Morningside.

“We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backward sometimes. Every day we must make the decision to move in the direction of our intentions. Forward is the direction of real life.”

– Cheryl Strayed

I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, laptop on lap, surfing the internet for a new dresser when the call came through. The number was familiar, but not in a way that brought comfort. My body tensed. My breaths came shallow. I thought about answering the phone, then thought better of it. I didn’t want to be blindsided by bad news. Let them leave a message, I thought. At least then I’d have an idea of what I was in for.

The voicemail notification flashed across the screen, and I gingerly pressed play and held the phone up to my ear.

“Hi Sarah,” came a polite, though somewhat timid, voice on the other end.

“This is Katherine, from Joe’s office. We have some documents to send you, and I just wanted to confirm that we still have your correct address.”

Documents. That sounded innocuous enough, but as I’d just spent the better part of the summer sorting through five years’ worth of paperwork covering such weighty topics as death, divorce and identity theft, paring a painful paper trail down to its essentials and depositing the rest into a large plastic bin that I delivered to an industrial shredding facility in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport, the last thing I wanted was to acquire more documents. I had begun a new life. And I intended to travel light.

I sighed, pressed “call back,” and was surprised to hear Joe’s voice – my parents’ lawyer – on the other end. I had assumed he had retired, due to advancing age and a recent bypass surgery. But there he was, answering the phone. His tone was kind, grandfatherly, almost.

“Well, Sarah, it looks like we’re finally ready to close your parents’ estate, and I have some final documents for you to sign. We’re going to send them to your sister Marion first, then to you, and then we should be good to go.”

Really? Five years of bank statements and legal documents and insurance forms? Five years of producing death certificates with as much normalcy as I produced my driver’s license? Five years of always another form to sign, always another stack of papers to file bearing the red “For your Information” stamp? Could it really be true that after five years, this phase of life that I’d become so accustomed to was finally drawing to a close?

“That’s great news, Joe. I’m glad you called because I actually just moved. Let me give you my new address.”

If Joe was surprised by my New York zip code, he didn’t let on. Maybe he thought people packed up and moved their lives across the country every day. Or maybe after five years, he was ready to be done with me, too. Either way, we said our goodbyes, and I collapsed back onto my bed, a wave of exhaustion washing over me. I had only been in New York for three days, but I knew that it was more than just the force of jet lag hitting me. It was something like releasing a breath that I had long been holding. Something like the realization that after all these years, I might finally be turning a page.

Five days later, on a still warm September afternoon – the second day of fall – I swept the floors, rearranged the furniture, stocked the fridge and assembled a spread of snacks and drinks on my kitchen table. As a handful of guests arrived and day faded into indigo night, lit by the New York skyline and the three strings of twinkle lights I’d hung from the eighth-floor balcony of my Morningside Heights apartment, I realized that I had barely thought about the fact that this day, September 23rd, marked the fifth anniversary of the death of my mother. I had remembered it, of course, but I had – for once – been too busy to dwell on it. And when I did think of it, I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I felt lucky. I felt lucky that I had a mother who always told me that I could do and be anything that I wanted. I felt lucky that because of that, I had been brave enough to take a leap, and had been rewarded with a new apartment in a new city, one that was beautiful, priced well under market value, and in a prime Manhattan neighborhood. I was lucky to be surrounded by interesting, kind, creative people, who, like me, also wanted to tell stories and make art. And I was lucky to realize that as painful as it had been, it was the jagged, twisted, perilous path that had brought me here, to a time and a place where I finally felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was where I was supposed to be.

Until next time, friends.

The salt and the sea.

It was well after 11 p.m. when we made the left turn on to Grapeview Loop Road from Washington State’s Highway Three. The drive in had been quiet; the late hour meant that the rural highways we traveled were sparsely populated, and our rental car pressed quickly forward into the inky black night, following winding roads over waterways too dark to see.

“Wow,” came the response when we arrived at the beach. Even in darkness, my friends could tell that the place was special. I gave them a brief tour and then began to unpack, tired from the long day and hoping to head straight to bed. But as they climbed the spiral staircase to the loft and stood out on the upstairs balcony, transfixed by the smell of saltwater and the sound of the sea, I realized I had underestimated the ability this place still had to stagger first-time visitors.

It continued all weekend: my re-initiation to the beach. After spending so much of my life there, I had grown accustomed to the densely-forested walk along the loop road, the silver, flat-as-a-mirror inlet with its fluctuating tides, the fresh air, the ever-present Mt. Rainier, standing snowcapped over a great bank of evergreen trees. I had forgotten that not everyone spends their summers digging clams at low tide, or building bonfires on the beach, or watching playful seals hunt for food just outside of their front door. I suppose it isn’t normal to pick wild blackberries in the woods on the walk to Treasure Island, or to admire the sailboats docked in Fair Harbor Marina, while tracing a map of the inland waterways of Puget Sound.

The truth is, the beach still has the power to amaze me. Every summer, when I make the left turn from Grapeview Loop Road on to the property that my Grandfather bought in 1959, the sight of Case Inlet stretching out across the landscape still levels me. But along with that feeling of awe comes something else: grief. Every advancing summer takes me further away from the carefree days of childhood, serving as a reminder of how much has changed, how much has gone. Of all the places I’ve traveled, the beach is the place I love the most, but it is also a repository for some of my darkest and most painful memories. I wish it wasn’t so, but I can’t help it: every time I return there, so do the flood of images of happier times, and of loved ones lost.

