Living on the west coast meant lots of time at the ocean between Washington state and Baja, Mexico. It included air travel, road trips, and a cruise. Always, those trips were together.
Butch did basic training for the Army at Ford Ord, in Monterey, CA. Going to visit him was the farthest I had ever driven at 18. The first time I went by myself, I was so eager to get there, I got a speeding ticket on the way. I picked him up at the base and we went to the Boardwalk Amusement Park on the beach in Santa Cruz. We were standing in front of the huge, wooden rollercoaster. Later in life we learned that Butch had an inner ear condition which caused him to become very nauseous on such rides. He already knew the nauseous part just not the reason. So, he had virtually no intention of riding that monster. Just then, he looked over his shoulder and saw his drill instructor coming in our direction. I can’t remember which of the many rules he was breaking. It might have had to do with what he was wearing. Thinking we could duck into the crowd of people standing in line for the rollercoaster until the coast was clear, we got in line. Unfortunately, the drill instructor got in line as well. There was no way to leave the line without being seen, so he was stuck riding the roller coaster to avoid discovery. He was indeed, nauseous for hours. Each visit to Ford Ord meant spending time at the beach. We walked on the beach, ate at the beach, even spent several very cold hours trying to share a sleeping bag on the beach one evening.
One year we decided to spend our week vacation meandering up through Oregon and Washington to Canada. We took his pickup, a borrowed tent trailer, and his kayak. It was the last week of January. Unbeknownst to us, it was the most stormy time of year up there. People who loved storms actually planned their vacations to go up there at that exact time of year. We spent a night at our timeshare on Discovery Bay where he was able to kayak about an hour before a storm started blowing in and threatened to swamp him. That was the first and only time it was even remotely possible to kayak. We spent the next night in a campground where we learned that the tent trailer leaked. Butch used all his trickiness to create a warm, dry, little nest for us in the non-leaky part of the trailer while we fitfully slept through a storm that rocked the trailer like a sapling. Thank God for our timeshare, because that was the first and only night we were able to use the tent trailer. When we arrived at the north most part of Washington to take the ferry to Canada, we discovered that we had arrived during the one week of the year when the ferries were down for maintenance. Perfect. We stayed in a beautiful unit of the timeshare where I promptly missed a step, fell, and severely bruised my knee and shin. The next day it was clear enough to hike out to the most north west point in the United States and enjoy the incredibly beautiful but freezing view of the ocean. Heading homeward on what looked like a clear afternoon, we stopped at a great campground. We were just backing in to set up the tent trailer when a retiree came bounding out of his motorhome to notify us that hurricane force winds were due in an hour and we needed to get ourselves, our kayak, and that aluminum tent trailer under cover or something really bad was going to happen. By a miracle, one of our timeshare units was nearby and someone had just cancelled their reservation. We got ourselves, the kayak, and the tent trailer into the underground garage barely in time to keep them from blowing away. As we stood at our window on the sixth floor, you could feel the building swaying with the wind. We were watching the storm chasers, sitting in the outdoor hot tub, enjoying the howling wind as the waves crashed against the sea wall 10 feet away from them. They did not get out of the hot tub until the storm took out the power and the bubbles stopped. Apparently the generators didn't power the hot tub!! The next day we headed inland toward I5, which would take us home. Butch had to drag our gypsy wagon through snow over the coastal range to the next unit of our timeshare. We awakened to six inches of snow covering our barely used kayak and tent trailer in the parking lot. But through all that, we laughed like crazy and just enjoyed being together on an adventure.
My choices now seem to be avoiding the entire west coast of the United States and Mexico, or building new memories. Fortunately, I have begun that process in lovely ways. My first excursions were trips to an amazing beach house owned by Butch’s very generous sister. While Butch and I stayed there together in the past, it had been years, and not very often. My son and daughter-in-law vacationed there the summer after Butch’s death and invited me to join them. I got to spend quality time with them, rediscovering the house, the ocean and the nearby park and beach through the eyes of nearly two-year-old Schuyler. Two of my good friends and I spent a long weekend there not long afterwards, relaxing in the wonderful house, creating new memories of the ocean, and shopping in the nearby town. My brother and his family took me with them to San Diego the week before Christmas to help me get through my first Christmas without Butch. As we drove north on I5 returning to Sacramento, I realized I had never driven that stretch of California except with Butch. As I began to cry quietly, my eight-year-old nephew took my hand and sweetly said, “You still have us Aunt Barb, and we love you.” He then patted my hand for awhile before returning to his video game.
Becoming us without them means going back out into a world that has been defined by our relationship with them rather than trying to avoid the pain altogether. It means opening ourselves up the possibility of rewriting the script for the ocean, and the rest of the world. We add a second act to the play that does not include them. By revisiting old haunts with new people, we wrap ourselves in a protective coating of love and support that eases the pain. When we look at the ocean, we remember all of them there. We hear multiple voices mixed with the sound of the wind and the waves and not just theirs. Very gradually, the meaning of those places changes so that the second act of the play feels worth writing. We heal.
Just try not to focus on the great white sharks that frequent the Pacific Coast and you’ll eventually enjoy your swim………..