We were leaving Southern California and what had been a good visit with my 84-year-old father. I wanted to get in one last swim in the ocean.
I wanted a wilder beach than the one we most often drive to – a manicured curve of volleyball courts and parking lots we call The Big Beach. So I grabbed my fins and shuffled down the cliff trail to Little Corona, a small creek-mouth cove just around the corner from The Big Beach but completely hidden by rocky headlands.
A couple of families poked around in low-tide pools. Others packed up in the honey-colored, long-shadow sand to leave for the day. There was no one in the water.
Kelp bobbed everywhere in the surf zone, torn from its sea-bottom anchors by a big swell earlier in the week. The waves were still sizeable, but confused – perhaps a south and a west swell converging to create double waves bumping into one another at competing angles.
I watched for a long time, watching the way the waves broke, looking for submerged rocks, trying to remember. As kids, we were free to roam The Big Beach with its gently-sloping sand bottom and straightforward waves. Little Corona was messier far – the smell of rotting seaweed, surf churning in among the rocks – wildness for which I was just developing a taste when I went away to college.
Now, after the first shock of cold, the water felt like a lover, the mother of all life. The fins’ power gave me an inkling of the maneuverability a seal has at his command as I swam out through the grit and the foam and the entangling kelp.
I stopped just beyond the surf line and floated, the sun inches above the horizon. I trod water and turned: to the beach, to the cliff tops with their bazillion-dollar homes, up the coast and down, and out to the featureless, endless sea.
The lifeguard had closed up and gone home. I reached down with my long fins but couldn’t touch bottom.
The day before we had learned via email about George Gardner. That he’d fallen to his death on the Grand Teton. Dear, sweet, child-man George. Always present, always smiling. He had a way of complimenting people, a way that might have made you uncomfortable except that you knew he was tapped into a more generous, less earthbound vision.
A couple of days before this, we learned of the death of my sister’s first husband, a sparkly-eyed man none of us had seen for decades, though Wendy insists now he was the love of her life. He was my age. He died of a brain aneurism.
Two days later we would get a call from Dad saying that his brother, John, had died. We knew John was close; he was 94 and with hospice at home in La Jolla. And the day we got back to Colorado, we heard about Brian Peters, a much-loved Ridgway skier and builder of straw-bale houses, who died in a rollover accident on Dallas Divide.
A moment’s inattention? A gust of wind? An old man ready to let go? All of them swept away.
This rash of death – it seemed too much. Or was it simply the great mandala turning inexplicably through life and death? One door opens, another shuts behind. Certainly, youth and exuberance shone through on our trip, too. We spent time with young cousins changing before our eyes from fractious pre-teens to delightful young adults. And there was our newest nephew, Lionel, just 19 months, beaming like a light coming on, proving the adage that children are here to teach us joy. And then there is Cloe’s baby, our first grandchild, still in the oven but due in about six weeks. New life, new generations replacing the old.
Floating there in the chop, the last light greening the wave faces from behind like stained glass, I briefly lost track of the distinction between myself, my body and the molecules of the sea. We were almost one. In the way some people feel an attraction to flying, or falling, at the top of a cliff, I felt I could just as easily pass through to some other place not quite of this life.
But not quite yet. A wave formed up outside. I moved laterally to its peak and stroked hard for the shore. The wave picked me up and shot me down its curved height, emerald facets rippling on my chest and belly, the roar of the foam lost inside my head, supplanted by the rush, the joy of riding that energy all the way to the beach.