We planned a Saturday morning boat ride, and though the day dawned cold and cloudy, we pressed forward anyway, undeterred. As we bundled up into flannels and fleeces, my friend Vim spotted an unusual sight from just outside the living room window: a dorsal fin. We gathered on the deck, the four of us passing around two sets of binoculars, and I saw something I had never witnessed in all my summers on Case Inlet: Orca whales. They were hundreds of miles from the ocean, swimming very close to shore, and seemingly in no hurry to reach their destination. As the trio – two babies and their mother – traveled slowly south, spouting water and occasionally breaking the surface, I felt a lump rise in my throat. This moment, amidst all that was familiar, was entirely new.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last few days before moving to New York than by sharing the place I grew up with some of my closest friends. I have come to accept the fact that there will always be sad memories contained along the rocky shores of Case Inlet. I can no more extract them from that place than I can the salt from the sea. But there are happy memories, too. Plenty of them, and even more so after this past weekend. After our boat ride, a group of friends and family gathered for a potluck lunch at my Grandfather’s house, and I thought about how he would have loved to hear the sound of laughter reverberating off the deck and out into the late summer afternoon. I thought about how the sight of those Orca whales proved one thing: despite all that’s happened, I haven’t lost my capacity for wonder. I think I just needed to see this old place again, but this time, through new eyes.

Until next time, friends.

September.

The first sunrise of September was a subtle affair. While still lovely, with brushstrokes of tangerine and topaz painted across a watercolor sky, the dawn was decidedly gentler than the ferocious fuchsia that – just a few days prior – had set the heavens aflame with a vibrancy bordering on violence. Summer was not yet gone, and the rising mercury proved it, but the golden glow that backlit Mt. Rainier and spread its warmth across the sea was a harbinger of the rapidly approaching season. Soon, it would be fall.

Still wearing my pajamas, wrapped in my Grandmother’s timeworn yellow afghan, I watched the changing colors move across the sky until I decided it was time to stumble out onto the rocky beach and capture them. Once back inside, I brewed coffee – strong and dark – and sat down with my yellow legal pad to scribble out my morning routine: three longhand pages.

It was the sixth morning I’d awoken in the house on Case Inlet, and the third I’d risen before daybreak. I had arrived on a sweltering Saturday evening in late August: tired, sweaty, and carrying the heavy weight of a month full of farewells. I had spent the first few days moving slowly through the house that used to belong to my Grandparents, half-heartedly working on a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, and fighting the fatigue I felt settling into my bones.

But this morning was different, and I knew it. The last few days I had been too comfortable. Lazy, even. Now an urgency arose within me, one that I felt in my body as much as I saw reflected in the sky. It was time to shake off the doldrums, and get to work.

I started a load of laundry, then sat down at the dining room table by the window. Looking over my list, I decided to start with the most dreaded items first. Before I began, I penned myself a note of encouragement:

The space between here and the life you want is filled with all the things you’re putting off. . .  

In truth, there was no hurry to leave the beach. My deadlines were my own, entirely self-imposed. As a bridge between one big, chaotic city and another, as a place to rest, regroup, and plan a cross country move, there was no better location. And there was something reassuring about being here: a place so familiar, among people who shared my history.

No, the need to go was a purely psychological one. Because as soon as the calendar turned to September, a date that may as well have been circled in scarlet stared out at me from the page. September 23rd. It was on that day, five years ago, that I received the worst phone call of my life: my mother was dead. Now I was here – in her favorite place – looking out at the inlet where three summers earlier we had climbed into a little tin boat, went out to sea, and scattered her ashes. And as I sat by a picture window, watching the receding tide, I made a promise: I would not mark the anniversary of her death here. I would be in New York, having already begun my new life in a new city. I would honor my mother’s memory the best way I knew how: by not ending up like her. I would not defer my dreams to a tomorrow that would never come, would not spend my life wandering down a rabbit hole of regret.

After the emails had been sent and the phone calls had been placed, I waited for high tide, put on a swimsuit and walked down to the water’s edge. Case Inlet was colder than I remembered, but then again, it had been a year since I’d last dipped my toes in that saltwater. There was only one thing to do. I threw myself into the bay, absorbing the shock of bracing cold. But as I paddled through the water, my Grandmother’s faded orange swim fins emerging and submerging with each stroke, my body slowly began to adjust. And I was OK.

I would always be OK.

Until next time, friends.

Her.

It was a Facebook “memory” that alerted me to the fact that I’d missed my grandmother’s death anniversary. I’d missed it by an entire week. I stared at my iPhone screen for a solid minute, wondering why a post from four years ago, in which I thanked friends for attending the opening weekend of a play festival that I co-produced, would trigger such heaviness in me. And then, suddenly, I knew. It was because I had written that post just one week after my grandmother died. The anniversary of her death had come and gone, and I had completely forgotten about it.

When the call came on that Saturday morning, April 13th, I didn’t answer it. There was only one reason that my eighty-six-year-old grandfather would be calling me. Ever since I had visited Grandma in the home for Alzheimer’s patients two months earlier, I had known that her end was near. Her decline was steep and rapid. She had gone from placing daily, mostly-lucid phone calls to me, to being wheelchair bound, her white blond hair tangled and swept off her face with plastic little girl barrettes, her pale blue eyes reflecting no recognition of me, all in the space of a few weeks.

I got into my car and replayed my grandfather’s message. “We’ve lost another one, Sar,” he said, his voice tired, resigned. I called him back, listened as he told me that he’d arrived at her nursing home too late to say goodbye. “I’m sorry,” I said. I told him I loved him, hung up the phone, and went to rehearsal. And I told no one – not one single, solitary person – what had happened. Not for weeks.

