Good tidings of comfort (and joy)

Happy Christmas Eve from the beach. The husband, the man child and I decided to make the 1100 mile trek from Vermilion, Ohio to Cocoa Beach Florida for Christmas for the second year in a row. For them, it was merely a chance to catch some sunshine and play in the sand. For me, it was personal. I had an important visit to make.

Last year, the loss of my mother was very fresh. I spent more time in tears than enjoying the sunshine. I couldn’t bear to allow myself a peek of happiness. It just didn’t seem right. I got up before the sun every morning and sipped my coffee and watched the waves lap at the sand and wept.

I walked the beach and picked up seashells – but only the broken ones. I told myself that they were more interesting, but I think there was a part of me that believed at that moment that I didn’t deserve the perfect beautiful ones.

On our last morning at the beach, I found a spot just above the high tide line. I sat in the sand and imagined my mom beside me there, sitting in a low sand chair in her homemade red bathing dress with the white jacket with a beach blanket pulled up over her legs and her feet buried in the sand. I don’t think she was ever here at Cocoa Beach in her life, but I imagined her here in death – sitting in her chair and watching the waves, the gulls – the children with pails and shovels. Contented smile on her face. I went back at sunrise day after day and talked to her here on the the beach. I said all of the things that I couldn’t say in the last weeks of her illness when the very sight of me, for reasons I will never know, would make her angry. The angry old woman was gone, and Mom was back, sitting there beside me.

On our last morning, I had to say goodbye. I drew a heart in the sand and burned the location into my memory so that I could find it again, and there I set up her chair, in my mind, for the last time. She wanted the chair close enough to the water that the waves would wash over her feet sometimes. As I turned to walk back to our campsite, I saw her give me a little wave. “Go have fun,” she called. “I’ll be right here waiting. I’ll be just fine.” As I made my way up the stairs over the dunes, the hot tears spilled down my cheeks.

It’s been a year, today, since I left Mom’s memory there on the beach. I’ve pictured here there in the sun many times over the past year. The memory of that imaginary scene has given me great comfort. When it came time to plan this year’s vacation, I knew that I must return.

We arrived Saturday evening after dark. I woke up the following morning, planning to watch the sun came up, but I burrowed deeper into the covers instead. When I finally made it down to Mom’s spot later that morning, there was a family there, catching tiny crabs in the rocks. I didn’t talk to Mom. Instead I joined the hunt for tiny crabs, and then I walked along the beach and picked up the most beautiful sea shells I could find. Some were broken, but mostly they were intact – whole and beautiful – a far cry from my ‘haul” last year.

This morning I finally made it to the beach before the sun rose. It was magical. I ran 4 miles. I ran along the tide line. A wake surprised me and got my shoes soaking wet and I didn’t even care. I was having a wonderful time. I kept running in my squishy shoes, singing along to my music and telling every passerby “Good morning,” or “Merry Christmas.”

My favorite song came on my playlist and I danced a little. I made it back to “Mom’s spot.” I took a reed that I found in the rocks and drew a picture in the sand and took a photograph. I told myself that my year of grieving was over. I sat in “our” spot, ready to talk to Mom and tell her that I was okay and then, like the wave that had soaked my running shoes, a rogue wave of grief hit me. It was the knock you on your butt, throat-punch kind of grief that hits out of nowhere and it left me a little breathless for a moment. I sat on the big rock and just let the tears flow. I felt a tingling on my right hand, and I heard my mom tell me, “I told you I would be just fine.” I smiled through hot tears.

Just as the wave that soaked my running shoes receded back into the sea, the rogue wave of emotion slipped away. It ebbed and flowed as I sat there, listening to Mom. She told me, “I’m still Mary Christmas, and now Franny Claus is here too,” referencing nicknames that she and her sister, who just joined her in Heaven last month used during the holidays.

I know that Mom’s not on the beach in her chair anymore. This next year I imagine that I will think of her trying to roller skate on streets of gold and fishing in a beautiful lake in Heaven’s version of the Swiss Alps that she always wanted to visit and never had the chance.

I made my way back to the campground where husband and man child were waking up. Husband saw me and asked if I was okay. The answer was “I’m fine. I’m happy sad.” He knew what I meant.”

When I drew “Joy” in the sand, I set an intention to live more joyfully. I had no way to know that seconds later I would be weeping. I read somewhere that grief is a gift. In order to grieve, we must first have loved. Oh, how I loved.

Although I’ve cried intermittently since that episode this morning, my heart is not sad. I’m smiling through the tears. I got the distinct feeling that when I go back to the beach tomorrow, it’s going to be just me and the seagulls and the other “morning people.” I don’t have to drive 1100 miles next Christmas to talk to my mom.

To my friends who are hurting this Christmas, “you are not alone.” Honor your loved ones in the way that gives you the most comfort. There’s no right way to grieve or wrong way to grieve. Grief has no timeline.

I’m still intending to live the next year joyfully. Joy and grief can co-exist. They play together quite nicely. I still love Christmas at the beach. Maybe by next year, I’ll learn to do a cartwheel in the sand.

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