After the hand-holding and the goodbyes, after hearing the seagulls cry for the last time, there was a gentle fading of the light, then darkness.
My body rested and then was taken away. I went away to a quiet place to reflect on my life. It took a long time — weeks. I was a child in Chicago, a debutante in Europe, a bride, a mother, a teacher, a caregiver, a widow. And in the last five decades of my long life, I was a grandmother, then a great-grandmother, and finally, a great-great. Too many greats, I told them. Call me Gee-Gee.
Slowly, I began to notice a bright light in the distance, something I could walk toward if I chose. But I have lived such a long life and I am strongly tethered to this earth by all of my beloveds. I’m not ready to leave them behind.
I am nowhere and everywhere. My body rests quietly in a dark room waiting for my dearest to retrieve it — to bring me home to my house by the sea.
I watch as my oldest granddaughter is handed the plain box. I watch as she walks out the door, sits alone in her car for as long as she needs to be alone. Then, she heads down the expressway toward the beach. I am happy to be along for the ride.
I am surprised to see so many people in my house, where I lived alone but for brief long weekends every 4th of July, when my house was over-run with sandy-footed children, happy couples, and those first four grandchildren who were my life. And here they all are, filling the bright, art-filled space, making the rounds, giving hugs, wiping away tears. So much sadness and joy and bewilderment circling in the air, not knowing where to land.
But my thoughtful granddaughter creates a quiet place away from the chaos, where any of my beloveds can come to say a few words, and to say a private goodbye. She places me carefully on a small table, lights a candle, says a prayer, stands a framed photo alongside. I am here and everywhere. In the crowded room filled with the generations of my family, and in this cool, quiet place lit only by a single flame. I am even in this plain wooden box.
The carpets have been hastily shampooed and the windows cleaned and the furniture polished, filling the room with a pleasant lemon scent. The neighbors have brought cut-flowers and beverages. My Filipino caregivers have brought those delectable little eggrolls called lumpia, and heaping bowls of noodle salads. My granddaughter’s husband is grilling shrimp and teriyaki chicken outside on the deck. Everyone has brought something. As the stragglers begin to arrive, the young men line chairs up on the deck. The grandchildren gather rocks on the beach, haul them up to the sandbox, and arrange them in the shape of a heart. The air warms in the April sunlight. It is a beautiful day.
It is a beautiful day. And I can’t understand why they are so unhappy. They are sad to lose me, but how can any of them be unhappy that I lived a hundred years, nearly sixty of them in this house, which I loved. Even in my final days, laying in my sickbed, staring out at the sea as flocks of brown pelicans flew low over the water, I dwelled in gratitude.
My wandering spirit, which is here and everywhere, flits up into the pepper tree that spreads its broad canopy above my beloveds. Just for today, I will be a hummingbird. I perch on the tiny abandoned nest and listen.
I am astonished at how much they have loved me, and love me still. My beloveds tell stories and share their favorite memories. Hearing them speak, I know they are sad not just to lose me, but also to lose this place, to lose their shared story. But some people — I’m not naming names — go too far back in time. The general public, even my beloveds, do not need to hear about that risqué cocktail party in the ‘50’s, or about the battery-operated Christmas lights that their grandfather installed in my bra, or the fact that our marriage, however long, wasn’t perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how we learn. I have tried to keep learning for all of the decades of my life, and it’s something I hope I’ve inspired in my beloveds — the quest to keep learning for as long as we are alive.
No one has anything left to say. They are talked out, and cried out, and the tide is out. There is plenty of beach to wander, arms around each other’s waists, or holding hands, or racing across the sand. The adults toss flowers into the sea, and the children release balloons — such a lovely thoughtful gesture. I watch all of this from my safe perch in the pepper tree, the sun shining on my wings.
My two grandsons pull an inflatable kayak onto the beach and haul it into the water. My granddaughter wades into the surf and hands the plain wooden box to her brother. They paddle into the setting sun, past the breaking waves, into that flat spot of calm that lays just before the next looming set. They are men of few words, but they finally find just the right ones.
“You never even had to leave the beach.” And they scatter my ashes into the water, where they spread out and shimmer like an opalescent Universe.
They pick up their paddles and turn the boat. Then, the next set of waves lifts the boat and sends them flying back onto the sand.
From my safe perch in the pepper tree, from above the small boat, and from the sandy beach among my beloveds, I watch and listen. I am here and everywhere. And just for today, I am a hummingbird.