Looking back, I suppose the fact that I kept my grandmother’s death a secret from everyone who knew me was not particularly healthy. But at the time, my decision – at least to me – made perfect sense. I was one week out from opening a series of one-act plays, two of which I was acting in, another of which I was directing. I had a full-time job, one that I had only recently returned to after taking a leave when my father died. And it had only been seven months since the death of my mother, who had crawled inside of a vodka bottle (or more accurately, a liquor store’s worth of vodka bottles) on the heels of my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The space between the deaths of both of my parents had been less than five months, and I was tired. I had taken enough “bereavement” time. I wanted to get back to my life. I wanted to get back to work. And I had a show to open.

But four years later, I can finally admit that there’s another, darker reason why I never allowed myself to grieve my grandmother’s passing; why I don’t mourn her loss the way I’ve mourned the losses of my parents. My grandmother was not a nice person.

That’s what I’ll tell you when I’m feeling kind. What I’ll tell you when I’m feeling brutally honest is that my grandmother was an emotional terrorist. She was a serial abuser, one who reserved her worst brutality for those she claimed to love the most. I can’t count the number of times that, as a little girl, she brought me to tears by telling me something hateful about my parents. And she took immense pleasure in depositing my favorite stuffed animal, a ratty and well-loved St. Bernard I never slept without, into the trash. Her only “apology,” was to tell me I was better off without him, because he was “full of disease.”

As I got older, I got tougher. My grandmother lost the ability to make me cry. I fought back. I called her out. And the bullying stopped. But my mother? She wasn’t so lucky.

I’m glad that I’ll never know the full extent of the hell that my grandmother rained down on my sweet, emotionally sensitive mother. I know enough to know that she destroyed whatever fragile self-confidence she might have had. Even as a little girl, I remember the temper tantrums and smashed dishes, the screaming and shrieking, my grandmother accusing my Mom again and again of being a “horrible mother.” I remember the multiple “interventions,” with Mom and Grandpa raiding Grandma’s stockpile of prescription drugs and flushing them down the toilet, telling her, “Enough.”

And I know that my grandmother, who valued money and prestige above all else, forbade my Mom from pursuing the only thing she ever really dreamed of: becoming a professional tennis player. Mom – ever the dutiful daughter – obeyed, but deferring her dream was an event that changed the trajectory of her life. Even after she married my father and moved to Alaska, finally out from under her mother’s thumb, she never seemed to recover the gumption to go after her heart’s desire again.

As twisted and grotesque as it may sound, in some ways I feel “lucky” to have been born the daughter of a woman raised by an emotional abuser. My mother, never allowed to follow her own dreams, fiercely supported me in the pursuit of mine. Starved for affection by a woman who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, my Mom showered me with love, making sure I always knew that I was the center of her universe. And spending years watching the person who I loved the most never believe that she was good enough had a profound effect on me, making me determined to live my life in all the ways that she couldn’t.

Part of me will always blame my grandmother for my mother’s death. I have no doubt that her relentless abuse is the reason my Mom sought solace in the bottle in the first place. But I also know that blaming her is too easy, that life – and human beings – are more complicated than that. My grandmother was sick for a long time, longer than any of us ever knew. And my mother had her own mental health issues, which she numbed with alcohol and refused to seek professional help for. Mental illness and addiction run rampant in my family, carrying with them a legacy of dysfunction, a legacy that I am determined not to repeat. Which is why, even though I know that this essay would have horrified my mother, I also knew that I had to write it.

Family is complicated. So is love. And I believe that people are capable of harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time. For example, I can tell you that I loved my grandmother deeply, and yet most of the tears I’ve shed over her death were for myself, because I wished that she were different. I can tell you that as much as I admired my mother, I am terrified of ending up like her. And I can tell you that though I feel guilty about forgetting the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I also wish that I didn’t have to remember it. I wish that April 13th was just another day on the calendar.

Until next time, friends.

The beginning.

“some people,
when they hear
your story,
contract.
others,
upon hearing
your story,
expand.
and
this is how
you
know.”

— Nayyirah Waheed

There were a lot of friendly faces in the crowd that night. On audience left, a group of close college friends, some of whom had driven down from Northern California the night before to see the show. In another part of the theatre, buddies from the sports bar where we gather to watch our favorite football team. That Saturday evening, good friends – old and new – were in abundance.

But it was the couple sitting in the front row, audience right, that captured my attention. Two people, a man and a woman, him slumped low in his seat, his hand partially covering his face. And though I tried to focus, tried to stay present in the moment as my co-star and I began the play’s final, climactic scene, in an intimate, forty seat theatre like the Actor’s Workout Studio, it was impossible not to notice.

After the show, the couple – my aunt and uncle – found me, said some quick goodbyes, and scurried out the door. They were exhausted. Due to a powerful rain and wind storm that had blown through Southern California the day before, flooding roadways, downing trees, knocking out electricity and delaying or canceling flights into and out of Los Angeles, they had spent the entire previous day trying to get here from Seattle, finally arriving to their hotel at Universal Studios just before two a.m.

But it was more than that, and I knew it. As my uncle gave me a quick hug, his face was pained. “You’re right,” he said. “It was dark.”

My aunt – his wife – gave me a reassuring smile and squeezed his arm. “He’s having a rough time,” she told me.

We made plans to see each other the next day, and just like that, they were gone. And I went out to have drinks with my college friends, anxiety and guilt tugging at the corners of my mind.

