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.

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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Falling or Flying.

There was nothing particularly special about that Wednesday, other than the fact that it was the day that I would drive my Grandfather’s old powder blue Honda CR-V along curving country highways, eventually leading to a bridge, and that I’d drive over that bridge, and I’d cross that body of water, and then, once on the other side, I’d go to a business meeting, followed by a much-anticipated dinner with a dear friend. There was nothing particularly special about the minute or so that I’d spend up high, suspended over water, moving fast. After all, I’d done it dozens and dozens of times before. There was nothing special about it at all, except for the fact that it terrified me, and the night before I was due to make that drive, I couldn’t sleep, and I rose early, well before the sun came up.

Rowboat Sunset

In retrospect, the details of how I crossed that bridge don’t seem all that important. What is important is that I had to do it, and so, I did. I did it even though my palms sweat and my heart raced and my legs were wobbly and strangely on fire. I turned up the song on the radio, and I focused on the exhale and the inhale of my breath, and I thought about how Mount Rainier – standing strong and snowcapped and stunning just out my driver’s side window – felt like an old friend. And before I knew it, I was over that bridge, and I had steered Grandpa’s car from the highway on to the crush of Interstate-5, and I was relieved.

The next day, on the way to meet some friends for lunch, I followed different winding country highways to Olympia, the town where I went to high school, the town where I’d learned to drive, the town where I’d first dreamed my biggest dreams and made the plans that sent me to Los Angeles to pursue them. And this time, I felt better, almost normal, in fact, because the sun was shining and the water was sparkling and I felt happy. And I barely thought about that other time, that December, driving those exact same roads, hurtling through the darkness, Dad next to me, drifting in and out of consciousness, the wind pummeling my mother’s SUV and the rain spitting buckets, so much rain that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I gripped the steering wheel with everything I had just to keep us on the road, all the while stealing glances at my father, wondering if he was sleeping or dying, saying a silent prayer with every mile marker we passed, because every mile brought us closer to home, even though it wasn’t home any more, not since Mom died, not since Dad got sick.

I came of age driving Washington State’s rural highways, snaking over waterways and crossing bridges and winding through forests, so how could it be that the thing that raised me had now become the thing that frightened me? I suppose that’s the power of post traumatic stress, the way that it can shake you and alter your consciousness, making you feel like a stranger in your own body, making you doubt everything you thought you knew. I’m not a solider. I’ve never served in the military. But I’ve been to war. And I won; or at least I think that I have. But on some days, and in some ways, those battles still rage on.

Puget Sound

I recently told a friend that I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. The remark was off the cuff and meant to be a sort of joke, but in truth, I meant it. My whole life, I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know how to name it, or how to talk about it. Instead, I tried to control it, to deny it, to tamp it down. And for a while, I was convinced that I had beaten my fears into submission. But then along came a tornado of tragedy, a violent storm of death and loss that quickly and swiftly eviscerated my carefully constructed façade that I was brave and strong and that I had it all together.

The storm taught me that nothing in life is certain, a scary prospect for a control freak like myself. But it also taught me that the only way out is through, and that if I don’t want my fears to control me, I have to surrender to them, to walk into them, and to thank them for being here, for reminding me of what’s important.

I had been staying at the beach for almost a week when something rather strange happened. I was paddling around Case Inlet, soothed by saltwater, utterly tranquil, when not far away, a curious seal popped his head above the water. He stared at me and I stared back at him, and before logic or reason could intervene, I began to swim towards him. Sensing a threat, he dove beneath the surface of the water. But I kept on swimming, and as I did, I made my voice a song and cast it out across the sea. “Hello, Mr. Seal,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” And he seemed to understand, because he popped his head above the surface again, and froze there for a minute, just looking at me.

