My dad’s sister is, as she worded it, in her touching practicality, the day before she passed, “on her way home.” It happened fast, in a way, and was uncannily similar to how my grandmother went, when I was 14. When Nana was in the hospital, I flew down to Santa Rosa with my dad, my aunt, my uncles, and we sat beside her in her hospital bed, making a memory that much of me wishes I didn’t have but providing that essential final infusion of companionship as she prepared to take the lonesome road from this world to the next on her own.
Those moments—the first time I was confronted with frailty and mortality, the Northern California beaches that define the landscape of that time for me—have been top of mind in the last week, not least of all because I spent the weekend in the gentle belly of those sun-kissed, tawny hills that frame Santa Rosa, being reminded.
I remembered apricot roses outside a sleepy Italian restaurant where we ate a quiet dinner after visiting hours were over, how thick and balmy the air felt compared to Seattle and how the crickets droned at sunset. I remembered being captivated by the eye-twitching rhythm of driving by neat rows of sage-green vines on the winding road out to Bodega Bay (“Rows!” my brother had yelled excitedly every time we passed vineyards on that same drive on an earlier visit, years before, loving the thrumming visual effect). I remembered the way the hot sand burned my feet and sparkled like it was studded with flecks of gold as my grandfather, gray and stoic, walked along the kelp-draped, tide-washed rocks in his crisp shirt and long pants.
Those tiny mental souvenirs are interspersed with sterile scenes from the hospital, tubes and beeping, the sick smell of chemicals preserving failing flesh, the underwater feeling of not being able to speak for fear of crying (she said we’d go to the beach and I didn’t say anything back), the wet and papery feel of her hands and the real pain in her face as she tried to hang on.
I didn’t see my aunt in her last days or moments, but my parents did, and her husband did, and her son did, and her granddaughter did, and thinking about them being there with her seems like an echo of that earlier episode—most of the same players, a slightly different play, a different leading lady. I guess it’s about as unoriginal a realization to make as any that every death is as universal as it is unique.
Since my grandmother passed away, I’ve experienced departures in ways that have both deepened and cheapened my thoughts and feelings about death. I think about my brother and it makes me heavy and light at the same time—more one than the other, depending on the day. Loss hollows us out. It scoops an empty space that gets filled in, eventually, with things like time, and gratitude, and fear, and anger (let’s not pretend that we’re all at peace with everything or are ever going to be) and it changes our makeup, for better and for worse.
But watching people of deep faith, like my grandmother and my aunt, take a deep breath and dive into the deep end with courage and conviction is a moving and powerful thing—a consolation.
Godspeed, Marlyn, and I hope the beach is beautiful.