My aunt and uncle’s trip to Los Angeles to see my play War Stories was the first time they’d seen anything I’d done on a stage, ever. In fact, I didn’t think they knew much at all about my creative life, or had read many of the things I’d written, including the – often intensely personal – essays I publish on this blog.

War Stories, while fictional, borrows heavily from my own experiences. And it’s the relationship between one of the main characters and her self-destructive, alcoholic mother, that is the most autobiographical part of the whole play.

My uncle is my mother’s brother, and her only sibling. Since my mother died four years ago, he and I have become closer, but there’s still so much about each other’s lives that we don’t know. While I’m a verbal, emotional, artist who is highly communicative about my feelings, my uncle is the opposite. More often than not, my attempts to discuss the “heavy” stuff with him are simply pushed aside. He’s not rude or dismissive about it, he’s simply not built that way. “I’m fine,” he always says.

People often say that they can’t believe I write about such personal things on this blog. The truth is, given my family history, shining a light on the darkness is less about bravery than it is about survival. Over the years, I’ve watched more than one loved one retreat into a bottle or escape into pills to numb out the painful things that they can’t or don’t know how to say. And I knew that if I didn’t find a healthier outlet for the emotions that threaten to overwhelm me, I’d end up following down that same path.

So, I talk about the painful things. I write about them. I allow myself to feel them coursing through my body. And yes, sometimes it is overwhelming to feel so much. But sharing those feelings? It helps. Because if I can find a way to articulate difficult emotions, to wrap words around them in a way that makes other people not only understand them, but feel something too, those emotions no longer own me. They no longer overwhelm me. And I know that I’m not alone.

But not everyone is like me. Not everyone is so comfortable talking about the dark places in their lives. And that Saturday night after I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle, and for the entire next day, I felt intensely guilty for not being more sensitive to that.

We met for an early dinner the next evening. And as I stood near the host station, waiting for my aunt and uncle to arrive, I felt nervous and sick, my stomach twisted in knots. But a moment later, they walked in, and my uncle pulled me into a hug. And I exhaled.

And over the next hour, something remarkable happened. My uncle, a man who I’ve always suspected feels much more than he’s able to say, wanted to talk.

“It was dark,” he said again, about the play. “And it hit close to home. But I know if you can make me feel that, you’re a talented writer. It was a really good play, Sarah.”

I was stunned. It was far from the reaction I had expected. Still, I felt the need to explain myself, to apologize. “I’ve just become so used to telling my sad stories to people who don’t really know me,” I said, “That sometimes I forget that those stories belong to other people, too.”

As we talked about what was next, for the play, for me, my uncle said something else that stuck with me. “I feel like you’re right at the beginning of something,” he said.

The beginning? Oy. At thirty-six, out of college for more than a dozen years and making art for nearly twenty, it was hard to accept that I could be at the beginning of anything. After all, shouldn’t I be further along by now?

But maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the beginning. Not the beginning, beginning, but the beginning of something new. The beginning of a new chapter, one with a more defined path. The beginning of finally knowing what it is I’m supposed to do, and of moving forward in the world with a new sense of self-assurance and a new authority about who I am.

And P.S. – remember that Paris trip I mentioned in my last post? Well, I’m going. In fact, I’ll be there next week, after spending a few days in London to visit friends. And who knows? Maybe my next post on Extra Dry Martini will be a dispatch from the City of Lights. . .

Until next time, friends.

The beach house.

It will be the past

and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

but as it is remembered. 

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever.

– Patrick Phillips

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I found the box in a small, seaside boutique in Laguna Beach, CA, a few days before Christmas.  It was compact, rectangular in shape, and carved out of curly maple.  On the lid, an inscription: “Our memories of the ocean will linger on long after our footprints in the sand are gone.”  Perfect, I thought, as the saleswoman carefully wrapped it in tissue and secured it into the cardboard gift box that I would place into my carry-on and take with me on my flight to Seattle.

Except that it wasn’t perfect, as I discovered upon my arrival at my grandparents’ beach house two days later.  It was too small.  We had kept more of her than I had remembered.  I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I had to do something.  The hideous black box was no longer an option.

The next day, feeling determined, I pawed through boxes labeled “Sarah” in what had once been my grandparents’ dog kennel and now served as a repository for all the items that remained from my parents’ Olympia house.  There must be something in here that will work, I thought.

And then, among the photo albums and mementos from my high school bedroom, I found it.  I paused for a minute, thinking, running my fingers along the ridges in the dark wood.  The words “A Scientific Cigar,” and “Aromatic – Mild – Satisfying” made me giggle.  No, I couldn’t possibly. . . Could I?

I opened the box to find a treasure trove of items contained inside.  A handwritten note my dad had written to my mom, years ago, penned in his messy scrawl.  A gold ID bracelet that had once fit my child wrist perfectly, now too small, my name engraved in cursive next to a tiny diamond star.  A trio of pink Elvis Presley postage stamps (Mom’s favorite singer).  A photograph of our beloved West Highland Terrier, Max.  And an amber colored agate stone found – by me – on the shores of Case Inlet.

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I carried the box into my grandparents’ bedroom and set it down on the nightstand.  I opened the hated black receptacle and removed the thick plastic bag, surveying its contents.  For a moment, it struck me how squeamish I’d once been about handling this bag, how afraid I’d been the first time I’d pried open the black box.  But now, I was almost businesslike in my approach.  Isn’t it bizarre how the passage of time can make even the strangest things seem normal?

