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.

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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.”

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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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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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