Ginny couldn’t remember when she had fallen in love with the ocean.
Even as a little girl building sand castles, the crashing waves had already been a familiar and comfortable background to her summers, but she couldn’t point her finger to the precise time when she had come to rely on it.
She leaned back in her chair and smiled as she remembered herself, a headstrong girl of seventeen, strutting up and down this very shoreline. She’d been too self-absorbed then to have given much thought to the ocean yet, but that was when she had fallen in love with Bob.
She’d defied her mother and secretly bought a bikini. It had turned a lot of heads that summer, but not Bob’s. He had barely noticed her figure in fact. He’d been too interested in the tides, chattering on for hours about the pull of the moon and the rhythm of the seasons. It had been the first real conversation she’d had with a boy in years. By the time they’d found a tide pool and spent a morning watching the tiny ecosystem together she’d determined she would spend the rest of her life with this strange and fascinating man.
They had been married fifty-nine years when Bob passed away. She’d come here then too. But by then she had long since come to rely on the ocean’s comfort in times of despair. She would have come even if Bob hadn’t asked to have his ashes spread here.
She’d stood for a long time staring at the ceaseless waves, their salt mingling with the salty tear tracks that had marked her cheeks since the morning Bob hadn’t woken up. She had given the ocean many things by that day, but giving it Bob was one of the hardest.
She knew she’d be joining him soon and that was the only comfort for the aching emptiness that still sat with her three years later.
She’d given a child to the ocean once too. Her Charlie. Not with the quiet tears she and the ocean had shared for Bob, but with desperate rage she had screamed ‘Why?’ into the moaning wind. She’d knelt in the sand with the waves splashing at her knees until the ocean had numbed her body and soul.
That was one of the things she loved about the ocean. Its persistence and boundlessness made her troubles seem so small and temporary. Its vastness gave her perspective and reminded her where she stood in the cosmos. It overwhelmed the senses until the self ceased to exist as a separate thing.
Even now the wind was pounding against her so steadily that she’d forgotten she even had a body. It was so easy to lose track of time here, not just the hour, but the day, the year, the age. The ocean always was and always would be and had a way of sucking you into its constant singularity.
As she’d knelt there decades ago – numbed, her grief at the loss of her infant son drained out into the waves – her fingers had brushed a pebble. Mindlessly she had picked it up, rolling it through her fingers as she gazed out over the empty chaos of the ocean landscape. The pebble was so small, so like the millions of other pebbles scattered across the shoreline, but by the time she had stood, ready to leave, it had been her pebble, just as Charlie had been so small and so like millions of other children, but hers. With a last vent of rage she had thrown the pebble into the ocean screaming, “Why don’t you take that too!”
And the pebble had disappeared, joined with the ocean, perhaps to wash back up on the shore but never to be hers again.
Somehow that had started a tradition. She’d marked many of her life’s events by giving something physical to the ocean.
Years after losing Charlie, when her Jon had been seriously injured in a car accident, she’d come to the ocean again. Purposefully, she had brought an object with her, a plaster handprint Christmas ornament Jon had made in school years before. Twenty years of Christmases had piled memories on it until it was no longer a ubiquitous childhood trinket, but a precious heirloom. Not as precious as Jon though.
She had set the tiny handprint into the waves with a silent plea, “You already have one of my sons, don’t take this one too.”
She’d returned to the hospital to find Jon conscious and moved out of Intensive Care. She had later come back to the ocean to whisper, “Thanks,” the sun and breeze caressing her smiling face, the waves still crashing in their endless dance.
Now Jon and Amy were encouraging her to move into a retirement home. Her old body had lost all traces of the suppleness of youth and it was true that just taking care of herself was a full time job these days, but her mind was still sharp and she wasn’t ready to give up her freedom.
She settled a little more deeply into her chair and closed her eyes to better enjoy the chill of the early autumn waves chasing around her ankles. After all, she couldn’t visit the ocean in a home and that seemed more like dying than death itself.
She smiled again as she remembered herself at forty. She had come here then, as today, to reflect on her life – where she had been, where she was going. The ocean had a magical way of washing off the clutter of everyday. The roar of wind and waves silenced all but the deepest part of her self, giving her spirit room to consider who and why she was.
That day, half her life ago, she had worn a bikini again. Not to turn heads this time, but to stand before the ocean in brutal honesty. She had wanted to give it her pride, the false pride that had kept her afraid for the first half of her life. The voice that said ‘what if you mess up? what if you look foolish?’ Standing there, her body crisscrossed with the scars of motherhood and starting to show the weight of years, she had felt exposed and vulnerable, humbly aware of her imperfections; but she had also felt free and triumphant. She had not brought a gift for the ocean that day, but by then it had understood their relationship and had taken one from her anyway. A small token but appropriate, it had taken one of the earrings her mother had given her when she had graduated college. Those earrings had carried the weight of so many expectations. Expectations that Ginny had long felt she’d failed to live up to as her life veered into very different paths. She had stood in the surf that day and charted a new path, one that had ultimately led her to where she was now. She might have done better but she was content. She had lived her life the way that seemed right and made her choices as they came. Regrets wouldn’t change anything, so she didn’t entertain them. The ocean washed all that away anyway. Like a baptism that was waiting whenever she needed it, coating her in salt and sand while it washed her soul clean.
She had worn a bikini again today. She was far too old now to care what anyone thought of her figure and she had given the ocean too much of herself to feel the need to face it, but wearing one made her feel connected to the women she had been over the years.
She heard the call that announced the lifeguards were going home for the day. She glanced up and saw the sun dipping low in the sky; its fire, like her own, turning to embers as it touched the vast wetness of the ocean, its warmth already leaving the world. She shivered and pulled her towel tighter around her shoulders.
The tide would turn back towards the shore soon, but she wasn’t ready to leave yet. For now, sitting here in the ocean’s overwhelming presence, she could lose herself for a while; drop the weight of years, of worry, and float on the swell of waves, wind and memories.
In their fifty-nine years together, she and Bob had traveled around the globe together and, no matter where they went, there the ocean had always been. Its location and mood varied but its essence was always there, always the same, timeless, ceaseless, unchanging. She and Bob had watched many sunsets on many beaches. Racing across the sand on their honeymoon, full of the uncertainty and excitement of young love. Family vacations with Jon and Amy building sand castles and crying when it was time to leave them. Weekends spent quietly holding hands in their retirement.
Now, she and the ocean sat alone together as two ancient friends, both spilling over with emptiness as the sky gave up its color and joined in their heavy grey reflections.
Closing her eyes she could imagine Bob next to her once more, his fingertips brushing hers as they’d done thousands of times. She let out a bittersweet sigh, “Soon, Bob. We’ll be together again soon.”
Her body had been cold for some time when the waves slipped reverently around it and the tide carried her home. Her chair’s legs held fast in the sand, it stood empty, a silent testament to a life complete.