Inside my suitcase, I retrieved a small lavender (her favorite color) pouch, emptied out its contents (my jewelry) and gently folded the thick plastic bag inside, zipping it closed.  Secured inside that soft purple bag, nestled among the items already living within the cigar box, all that remained of my mother – that we hadn’t already scattered into the sea – just fit.

Now, I can understand why a weathered old cigar box might seem like an odd place to store my mother’s ashes.  But believe me when I tell you:  it is not just any cigar box.  Clean and without any trace of cigar smell, it once belonged to my great uncle Vernon, who died when I was twelve.  He and my mother were very close, and for much of his life he served as a gentle buffer between her and her mother (his sister), a domineering and frequently emotionally abusive woman.  When Vernon died, the cigar box was one of a handful of things that my mother salvaged from his house in San Francisco, and she – perhaps inexplicably – gave it to me as a present.  Maybe because it felt like a relic from a bygone era and I’d always been drawn to all things vintage, I loved that box.  Over the years, I’d used it to store everything from trinkets to art supplies to photographs.  And now it would contain the last of my mother, along with a handful of cherished items that reminded me of her.  As I placed the box on a window ledge overlooking the sea, I smiled and thought, “Perfect.”

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The next morning, Christmas Day, dawned bright and beautiful.  I sat at the living room table, in the same spot where Grandpa used to park his wheelchair, spending hours watching the tides roll in and out, never tiring of the view.  As I drank coffee, marveling at how blue the sky was for December, how serene and still Case Inlet was, like some enormous silvery mirror reflecting the heavens back upon themselves, a large flock of Canada geese descended from the sky and gracefully alighted onto the surface of the water.  “Look Grandpa,” I found myself saying aloud, “Your favorite.”  And then I smiled again.

For now, my grandparents’ beach house sits empty.  But I know that someday, this house will once again bustle with activity.  There will be summer potlucks and clambakes and bonfires on the beach, just like there were in the old days.  People will gather for parties on the deck and they’ll swim in the sea and have sleepovers on the outdoor balcony, and laughter and love and life will once again pulsate through these walls.  It will look different than it once did, but it will be just as joyful.  Those of us that remain, and who remember, will make sure of that.

But sometimes, before you can move forward, you have to go back.  Not to dwell in the past, but simply to make peace with it.  To look every monster that has held you in its grip square in the face and say, “Enough.”

And that black plastic box?  That soulless, impenetrable, ugly receptacle with a faded sticker bearing my mother’s name slapped across the front?  I happily, and with great joy, threw it into the trash.  And I didn’t look back.  Not once.

Until next time, friends.

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Off the record.

Late in the evening on July 4th, I sat alone on an expansive wooden deck overlooking the water, a cinnamon-scented candle glowing beside me, breathing in the stars and gunpowder as fireworks exploded and unfurled their brilliant colors across the night sky.

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Our own little family celebration on the rocky shores of Case Inlet had just ended. My aunt and uncle had gone to bed; my cousins had gone home. It was a subdued holiday – nothing like the ruckus of previous years – but we built a bonfire on the beach and watched the colored lights boom and sparkle above the bay, and that was enough for me.

I have spent countless Fourth of July holidays on that beach and each one of them has been different. My grandfather – who bought the land all the way back in 1959 – had a saying that he wrote to me, years ago, in a letter, which I’ve cited on this blog more than once: “The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.”

He’s right, and he isn’t. The beach is very different than the magical place I remember from childhood; both the passage of time and the passing of loved ones have seen to that. But more than fifty years after my grandparents cemented this spot as a permanent part of our family’s legacy, placing a sign reading, Popelkas: Off the Record, at the entrance to the property – a nod to their careers as court reporters – its fundamentals remain the same: it’s still a small slice of heaven tucked away on one of Puget Sound’s inland waters, the saltwater bay framed by banks of evergreen trees, the stately Mount Rainier towering above, keeping watch over us all.

This Fourth of July placed me in uncharted territory. It was my first visit to the beach since Grandpa’s hospice last fall, my first time ever being there without him. My decision to go was last minute – ticket booked a few days before travel – and this visit would be in addition to another, longer trip I’d already planned just five weeks later, in August. But the last few months in Los Angeles had left me exhausted and in need of a spiritual reboot, and the beach had always had the power to ground me in a way that the gritty, noisy, crowded, city never could. And so I went.

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It was not a perfect trip, not by any means. Unexpected family drama bubbled to the surface, reopening wounds that I thought had closed. I spent much of the emotionally charged four-day visit feeling nostalgic for a past that no longer existed.

But I slept. And I wrote. And I wandered the beach, searching for seashells and agate stones. I ran three miles on the shoulder of the heavily forested Grapeview Loop Road, and was impressed – as I always am – by the friendliness of the locals. (One motorist even stopped, rolled down her window, and offered me a bottle of water. City girl that I am, I declined.) One morning, I arose early, drank coffee, and watched through my window as the sun stubbornly pushed through layers of clouds, slowly turning the morning from grey to blue as slivers of light danced across the sound, causing the water to glimmer and dance like liquid silver.

And gradually, I grew calmer and more centered and I felt my equilibrium returning. Because despite the way that life shakes and shifts around me, despite how greatly the beach’s present reality differs from my past memories of the place, there’s something that continues to hold true: my history is firmly anchored there. And whenever I return, when I remind myself of who I am and where I’ve come from, I know myself just a little bit better. And it’s in that space, no matter how confused or lost or frustrated I may have been, that I’m able to figure out what it is I want to do next.

