Emily

The sun casts a river of amber glitter atop the slow-moving waves lapping the side of my kayak, nudging me gradually out from shore. A large white sea lion eyes me from atop the rectangular dock a handful of yards away. I glance to my left and see your mother grinning while your son paddles their kayak from between her legs. To my right, near a leaning madrone on the water’s edge, I sense your presence. Not more than a dozen feet away is your daughter, the one I held just days after she was born, the same days during which you passed to the other side. She is accompanied by your best friend and her daughters, and they are wading into the sound, shrieking and laughing as the cold water shocks their bare calves.

Earlier that day we visited a bridge tucked into the woods beneath old growth doug firs, a place I understand you held dear and your children truly love. I watched them explore their surroundings, finding rocks, tossing sticks into the creek and gathering fern fronds to build with. I remember doing the same things with my sisters when I was a little girl.

It’s been five years since I saw your family, and since you left us. As I drove up the 101 North toward your yellow beach house by the sound, I had an overwhelming feeling that you were near. It was strange and magical, and I cried my way to the driveway before gathering myself to knock on the door. The weekend that followed was filled with stories and laughter and porch sitting; I even taught the kids how to hula hoop on the lawn. Your children carry your features on their faces, and the glimpses I caught of you made my heart ache and soar all at once. I miss you all over again and yet, I am comforted by spending time with your loved ones and learning about the corners of earth you treasured most.

At dusk, I sat in a white lounge chair gazing out at the two islands on the horizon, and as I scanned the water, drawing my eyes closer to the shoreline, I had to close and open them again, disbelieving what I saw. It was you – a faint outline of a woman’s profile with her hair down, the cool saltwater cupping her shoulders as she gazed out to sea. And then minutes later, a flicker of light danced across the water beneath the sinking sun, and it was an orange buoy bobbing on the waves. But I’ll never forget that image of you skinny dipping at sunset in the place where I’ve been told you felt free and comforted all your life by nature, family, friends and traditions.

I want to think of you now like this poem reads – resting ashore where you are surrounded by the salt, soil, air and trees of your childhood; safe, at peace, having arrived at last.

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar—
Where the storm is o’er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest—
The anchors fast—
Thither I pilot thee—
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

-Emily Dickensen

 

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About My Friend Abby

I want to write about my childhood friend Abby, about how much I loved this angelic tow-headed girl in black corduroy overalls from the moment I met her on a walk home from school. I want to tell you how free I felt around her to be myself at a time when that was what I needed the most. I remember most vividly how we created magic spells and faerie worlds with our imaginations; that we had countless sleepovers, and that to this day, there is no one who could make me feel as beautiful as she could while giving me one of her famed makeovers.

We were Abby one and Abby two — a couple of silly blonde and brunette girls with kindred souls on the same soccer team in elementary school. Since she passed away over a year ago, I have wanted to write about Abby countless times, but it’s been too hard. Last January, I wrote about her indirectly. Thankfully, yet heart-achingly, I finally feel ready to write some more.


The last time I got to be with her for more than an hour was on a weekend trip to Portland, a couple years before I moved there myself. We had reconnected after some years apart — our adult paths had wandered in different directions after high school, as they sometimes do. She invited me to stay with her as soon as she got settled in her new place (she was just about to move to Portland to go to beauty school).  About a month later, I decided to take her up on it. I rode the train up from Eugene, and I remember seeing her walking toward me in front of the station with that big, glowing smile of hers. Abby could take any speck of sunlight and triple it’s shine just by grinning. I had become so accustomed to her profound beauty over the years that it almost felt like old news. Almost. That day in particular, wearing a red long-sleeve top, with blonde waves caressing her cheek, she was radiant, and I was taken aback by this gorgeous woman my friend had become.

We decided to grab a drink at a bar nearby, and of course she insisted on buying my drink. That was such an Abby thing to do. Throughout our decade-long friendship, she had always been so generous to me, not only with her worldly possessions, but with her kindness. She had a complete willingness to share what little of hers she had with others — it was one of her defining characteristics, and I so admired her for it. In fact, I often felt stingy in comparison, ever-worried about not having “enough”.  It wasn’t as if Abby hadn’t lost everything before –she had. But this miraculously didn’t change her for the worst. Where some might have closed themselves off in response to the sting of the world, she gave even more freely.

