I have just returned from the funeral for my brother. He lived in Fernandina Beach, Fla., so it was not an easy journey to make on short notice, but we got there in time to share an evening with some family and a beautiful service the next day.
Bob was 78 years old and lived a full life. He died peacefully in his sleep after a struggle to fully recover from a severe stroke. I believe he went gently into that good night.
The weather was nice for north Florida at this time of year. Humidity was low, and a cool, soft breeze weaved its way among the Spanish moss and honeysuckle. The wide, white beach and perfect "rollers" were a reminder of summers spent body surfing or throwing a ball with my brother until we were called to lunch or dinner. We never complained about going to bed early. Sleep was deep and innocent.
Atlanta was home, but Jacksonville Beach was a regular vacation spot. It was an all-day drive in an old car with no air conditioning. I don't remember a single drive down, but I do remember how the wind felt good on sunburned skin on the way back.
I love my life in Payson, Ariz. now. It suits me well -- the clean, cool air, the pine forests, the Rim and surrounding mountains, good people, an interesting array of opportunities.
I plan to stay here a long time, but there is a salty tidal flow gently pulling within -- usually about this time of year -- which suggests to me that my cells must have originated in a briny eco-system.
I love the seashore. I particularly love the coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida. In some places, there are still reminders of "the old days" when miles of beach were clean and uncluttered by high-rise condos or transplanted mansions.
"Low Country" South Carolina is my favorite, where barrier islands are separated from the mainland by marshy tidal creeks teeming with clams, oysters, shrimp and flounder. There, I taught my own children to dangle a chicken neck tied to a piece of twine off an old wooden dock in order to catch blue crabs. I squealed along with them out in the surf when waves crashed over their heads, and I slept their innocent sleep at night. I rubbed various potions over their sunburned skin and enjoyed cool breezes flowing over my own body in the evenings. Life seemed completely full and eternal.
"The Beach," as we used to call it, still has that effect on me. I still inhale deeply the warm, sultry air filled with sweet and tangy scents, and I am lulled by the serenade of ocean waves, sea birds, insects and the wind itself.
Thus, the contrast was particularly sharp this past weekend as I sat in an old church surrounded by many friends and relatives who had come to grieve. In spite of well-meaning words from the pastor, a death had brought us there, and everyone was keenly sensitive to that fact.
Later, we may console ourselves with the hope that our loved ones have gone to a better, happier place, but at a funeral, it's a difficult tune to dance to.
We sang joyful hymns, but many tear-stained faces struggled with the effort. A few stood and spoke kind words. Some even made us chuckle. Most of the eulogies ended in restrained sobs, though. People need time, however brief, to mourn their loss.
All the while, just outside, there was life in abundance -- the kind of life that exists in the dense, diverse nutrient-rich environment of a sub tropical sea island. And a short distance away, new life ran down a beach or jumped into waves or made sand castles, threw balls and was called to dinner. The contrast with the scene in the old church was palpable -- all a part of a great circle.
This weekend, I was reminded of a time when life seemed full and endless, and I was also faced with the inescapable truth of a different reality. I once again breathed deeply of the pure joy I find at the seashore, but I was made aware that long-postponed plans should probably be attended to.
Like my brother, I have lived a full life. I hope to have at least as many more years ahead as he had, because there is still much for me to do.
I hope to be so tired at the end of day that I will not complain of being called. And I hope to sleep that sound and innocent sleep that both my brother and I once knew -- the one I think he is sleeping now.