“The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.”

Until next time, friends.

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Gerry.

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

If you can use some exotic booze

There’s a bar in far Bombay

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

The tide is high on the morning of Halloween. So high, that the magic rock is hidden from view. “Where is it?” someone asks. “Underwater,” I say.

Grandma and Grandpa

As we reminisce about Grandpa’s daily swims in Case Inlet – the way he circled that tall, narrow, granite rock formation as though it were his prey, his snorkel mask strapped on, swim fins slicing through the water – I realize I don’t know the answer to the most basic of questions: “Why is the rock magic?”

No one seems to know. Finally, the only reply that makes sense: “Because Grandpa said it was.”

My grandfather, Gerald James Popelka (or “Gerry,” to those who knew him), lived a whole half century before I met him. There are so many things about his life that I don’t know, but what is clear to me as we gather on this Halloween morning, a group of twenty or so family and close friends, the hospice chaplain, and a Vietnam veteran who will honor Grandpa for his service as a Navy court reporter during World War II and the Korean War, is this: it was more than just a rock that he made magic, it was this whole place, this handful of acres tucked away on western Washington’s Case Inlet, a place that has been known to my family for the last five and a half decades simply as “the beach.”

The beach isn’t special simply because of its picturesque setting on a saltwater bay framed by tall banks of evergreen trees, Mt. Rainier towering above, keeping watch over us all. It’s special because over so many years, during all those summers spent boating and swimming, digging clams on the rocky beach, building great big bonfires, roasting S’mores and telling stories under the stars, this place has always been infused with the same spirit of delight with which my Grandfather undertook everything he did. As my Uncle Glenn said during closing remarks at Grandpa’s Navy blessing, looking around at the place, at all of us: “All of this is because of you, Dad.”

July 2005 Joyride

My Grandpa Gerry was a spirited Bohemian whose sense of humor and zest for life were utterly infectious. He was a lover of the lexicon, honing his skills by working daily crossword puzzles and ever ready to stump some poor unsuspecting victim with an impossible-to-figure-out vocabulary word. He was a practical joker, often following up a witty wisecrack with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The bold striped t-shirts he favored matched his perfect shock of thick white hair and his larger than life personality.

Grandpa was tremendous fun to be around, but above all else, he was kind. To me, he was a bright light that illuminated the dark corners of an often sad and lonely childhood. He was the one person with whom I never fought, never exchanged a harsh word. In fact, I can’t remember him ever saying an unkind word about anyone.

On October 12th, I received word that Grandpa – at 89 years old – was terminally ill. After a recent series of what can only be described as traumatic experiences with death – my mother, my father, my grandmother – this sudden turn of events felt unnecessarily cruel. After so much loss, how could I possibly be expected to say goodbye to my beloved grandfather too? It wasn’t fair. I needed more time.

Hospice prepared us for the worst, telling us that given Grandpa’s failing liver, intense pain, nausea and heavy bleeding were all likely to happen “near the end.” As the social worker cautioned, “People hope their loved ones will pass away quietly in their sleep, but that rarely happens. Dying is usually quite an active process.”

Sarah Grandpa Black and White

I wasn’t ready, but I went to the beach anyway. For sixteen days, Grandpa and I sat together. We looked at old photos and reminisced. We shared secret jokes, poking fun at those who weren’t in on them. We counted the Canada geese that glided serenely across Case Inlet and congregated on a neighbor’s lawn.

But after sixteen days, without a dramatic change in Grandpa’s health, I headed back to Los Angeles with a plan to return in two weeks. It was only four days later that I got the call: Grandpa was weak, bedridden, and asking for me. Back to the beach I went.

I arrived on a Tuesday night. Friends and family were gathered in Grandpa’s room, and outside, the wind howled and rain poured. Grandpa drifted in and out of sleep, but he opened his eyes long enough to look at me and squeeze my hand. He tried to speak and couldn’t, but I told him that it was OK. I already knew.

I awoke the next morning, Veteran’s Day, to the sun streaming through my window, the clear blue skies and calm winds an unexpected gift after such a long and miserable night. Grandpa was sleeping peacefully, so I took a break to do some work. Around lunchtime, Glenn informed me he’d just gone to see Grandpa and told him that my mother was waiting for him to start cocktail hour. “Don’t be late,” he said.

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Now this next part will sound like I’ve made it up, because it’s the type of Hollywood ending a writer like me would invent, but I swear on everything that I am that it’s exactly what happened. I took my laptop to Grandpa’s room, and as my Aunt Sandy searched through his decades’ old collection of compact discs, I pulled up an iTunes playlist of standards. I tried a few oldies before I settled on a Sinatra classic. I sat next to his bed and turned up the volume:

Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru

In llama land there’s a one-man band

And he’ll toot his flute for you

Come fly with me, let’s take off in the blue

Grandpa’s breathing slowed considerably and halted for several beats in between breaths. This was different, and we knew it. We called Glenn, who appeared in the doorway of Grandpa’s room somewhere around here:

Once I get you up there where the air is rarified

We’ll just glide, starry-eyed

Once I get you up there I’ll be holding you so near

You may hear angels cheer ’cause we’re together

Before Sinatra had finished singing, my grandfather quietly, gently, drew his last breath. As we hovered around his bed in a sort of reverent silence, waiting, knowing, yet not quite ready to speak the words out loud, I imagined Grandpa sitting with my Mom in the cozy living room of their old West Seattle house on Beach Drive, sipping martinis, enjoying the view of Puget Sound, Ol’ Blue Eyes softly crooning in the background.

