, they were in sailing school.
Jones Beach in New York was a place we often went as a family. My first thought is the memory of the time I got to watch the filming of a Hawaiian Punch commercial there. I sported a red mustache stain often, so I was a big fan. They spread a blanket on the beach, filled it with lemons, limes, oranges, pineapple and ice cubes. Then, two people grabbed the edges and tossed up the contents like a trampoline while the camera filmed. The end result that made it to the screen was a slow motion scene of fruit and ice flying up and down, seeming like magic to me.
The next thought I have is the undertow. And my experience of having been caught in it. I don’t remember specifically, but I know that it happened. I had a recurrent nightmare for years, (not sure for how long or when they began or ended,)of blankets coming up over my head, and me struggling to breathe. I always reasoned that was because of being caught in an undertow, because the sensation was the same.
The truth is, based on more information coming to my consciousness over the years, there is also a possibility that those were real blankets and that at some point, someone tried to make me quiet with them. If that did happen, at this time I don’t know who or why or if so, or if they wanted me quiet for the moment or forever. So it’s no wonder to me that while I do have sleep apnea, I often sleep better when I rebel and don’t cover my face with my CPAP mask to sleep.
Two years after my father died, it was just me and my mom in 1969, in a big three bedroom house on two acres in Connecticut. My mom had sent my sister away. To college early. And my brother, was just sent away. In my nine year old experience, I had lost my father and only friend at age seven, followed two years later by losing my brother and sister, my home as I knew it, four collies, including “Buttons,” the one I called mine.
The greatest devastation was not the house or the dogs that were lost, it was any hope of ever having those who survived my father’s death to ever be anything like a family-ever again. My father had a traumatic brain injury where he was mugged and left for dead in a stairwell in Manhattan in his late twenties and when he drank against doctor’s advice, was emboldened to hurt people. My mom had suffered violence at the hand of my father for many years. From what I saw and know today, everyone in our family suffered at his hand, albeit mine seemed the least of it. But growing up around what was happening, that being my formative environment, took its toll on me, much like second hand smoke.
My mom had decided to move us. Me and her. And I was excited. Because we were moving to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida! I would get to live at the beach, in a fancy high rise condo and the plan was that I would attend a school with children from all over the world. I was thrilled. And it never happened. Instead, we ended up in her old home town in Southern Illinois and then Tulsa, Oklahoma. So when I am telling those who ask why I moved here to Destin, Florida, whether it is a local or one of 4 million tourists, I say, “I was removed from the beach against my will at age nine, so I decided to make that right.”
Fast forward to the 1970’s and the release of the movie Jaws. That did not help me. I was still working on going to the playground without fear after seeing the movie The Birds which depicted a small sea village overrun by angry sea and land birds that attacked and terrorized the towns people, teachers and children on the playground.
From then until now, the only vacation destination that held my interest was always the beach. But never to swim in the water. Just to be near it on the beach. And boy, have I landed on a beautiful one. It is considered by some, to be one of the most beautiful in the world. And for good reason. The sand is white and it sings when you strike it just right with your heels, the water is an ever changing experiential painting, boasting clear Coke bottle green waters on the sand bars, allowing the eye to see quite clearly what is frolicking there. One day, I got to watch the manarays, with their black ball diamond bodies, accented with white, long black tails swishing as they glided through the shallow water faster than I could keep up with as I walked knee deep behind them trying to keep up.
As the eye moves up towards the horizon, on a sunny day, of which there are many, the water likes to show of its Emerald green prowess, which has rightfully earned these beaches the name of Emerald Coast. But don’t tell anyone here, MY favorite water is that sapphire blue that, as you continue up from the bottom if you are scanning sand to sky, happens just before you see that navy blue line, setting a boundary that if it had a voice it would say to the viewer, “This is where the sky begins and don’t you forget it!” I have also heard it say, “Look at me. ALL of me. My water. My sand. My sky. My creatures. Take me in. Often. Because I am a gift. An ever changing display of the most beautiful living painting you will ever have the good fortune to see. I will never be the same way twice. Not from minute to minute. Not from day to day. I will dazzle you with my angry gray clouds, my bright white towers, my periwinkle sunrise with the sweetest pink accents. You will be stunned at what I show you. The colors, if you pay attention, will blow your mind. The bold orange and yellow fireballs that when they go under water for the night, don’t go without at times leaving a green burst of light at my horizon line.”
I have gone for a walk in cutoffs and a t shirt that took me chest high into the water some 40 feet offshore, shallow green waters allowing me to do so, to enjoy the show of the pelicans all around me. I have watched between 50 and 100 migrating loons on the water. My personal favorites, because they appear black with white polka dots, and I have a jar full of feathers that they leave me beach side on their way out of town to prove it. I relate to the sandpipers. Those little ones who travel in neurotic groups, their legs almost spastic as they scurry.
I don’t talk about this in the daylight much. But today, I felt I had to. Because once again, just last night, after a week filled with situational ups and downs of joy and disappointment, I felt down, and tired and spent. And again today, I woke up, so where the night at times can be like being in deep, dark water, waking up again affords me the chance to push off the bottom and resurface. And while it may be hard to believe, mornings like that it can still be hard to get up and go to the beach. Thankfully, most of the days I am gifted with the strength to do so. Because I have learned that no matter what the world is doing, and much of it right now makes me very sad, in my little world, the beach is healing me.