Side View of the Cabin

This went on for several minutes, our water dance, the diving and re-emerging, both of us circling each other, watching, considering, keeping a safe distance but drawing ever closer. I wondered what he made of me, this strange fish in black and white bikini bottoms and ruby red rash guard and faded orange swim fins. And when we were quite close to each other, he dove under again, and as I treaded water, looking for him, I suddenly realized something: I was a long way from shore, and I was alone, and in the murky saltwater, clouded up as it was by sand and seaweed, I wouldn’t be able to see the seal coming, wouldn’t know where he’d emerge next, and if he decided to attack me, or bite me, or pull me under the water, I wouldn’t be able to escape.

And there it was, that fear again, pulsing through my veins like a jolt of ice water. I turned toward the shore and I swam as fast as I could, legs pumping, swim fins slicing though the bay. And several moments later I turned back and I saw my seal again, further away now, but still watching me. He cast one last curious glance my way – a sort of sad farewell – and then turned to swim off in the opposite direction. And in that moment, I knew that he had never meant to hurt me, just like I had never meant to hurt him.

I’m a realist. I know that I’ll never fully be free from the fears that plague my worried mind. On some days, I feel pretty good, like I could do just about anything. And on other days, like the Wednesday when I drove over that bridge, it was all I could do just to get through it. I used to think that soldiering on and suffering in silence was brave. It’s not. It only makes the fear worse. What is brave is being vulnerable enough to talk about the places that scare me, and to run the risk that by telling you that sometimes, when I’m driving my car on the freeway, I feel like I’m moving so fast I won’t be able to stop and I’ll fly through the windshield and hurtle into space, that you’ll think I’m crazy and irrational. And maybe you will. But then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll read this and think, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one,” and you’ll realize – as I’m realizing – that none of us are truly ever alone in this strange and beautiful experiment we call life.

Can we ever really know if we’re falling or flying? I’m not sure. But maybe the answer to that question is simple. Maybe it’s the ones who decide to fly – in spite of their fears – that are the ones who do.

Until next time, friends.

Sarah Black and White

Grateful.

Friends, I’d like you to meet Rick Lewis and his wife, Karrin.

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Rick dated my Mom in high school and on July 20, 1969, they watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon, through a black and white satellite feed broadcast from space, on a tiny TV set at my Grandparents’ beach cabin in Allyn, WA; the same waterfront paradise where I’ve been staying for the past week.

After my mother died, Rick found me (ahem, Facebook stalked me) and became my pen pal, but we only met in person for the first time yesterday. He hadn’t been out to the beach since that moon landing, nearly fifty years ago. But yesterday afternoon, on a perfect August day, he and his wife came by and piloted their boat toward shore and I jumped in, and we spent the afternoon telling stories and laughing and drinking wine and eating tapas and cruising around Case Inlet, the same body of water that my mother loved her whole life, the same body of water where two summers ago, my Aunt and Uncle and I climbed into a little tin boat and went out to sea to scatter her ashes.

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These last few weeks have been a wildly euphoric magic carpet ride, capped by such an incredibly special week at the beach with my family. I almost can’t believe how wonderful it all has been, so much so that I haven’t even really been able to sleep, probably because part of me is afraid this is all some sort of crazy dream.

As I write this, I’m crying, because being this happy has made me realize that I think I’d given up on the idea that I ever would be again. I thought the old Sarah, the sunshine-eyed girl that my Dad used to teasingly call Polyanna, was gone forever. Not because I’m a negative person – quite the opposite – but because for so long everything good seemed to be followed up by something horrifying and tragic and I had spent years crushed underneath the weight of so much sorrow and grief and pain that I simply couldn’t see my way out of it.

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I don’t know if it’s God or angels or magic or karma or what, but whatever force is at work in me now, I am just so grateful, grateful, grateful. I didn’t know my heart had the capacity to hold so much joy, but at 35 years old, it feels like I’m finally waking up to the beauty of what it means to be alive.

If you’re going through something, please hold on. Do it for me. Just over a year ago, I was crying so much I developed a paranoid fear of dying from dehydration (doesn’t that sound stupid and hilarious now?), and I was so achingly sad that out of desperation, I started writing myself “Get Well Soon” cards, putting them in the mail, and sending them to myself. I have been to the brink, and I have known real darkness, and somehow, some way, I came out the other side. And life is better and more beautiful than anything I could have ever dreamed. If I can get here from there, then trust me, so can you. Nothing is permanent in this life, my friends, not even our troubles. Believe that. I am living proof.