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I inherited my love of language from my grandfather. And I believe that a wordsmith like him would understand better than most that there are times when words simply aren’t enough. After all, how could I possibly explain to you that after all of my fear surrounding what would happen when my grandfather died, that what actually did happen was so beautiful that it somehow made all the other deaths a little easier to bear? How could I express to you the depth of my gratitude for an exit so gentle that it helped restore my faith that sometimes, good things do happen to good people? And most importantly, how could I possibly capture in words the essence of a man who meant so much to so many, so that you could know him as I knew him, love him as I loved him?

I can’t. Words are not enough. I can only tell you that my grandfather, Gerald James Popelka, was the best man I ever knew.

And he made us all believe that a rock was magic, just by saying it was so.

Weather-wise it’s such a lovely day

You just say the words and we’ll beat the birds

Down to Acapulco Bay

It’s perfect for a flying honeymoon, they say

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

 Until next time, friends.

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The God of Death.

“What do we say to the God of Death?”

“Not today.”

– Game of Thrones

Today, I think I will swim. I announce this to Grandpa first thing in the morning, and he looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “It’s too damn cold!” he sputters.

It is too damn cold. Especially without the aid of vodka to warm my blood, which, today, on my seventh day at the beach, I’ve decided to stop drinking.

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It’s sort of shocking that I would drink at all, really, given the fact that it’s what killed my mother, and given the fact that here I am again, confronted with another family member with another failing liver. This time, the organ occupies the body of my 89-year-old grandfather, Gerry. But drink I have, vodka tonics every night as soon as the clock strikes five, with Grandpa’s symptoms on full display before me like some sort of ghastly cautionary tale: jaundiced skin and eyes lit up like a neon school bus, distended belly covered in bumpy red scabs, swollen ankles, flaking, itching skin and eyes that burn and sting and scratch like sandpaper. The dark, blood-colored bruises that cover his bony arms are the things that scare me the most, for they foreshadow the potential horror a hospice nurse warned us about: the bleeding. The tremendous amount of bleeding that can occur “when the time comes.” I think I can handle just about anything but the bleeding. “If that happens,” the nurse tells me, “Call hospice immediately. You shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

There is comfort in hospice, in knowing that they exist. There is less comfort in the “comfort kit” they provide, equipped with drugs I hope we won’t have to use. One of Grandpa’s caregivers tells me she’s not comfortable administering morphine, because she doesn’t want to “do it wrong.” “I’m not trained for that,” she says. Right, like I am, I think, but instead, I just say, “Thank you for telling me.” And I mean it. The business of dying is full of surprises, so the fewer we can avoid up front the better, as far as I’m concerned.

It has been a busy day. There is an appointment with a social worker, then another with a nurse. I send emails back and forth with a chaplain who’s arranging a small ceremony at Grandpa’s home to honor his years of service in the Navy, during both the Korean War and World War II.

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Throughout all of this, Grandpa is tired and intermittently naps, but stays mostly upbeat. It is amazing to me how open he is, how willing he is to talk to the strangers entering his home, to do his best to answer their questions. He keeps asking how he can help them, which they find endlessly endearing. Though he’s confused and groggy, he seems aware that these people are trying to make him feel better. He even accepts a blessing from the chaplain, which shocks me as he hasn’t practiced his Catholic faith in decades. Maybe he’s starting to make peace with what’s coming. At least, I can hope.

Every morning that he wakes up – his razor sharp wit and perfect head of thick white hair still intact in spite of his failing body – feels like a miracle. And every evening that I go to bed, I pray that the next morning, he won’t wake up. It’s not that I don’t want him to live; in fact, quite the opposite. It’s just that I know this won’t get any better, and for every day that remains, the fear of decline into the horror that may come – the pain, the hallucinations, the blood – becomes more real.

So I pray. I haven’t prayed in years but it’s amazing how quickly you can pick it back up, if you’re desperate enough. I know the thing I’m praying for – the quick, easy death – is unlikely. All the nurses say so. But I pray for it anyway. I pray that this kind, gentle man who has been through so much in his 80th decade – a debilitating stroke, the deaths of his daughter, his son-in-law, and his wife of sixty years – will be allowed to slip quietly away, in his sleep.

I don’t know what is coming. And the not knowing is terrifying. But today, on my seventh day at the beach, I decide to face it without the aid of vodka tonics. After all, they’re not working anyway. They aren’t enough to numb this out, or to help me pretend, as some other members of my family would like to do, that this isn’t happening.

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So instead, I wait. I wait for high tide and a break in the rain and then, like the California girl I’ve almost become, I slip on a mismatched bikini top and bottom under my clothes. I find Grandpa, who is seated at his dining room table, looking out the picture window at Case Inlet, as he does during most of his waking hours. I give him a quick hug and then I tell him I’m going for a swim. He gives me a confused look and I’m not sure that he understands, given it’s close to his bedtime and the meds are kicking in. I go outside, strip down to my swimsuit, and grab the faded orange Sears brand flippers that I scribbled my name on years ago with a sharpie (as though anyone else would want them). Fins in hand, wrapped in a towel, I walk down to the water’s edge.

I know that – in late October – the steely grey salt water will be a shock. I also know that the only way to do this is to plunge in quickly, before I feel ready. I’m not ready, I think, just before I hurl my body into the sea. I hit the water with a scream as the icy cold sears through me. But it doesn’t matter because I’m in, dogpaddling through the sound. I only last a minute or two before the shivering overtakes me, but as I make my way toward shore, I see Grandpa, watching from his seat by the window, a grin spread across his face.

