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.

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.

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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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Limbo.

Grandpa sits in his usual spot in the living room, staring out the picture window at the placid, silvery surface of Case Inlet, framed by evergreens that have turned an early November shade of amber. His yellow-tinged eyes reflect the vacant gaze of someone who’s looking but not seeing. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, patting him on the shoulder. I expect his typical response: “Nothing.” Instead, he intones softly, “I’m thinking about how quickly the time has gone.”

I’ve been at the beach for fifteen days, though of course, that’s not the measure of time that Grandpa is referring to. This evening, barring a catastrophe, I will leave, and board a plane headed back to Los Angeles. It is staggering to me that my time here has passed so swiftly, and yet, has contained so much within its rapidly elapsing days. I feel as though I’ve been moving in slow motion for weeks, traveling from joy to despair to fear in the space of a single hour, sometimes in a single minute. There is always another hospice appointment, another phone call, another email, another problem, another difficult conversation. And in between it all, I’ve been working, straddling two worlds – here and there – with the aid of an unreliable Wi-Fi connection.

I’ve never been very good at living in the moment, but these last couple weeks, the moment is all I’ve had. It’s no wonder my sense of time is so screwy, with Grandpa’s feeling borrowed and mine suspended. What a strange sort of limbo it is to sit with someone you love as they face the end of their life. The question that looms before us is when? It is the question he asks of everyone: his caregivers, the hospice nurses, the chaplain, the social worker, and of course, his family. It is the question that no one has the answer to, least of all me.

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I am prepared for what’s coming in a way that I wasn’t able to be with either of my parents, and for that I am grateful. I am grateful for all of the time I’ve been able to spend with him. But after fifteen days, there is little for me to do but wait.

Twenty-four-hour care is in place; contingency plans have been made. And the look Grandpa now sees reflected back in my eyes is one of someone who’s watching his every move, searching his face for signs of what’s to come. I can’t do this any longer. I can no longer sit around this rain-soaked place – beautiful as it is – waiting for my 89-year-old Grandfather to die.

I feel selfish for craving a way out, for craving warmth and palm trees and cheap, delicious Mexican food, and a hike in the hills and the sight of the Pacific and a desperately needed session with my therapist, but I do. I crave all of these things. I even crave the to-do list that awaits me upon my return, because it represents routine, and the opportunity to pretend, for a little while, that everything is normal.

So back I will go, for now. My return to the beach is already booked, but every ticket is refundable, every plan changeable. This type of freedom, it turns out, is expensive. But it’s the price you pay when you’re in limbo. When you’re left with nothing to do but wait.

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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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