Until next time,

xx

Sarah

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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.”

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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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Doe Bay.

I’m sitting on Meditation Point, a promontory overlooking the sea, trying to decide where to fix my gaze. The unseasonably warm October weather has abruptly turned cold, and I’m shivering in my thin flannel shirt. I long for the puffy down jacket I left behind in the Retreat House, but I brush the longing aside, choosing instead to focus my attention on the rippling waters of Otter’s Cove, and the fog rolling over the tops of impossibly tall evergreen trees.

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A few minutes ago, as part of her workshop at Write Doe Bay, papercut artist Nikki McClure led us on a walk through the woods, instructing us to remain silent as we followed the forested trail toward the overlook. Rather than speak, we were meant to simply observe the natural beauty all around us, find a spot to settle in, and sketch what we saw.

As our group of writers trudged along, passing campsites, we encountered a middle-aged couple cavorting among the trees, the door of their yurt flung open as they enjoyed a morning picnic. They hollered “hello!” at us, and though I (mostly) obeyed the instructions to stay quiet, the pair’s unchecked exuberance left me unable to suppress a chuckle. I wanted to shout greetings back at them, but instead, I smiled. A smile that said, “I know just how you feel.”

I’ve been back from Doe Bay for just over a week, and though it was my second time attending Write, this trip was a markedly different experience for me. Sure, the teaching artists were different, as were most of the attendees. But one year later, I was also different. And it was this difference that I found to be the most striking.

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There’s a phrase that the founders of Write often use when referring to the workshop and to Doe Bay itself: The power of a place to unlock you. To underscore this idea, participants exchange vintage keys at the close of the workshop, placing them around each other’s necks on a string of suede.

But here’s the thing: if a person is going to be unlocked, they have to be willing to open up. And last year, I wasn’t. I came to Doe Bay fragile and frightened, hollowed out by tragedy, and desperately seeking some magic elixir to heal my battered psyche. I listened to the powerful stories of the other writers. I was moved. And I tried my best to be present. But if I’m honest, I wasn’t able to allow myself to participate in the workshop in any meaningful way.

Fast forward one year later. On this visit, waking up to the staggering sunrise outside the window of my cabin felt like nothing short of a miracle. On this visit, I found myself passionately curious about all of the attendees, wanting to connect with each and every one of them – even if only for a few minutes – in the short time we had together. And on this visit, the fear that churned in my stomach at the thought of reading my unpolished workshop writing or deeply personal stories from my life served as motivation to jump in and share, rather than something that held me back.

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During her workshop at Write, Jenny Feldon asked us to consider changing one thing upon our return to our “normal” lives. “Change one thing,” she said, “and believe that other changes will follow.”

One year later, with Doe Bay as my barometer, I can tell you that, for me, many things have changed. Maybe the island and the rolling fog and the space we share together over the course of those three days really are magic. And maybe I simply needed to try again, to come back to this beautiful place tucked away amidst the trees, to realize how much – over the last year – I have been coming back to myself.

The power of a place to unlock you.

Until next time, friends.

Doe Bay Fall 2015

The memory of a place.

We received a brief respite from the heat this week in Los Angeles – even a desperately needed bit of rain – before the mercury began to spike again, signaling the arrival of another sweltering September weekend. In all the years I’ve lived here, I always remember September being hot, but never quite as insufferable as the recent Sunday evening when I returned to L.A. after a two-week absence. Upon crossing the threshold of the little stucco box that is my one-bedroom apartment, I was greeted by a wall of heat so humid, so stale, and so oppressive, that it nearly immobilized me. As I began to unpack, giant beads of sweat dripping down my nose, I imagined I was back in my seat on the Amtrak Cascades, gazing dreamily out the rain-kissed window at Puget Sound, the train pressing steadily onward toward British Columbia.