Maybe diving into the frigid waters of Case Inlet during this overcast, rainy fall day does make me a bit crazy.  But as I approach the beach cabin, dripping wet and trying not to shake, I see Grandpa flashing me a thumbs up sign through the window, just before his caregiver wheels him off to bed. Maybe I am crazy. But maybe I’m his kind of crazy. And maybe – in spite of what lies ahead – that’s why I’m here.

Until next time, friends.

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The beach.

If only you’d have known me before the accident/

For with that grand collision came a grave consequence/

Receptors overloaded, they burst and disconnect/

‘Til there was little feeling, please work with what is left.

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I’m running along Grapeview Loop Road in the sleepy Western Washington town of Allyn. It’s Friday afternoon and the rain that has been falling steadily all morning has let up, topaz blue skies peeking through the still stormy, not-quite-white cotton candy clouds. It’s what people in the Pacific Northwest call a “sun break,” and I’m taking full advantage of it. Rain is usually an unwelcome sight in this part of the world during the late summer months, but it’s desperately needed due to abnormally dry weather conditions and a series of terrible fires that are pummeling the Eastern side of the state. For me, the rain also offers a welcome respite from the 100-degree temperatures currently baking Southern California, where I live. As I imagine the wall of heat permeating my little stucco bungalow in West Los Angeles, I am grateful that I’m here and not there.

As I wave appreciatively at the motorists who drift toward the median, giving me the widest possible berth as I jog by on the shoulder, I savor the delicious irony of the Death Cab for Cutie song, The Ghosts of Beverly Drive, pulsating through my headphones. It’s a song about damaged and jaded people in Los Angeles, people with “no firsts anymore.”

I don’t know why, I don’t know why/

I return to the scenes of these crimes/

Where the hedgerows slowly wind/

Through the ghosts of Beverly Drive.

While I don’t consider myself to be damaged or jaded by Los Angeles, after sixteen years of living there, I understand where those lyrics come from. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve changed dramatically from the eighteen-year-old college student who first arrived there, bright-eyed and full of hope. It took me years to get to where I am now, living a life that actually fits me, rather than trying too hard to be someone I’m not in a desperate effort to impress other people or feel worthy of their attention.

And yet. Despite the fact that I have greater ownership over my life than I’ve ever had, L.A. still doesn’t feel like home. It never really has. Not in the way that this place does: the place where I’m currently jogging down the road.

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For just over a week, I’ve been staying in Allyn, in an area of the Pacific Northwest that my family simply calls, “the beach.” It’s a large parcel of waterfront land overlooking Case Inlet, a piece of property first purchased by my grandparents in 1959, when they were court reporters working in Seattle and looking for a place to build a summer home.

As a child, I remember the beach as nothing short of magical. It was far away from everything, tucked away at the edge of the world like some sort of family secret. I spent all of my summers there: foraging for driftwood to build great big bonfires, roasting s’mores under the starlight, digging for clams at low tide (still the best clams you’ve ever tasted), cruising around Case Inlet in my uncle’s boat, dogpaddling through the saltwater and dodging big scary jellyfish.

As I got older, the magic began to fade as reality set in. My first cousin, who was, for many years, the closest thing I had to a brother, turned to drugs and violence and severed all ties with our family. My once vital and full-of-life grandfather suffered a stroke, leaving him wheelchair-bound and depressed. My dad was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, but my mother shocked everyone by dying first, just a few months before him. My maternal grandmother quickly followed suit, succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease that had gone undiagnosed for years.

It got to the point where I started to hate the beach, because every visit was a painful reminder that so many people I loved had been so abruptly ripped away. Memories of carefree childhood summers were replaced with harsh adult realities like probate court, property tax, and estate planning. The left turn off of Grapeview Loop Road and on to our property – with its still, serene view of Mt. Rainier rising above Case Inlet – no longer made my heart swell. It leveled me.

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It took some time, many return visits, and no small amount of healing to realize that in spite of all of the change and loss, the beach is deeply rooted in my DNA. Not long ago, among a box full of mementos, I found a letter that my grandfather wrote me upon my college graduation, just over a decade ago. I was about to embark on my new, exciting life as an adult in Los Angeles, and he sweetly implored me not to forget where I came from. He closed the letter with these words: The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.

He’s right. I have changed. We all have. But as life shapes and shifts around me, the beach remains a constant. During these last three years of navigating emotional chaos and loss and questioning my life choices, years where I’ve slept with one eye open due to nightmares and panic attacks and occasionally crippling anxiety, the beach is the only place where I’ve continued to feel sheltered and safe. It’s the only place where I’ve been able to submit to deep grief and let it wash over me, allowing the healing process to begin. It’s the only place where my equilibrium returns, and where I’ve often thought – sometimes in spite of all evidence to the contrary – that everything is going to be OK.

It’s ironic to think that it took my mother dying for me to understand why she loved this place so much. Why it was always, throughout her life, her True North. Why she insisted, as far back as I can remember, that her ashes be scattered here, so that she could forever be a part of the sea and the sky and the evergreen trees. The other day, as I swam in Case Inlet, feeling the tingle of saltwater in my mouth, with the air perfectly still and everything around me slowing down, I whispered aloud, almost as though it were a prayer: I get it, Mom. And I wonder if somehow she heard me. I wonder if somehow she knew.

The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.

Until next time, friends.

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