She took me to her work where she introduced me to her hip crew of co-workers. It was clear to me that they meant a whole lot to her and vice versa. After chatting out back for a half hour or so with what felt like her tribe on a smoke break, we bought groceries for dinner and rode the bus back to her place. That night, while getting ready to go out in her little bathroom, I got my last and most memorable Abby makeover.

When she asked if she could do my makeup, I wasn’t too surprised. This was a game we’d played since we were 9 or 10. And now she was in beauty school, after all. I was so proud of her! I willingly closed my eyes and let her apply eye shadow. She blew on my eyelids afterwards to scatter any loose dust into the air. She took her time lovingly applying bronzer, mascara and lip color. We had a good laugh when I tried desperately not to blink during the mascara application; my eyes had a mind of their own and would clamp shut any time her little brush came near. After a fit of giggles, I regained my focus and held them open with steely resolve. When she was done, she told me I was beautiful.

There have only been a handful of moments in my life when I have truly felt seen, flaws and all, and believed another’s praise. This was one of those rare moments, and under her warm gaze, it felt effortless.

This memory of the two of us as kids-turned-adults applying makeup in the orange glow of her bathroom has remained my most enduring touchstone when I think of my friend after her death. It still conjures up a wellspring of love in my chest whenever I recall it. Of course, it also brings a torrent of sadness and longing. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t know of the depth of Abby’s suffering. Of course we were privy to one another’s inner worlds as teens, when both of our worlds grew dark for a period. As we each watched our parents divorce, there was no doubt we had our share of private pain to live through. But when she switched schools, we grew apart, and evidently, there was a lot I missed.

In my hardest moments, I wonder if I had asked more questions when I saw her last, if there was something I could have done to help her. But it’s an impossible train of thought that leads me nowhere. So I cry instead, or laugh about a happy moment we’ve shared. I send her a faerie blessing from earth, and I reassure myself that she’s at peace, because in my heart I know she is.

I’m Still Alive

Seattle was wet like it usually is. Despite the rain, we were smiling. It was Valentine’s Day after all, and we were together.

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We’d wandered into a cozy bar and took turns feeding the jukebox. Sipping on drinks, we sang along to Van Morrison and Al Green, nodding and humming. The jukebox shuffled – a pause – and then my song, Pearl Jam’s “Alive” clicked on.

Eddie Vedder belted out his infamous line “Oh, I, Oh I’m Still Alive,” and the man at the bar began swaying side to side. He looked as if he was made of stiff limbs rather than muscles that bend and flex. We watched him with sideways glances from our tiny red vinyl booth. A guttural yell escaped from his mouth and filled the tiny tavern, pushing against the walls. It occurred to me that he was trying to sing along. The word “Alive” was momentarily audible but the syllables were drawn out and muffled as if he had a cotton ball under his tongue. 

The bartender kindly told him it was time to leave. His behavior was beginning to interfere with the other patrons. One too many drinks; and perhaps, one too many heartbreaks.

Although it was a painful sight to watch – a grown man in his late 50’s three sheets to the wind, mumbling and stumbling, unaware of the impact he was making on those around him – there was something about it that stuck with me weeks later.

It’s the brokenness that was so clear, and the humanity I saw beneath this man’s moment of rawness. Although his actions were jarring, they were also somehow comforting. As two friends guided him to the sidewalk to take a cab ride home, I saw a man who was lost. And I also saw a man fighting something – or maybe for something. For what, I don’t know, and I’ll never know. But I imagine it to be love. The love we all crave so deeply. Not just from others, but from ourselves. And with that comes acceptance – knowing that you are okay just the way you are.

I recently turned 28, and birthdays have a way of making me take stock of things. I’ve had a lot of gains, and also a lot of losses in my time here thus far. And in the depth of my grief, I’ve even felt as if I’m at risk of losing myself. But tonight, as I feel the sharp edges of wounded places in me, I remember this man and Eddie Vedder and the words, and even though I feel swallowed whole by emotion sometimes – I’m still alive. You could even say they’re proof of it.

Inch by inch, I get a little closer to something that resembles love; maybe even acceptance.

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