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Monday, July 17, 2006

The Elegant Universe

For the first time since his death six years ago, I cried over my father. Six years is a long time to hold onto tears, but I always figured someday grief would catch up.

It wasn't that my heart was hard or insensitive to losing my dad, but I had already done a share of grieving. He had been on supplemental oxygen for nine years until he died; every time we spoke or saw each other, I wondered if it would be the last time. During those nine years, as it got progressively harder for him to breathe and move around, concluding a visit was always wrenching.

Two weeks before he was hospitalized with fatal pneumonia, I dreamed of his death. In the dream, I panicked and cried, and asked myself the eternal question: has everything that I need to say been said? The answer was "yes", and after that point in my dream, I was at peace. So, when the actual event happened, I felt as though I had already sort of been through it, and so was better equipped to support my mom and brother.

I remember thinking: How could you guys not have seen this coming? But they hadn't, so I appointed myself the official "grief carrier" of my family, stoically sitting beside them as much as I could. By the time their grief had ebbed, my own grief seemed stuck in suppression-mode.

So, what recent trigger finally set me off? Well, it was an email exchange between myself and my good friend Gillian, who lives down in the Seattle-area. She had been telling me about her upcoming visit to Lummi Island at the beach cabin of a family friend.

Now, it just so happens that the beach-front cabin Gillian is staying at on Lummi Island is right next door to the beach-front cabin that my parents bought way back in 1980, when I was 10-years-old. For years, all our weekends and summers were spent on Lummi Island. Though much of this time I was a sullen and emotional teenager, those times on Lummi are the best memories I have of my childhood. They are the most vivid. My parents owned that cabin until 1992, when, because of my dad's health, they were finally forced to move to the mainland, where medical care was more accessible.

I begged my parents not to sell. By then I was 21. I had a fantasy of the place staying in our family as either a home or vacation property. I was just a few years to young to be heard and taken seriously, and so it was sold. The loss of that place, for some inexplicable reason, still causes an ache inside of me - for what might, and maybe even should have, been.

The first time I ever saw the Northern Lights was from the beach on Lummi Island. My dad woke me up to show them to me. Little did I know that some day I would live in the place from which they are borne. My dad taught me to catch and cook crab and fish. There, I developed my love of solitude, and did the first real writing of my life. There, I did jigsaw puzzles, and hunkered under a mountain of blankets during vicious storms. There, I stole and smoked the cigarettes that destroyed my dad's lungs. There, I walked the mile to the island store and bought trashy novels. I rode a few horses, tried to waterski (a failure), and slept a great deal.

It is there my dad's ashes were scattered upon the water, where they sank down to mix with the sand and the salt and the remnants of many other once-living things; where they probably are still.

So, now, 13-years later, I live in Alaska with my husband and kids. And it is my dear friend Gillian, and her wonderful family, who continue to visit Lummi Island in our stead. Instead of me continuing to laze one the beach with a book, it is Gillian who does so. Instead of my own kids flying kites in the front yard, or digging in the sand, building forts from driftwood, or roasting marshmallows over a beachfire, it is Gillian and her kids who do so.

And it was all these memories taken together, and elegance of continuity, not by my own participation, but in the presence of people I love, that finally unleashed a torrent of tears and gratifying grief.

I do not believe in coincidences. I believe in design, even in things such as childhood memories and enduring friendships. If one only looks, there is a pattern, a tapestry, and it is strange and beautiful.

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