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Is it possible to feel homesick for a place that was never really home? While it’s true that sandwiched between my youth in Anchorage, Alaska and my adult life in Los Angeles, I did spend four years of high school in the Pacific Northwest town of Olympia, Washington, that was merely a blip, and the late 90’s were so long ago. Over the course of my life, I’ve been less of a resident of the Pacific Northwest, and more of a frequent visitor.

Still. Nearly all of my family – at least the family members that I know – live somewhere between Anchorage and Medford, Oregon, with most of them tracing their roots to Washington State and Oregon. And while Mom and I joined Dad in Alaska shortly after my birth at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, Mom never fully settled into life in Anchorage. The Pacific Northwest was in her blood, and we returned there often. Many of my childhood memories are hazy mental photographs of my grandparents’ home on Beach Drive in West Seattle: playing catch in the long driveway, Grandpa’s rose garden, the living room with its seascapes and sea gull décor, the blond shag carpeting and terrier (Benji) to match.

And then of course there’s the Beach – the property on Case Inlet in Southwest Washington that I wrote about at length in my last post. That place is not only where several of my close family members reside, it is forever entrenched in my history.

As beautiful as the Pacific Northwest is, it has been difficult for me not to feel a bit haunted whenever I return there. Amid the inlets and elbows of Puget Sound, the tall evergreen trees, the gorgeous views of Mount Rainier, are memories of people that are no longer living, and a life that’s no longer mine.

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But this time – and I’m not quite sure why – the ghosts of the past seemed to peacefully coexist with the experiences of the present. The familiar was no longer haunting; it was a source of comfort. The Pacific Northwest was markedly different, yet ever the same.

The tree-lined drive along Highway 3 into Shelton – where I took my driver’s test –this time made in Grandpa’s ice blue Honda CR-V with the handicapped sticker hanging from the mirror. The same, yet different.

Olympia. The loop around Capitol Lake – where I would walk so many times, rain or shine – and the Capitol Building, with its dome that I used to photograph for the school paper. This time, a walk downtown for lunch with one new friend, then coffee with another on the Capitol campus, where she works. The same, yet different.

Seattle. Echoes of my mother’s laughter all around Westlake Center. The flagship Nordstrom where we’d spend an afternoon lunching and shopping for shoes. The Paramount Theatre, the site of one of my first concerts – Garbage – now hosting the band Hall and Oates. The waterfront – and the arcade where we spent our high school grad night – now mired in new construction. This time, I stop to ask a handsome police officer if he can point the way to Ivar’s restaurant. He laughs and directs us through scaffolding and over a rickety wooden walkway. Ivar’s – the place I’d feed seagulls and watch departing ferryboats as a child– now a spot to enjoy a leisurely lunch with my sister Marion, sipping wine and planning our trip to Bainbridge Island. The same, yet different.

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The border crossing into Vancouver. That same Amtrak train – number 510 – departing daily from King Street Station, with its iconic clock tower and cavernous marble lobby. This time, sitting on a wooden bench, ticket in hand, waiting to board and remembering the summer I drove across the border by myself, just seventeen, in my maroon Toyota Rav-4, receiving endless harassment from the border agents. The same, yet different.

Vancouver’s West End. The condo on Nelson Street where my sister and brother-in-law lived when my niece Nora was just a toddler, before my nephew Quinn was born. Now, Quinn is in high school, and Nora is away at University in Montreal.

It’s all the same, but it’s all so different. Yet for the first time that I can remember, the differences don’t seem to bother me. They don’t feel tinged with sadness like they usually do.

Perhaps it’s me that’s different, and not these places. Perhaps the change is simply the result of the passage of time and the slow healing that comes along with it. Or perhaps love of place has finally been able to transcend the pain of all that’s missing.

But whatever the reason, this time, the ghosts stayed at bay. And I was able to make new memories. Good ones. Memories that I will hold on to, dreaming of the gentle breeze off Puget Sound, until I’m able to return again.

Until next time, friends.

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