When I was 11, I had my first understanding that people could make themselves die on purpose when my 14 year old cousin, a beautiful, sensitive artistic soul shot himself. When Robin Williams died, I was heartbroken as the world was to lose such a joy bringer. But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both took their lives within months of each other in 2018, when I was in a year long severe depressive episode, I found myself googling how to hang myself. From my cousin’s death forward, the suicides of people who show a beautiful life to us, only to end it in private has left me marked with a fear at times that one day, suicide will come to me or my thoughts and it will win. I have never attempted it, and every time the thoughts were strong I went for help because the moods I live with at times change fast at no notice from up and embracing the moment, to a deep dive of hopeless despair.
And while I am on the subject, one which sharing it out loud here makes me feel naked because so many judge what they do not know, those people who have not been here cannot know. And sadly, they will continue in ignorance to judge a person whose pain moves them to leave a lifeless body on purpose as selfish. Mental illness IS NOT a character flaw. It is a real sickness. And for this person, those who do judge out loud, when I hear them if I am down at that time, just makes the pain worse, never better. So please, keep it to yourself. I have been in that dark space on and off now for a year never mind for most of my life and have shared that there are nights as I age when I say to my maker that I would be okay if I didn’t wake up, but I never volunteer to exit. I just express the feelings to safe people because much like cockroaches, they can sometimes flee when there is light. Frankly, that is part of why I am sharing this now.
Back on land and at home, after going to the beach, I am changed for the better. But back on land and at home is the rest of my life. And that has been hard at times, in recent days and before. Even moving to paradise is still change requiring the grief and loss of where I left to come here and all of the support and the people who gave it. I made this move because I was moved to do so. By the instinct that was put in me by whatever made me. And everywhere I go, there I am.
So I find myself healing in paradise. From unresolved grief over the loss of my 24 year marriage, the necessary loss of a 23 year old daughter, formerly dependent on me, who now is a young adult, with less need for me and more need to find her own way. I am now a life consultant and I am careful with that to just offer my experience if it applies and in most cases, I am just a listening ear to the young woman just looking for a safe place to sound out what is happening in her life in this world. And I miss her.
And here I am. Making my life. At the beach. As a woman who is afraid of the water, I find myself consumed by wanting to keep others from drowning or dying. People and living creatures alike. This morning, I scooped up a bee, struggling at the water’s edge the get right side up and fly. I carried it in a pile of sand to the dune nearby. This week, I found a bobber on a rope that floated up onshore. The rope was covered with some kind of mollusks, who looked like some kind of Mad Max community. All in burnt umber, appearing lifeless as they were attached to the rope with seagrass and muck, only to watch long enough and see signs of life. It looked like shell mothers twitching with babies attached. It was fascinating. In any event, when I learned that the line had been thrown in the trash, I made it my mission to save them. I dug them out of the the trash, found a fishermen’s knife, cut off the bobber, and threw the line out, hoping it would take them somewhere to keep living.
Earlier this year, I spent three hours helping rescue a loon who had beached with a spinal injury, consumed by doing my part so that it had every chance to make it. And yesterday, I saw something floating just offshore. It appeared gray, and round and shiny, I thought maybe it was a dolphin. I kept an eye on it for forty minutes or so, as a crowd began to gather and a long lens camera holder spotted what looked to be a sea turtle dead in the water. I went into action. Calling the Florida Wildlife people and was told they would need a call to pick it up once it has washed up on shore. I felt sad. Just then, a man swam out to see what it was and upon his return, he had good news. Not only was it a very much alive turtle, it was not alone. It was having a roll in the hay of the Gulf of Mexico, working on baby turtles, and when he told me that part, his eyes got wide as he said, “that is something you cannot unsee.”
I am a volunteer on the beach, trained to support the lifeguards and other agencies who try to keep the people here safe when the water is not. It is optional as to when I volunteer. They don’t require a commitment to a calendar. I go when I feel called from within. And typically that is on the days when the water is closed. Double red flags fly to warn of the rip currents. Rip currents which have killed five people here in the last few months alone. My job on those days, when I see people in the water, is to blow a whistle, wave them out, and explain that the water is closed. Then, if, and sadly when, they go back in, I am trained to take a picture of their back side, note their description, time and place of entry and report it so that if their body turns up later, they have some idea of what happened.
As I recount this to you, I am struck that I am trying to keep things and people alive. When I can only do so much. But I think it comes from several places. On the surface, I really want to do my part. And when I do these things, I feel value and purpose. But what troubles me is the emotion behind my action at times. It is almost a desperation. Ultimately, The life I think I am trying to save is mine.
To use a metaphor, I have had many times in my life when I go through periods of darkness. And some of them are frightening to me. The feeling is not unlike that same fear I felt when I was asked to trust a kick board with my life. And there was not much in my young life at that time that showed me ANYTHING was worthy of trust. So I see these times as me being under the water, in total darkness, part of me relishing in the quiet, the other desperate to spring to the surface to breathe, not wanting to suffocate. But I have had so many of these times that doctors like to call bipolar depressions that when they come, they find me as a tired woman who isn’t very fond of swimming to begin with. And I entertain the idea of staying down.
So I will let the beach and its water have the final word here. And I suspect it would speak to me in this way. “Keep coming to me. Daily if you can. More than once a day if you feel led. That is me calling you. See me as proof that beauty still exists in a sometimes ugly world. Kindness still happens in a sometimes angry society. The unexpected can surprise you with joy. And life is everywhere. All the things and the creatures all have a part.They matter. And so do you.”
“P. S. I will put people in your path who will help you to not fear my waves. And I will offer you joy and healing beyond measure when the time comes.”