As part of supervision in clinical pastoral education (CPE), we deal with a lot of “inner” issues so that we can be aware of our own feelings as we work with patients and clients. We generally would deal with topics of the past week, and our guest lecture this particular week spoke about grief, death, dying, and palliative care. All of my life I have grappled with these grief, death, and dying. It seemed that loss was something I was meant to struggle with in my life. And once again, in supervision, my loss of my beloved grandfather, the only grandparent I knew, erupted as it sometimes did, in uncontrollable sadness and deep sobs. For the first time in my life, I began to realize that I had grieved in a very incomplete way for my grandfather since my 12th birthday. I was 59.
My CPE supervisor invited me to remember him out loud. I began to speak about him, and as I did, I could feel him in the room. His rough wool fisherman’s jacket was rough against my face. His favorite foods, sharp cheddar cheese and pickled herring, invaded my memory as if they were on a plate in front of me. His presence was intensely palpable. It was a visitation that I was not prepared to share in an impersonal office at the hospital where I worked with another person, regardless of how much that person, my supervisor, cared for me. I asked to end our supervisory session because I needed to go home. I was unable to work my shift that afternoon.
I drove home from my meeting with my supervisor with my eyes brimming with tears that spilled over and would not stop. He had suggested that I have a conversation with my grandfather, whose death 47 years ago left a cannon-ball sized hole in my heart. I wanted to leave and have the conversation at a more private place, but now I was feeling like I lost the chance to be near my grandfather again. “Perhaps I should have stayed and talked with Granddad when he was so close there in the office?” I could see his wool jacket and face there. I desperately needed him. As I drove I spoke aloud to him and asked him to meet me, and apologized for leaving the hospital when I knew he was already there. I was so startled by the suggestion that I should “talk TO him” that I panicked a little. What would happen if I allowed myself to do that? Was that even OK? Was this necromancy? Was I trying to conjure up the dead or seek the dead?
In spite of my fears, I knew that I had already seen him, and that at times I had seen others who were dying or already dead, so to me, this was a reality regardless of what religious teachings said. So I planned to talk to him at the beach – out on the tip of the sand spit at Greens Point on Shaw’s Cove, near where we live on Puget Sound. It is the beach where I played as a child, where, when I was five, he appeared from out of the blue to “rescue” me from walking barefoot on the barnacle-covered rocks after I was caught alone by a high tide out on the sand spit. (It was my “front yard” so to speak – normal for me to play there as adults watched from the house across the cove.) It is the beach in front of his favorite salmon fishing hole between Carr Inlet and Hales Passage on Puget Sound, where the current would sweep nutrient rich water into the waiting mouths of hungry fish, hopefully hungry enough to take our bait as our boat bobbed on the waves above. Now it is the beach where I live. I bought this house, compelled to live miles out of town, in order to be close to memories in space if not time. This is the beach where new memories are being made with my niece and grand-nephews as they come to play at “big beach.” Four generations of memories dwell here. This is where I wanted to meet with Granddad.
I didn’t consider the tide tables in my hasty decision, however. It was high tide, not low, and the beach was nearly submerged by the time I arrived home. Walking out there with two chairs, one for me, and one for him (the so-called “extra chair”), was not going to work. My only chance to go out there was with the kayak. But my kayak is not a two-seater. I wondered how I would encounter Granddad from this “one butt boat.” But the beach was where I promised him I would meet him and so into the kayak I slid, balancing, and pushed off from the bulkhead in front of my house and headed over to the sand spit.
As I paddled, I again wondered if this was going to work. But before even a minute had passed, the tears began to fall hard, and all I could say was, “I miss you, I miss you!” I was a 50-something with the heart of an 11 year old in that little boat on the water of Shaw’s Cove. I was weeping. “I didn’t say goodbye to you! I don’t remember you leaving! I thought you were going to get better!” At that moment, I passed over the point of the sand spit, the place where he had come to my rescue so long ago, and an unusual fragrance of Puget Sound salt air rushed against my face and the flood of memories of him came into sharp focus:
We were on the deck of the “Commando” fishing.
We were outside in the pool at Titlow Park with my friends, and he was launching us through the air, squealing and laughing, one by one.
I was resting my head against his wool jacket.
We were bowling in Tacoma.
The memories flashed through my mind like pictures in a slow motion freeze frame video.
Still, I couldn’t see him. The air was unmistakably a trigger of memories and I breathed in deeply, as if to send it to every cell in my body. This was not the usual breeze fragrance on Puget Sound. It was a breeze of memories.
Where was he?
One of the features on the sand spit is the decaying skeleton of a World War I Liberty ship. It was towed there as a charred remain of a surplus ship that was never deployed in wartime. Captain Shaw for whom the cove is his namesake, had it towed and grounded on the sand spit Greens Point in order to reinforce the spit against eroding tidal action. My Granddad and Aunt enjoyed a fanciful conspiracy, telling us children that it was a pirate ship that had come ashore in this very spot. It was many years before I knew the real story. Today its hulk is blackened, broken apart, with meter long iron stakes sticking toward the sky where they once held together the frame of a warship. Beach grass and flowers grow up through its beams, and the detritus of winter storms are stuck here and there in the stakes. There is a trail that runs along the wreck as one walks along the sandspit out to its point – the place where I found myself once stuck at high tide.
I could feel him with me. He whispered, “I would never leave you.”
At once I felt washed in utter shame. “I know you would not leave me if you could stay.” I told him. “I left you. I am the leaver. I suppose that means if I could leave you, I could leave anyone. And I did. I grew up to be a leaver.” At once I was having two conversations – one with my grandfather and one with my self. “Whoa. Is this part of my pattern? Acting out leaving relationships as a guilty 11 year old who stopped going into her dying grandfather’s room after spending months waiting by his bed for him to get well?” I questioned myself. It took nine months for him to die from his brain cancer after he became bedridden back in 1965. His hospital bed occupied the bedroom next to mine at my parents home. He died days before my 12th birthday. He was 83. My best friend. My life raft. And I abandoned him. I left my husband after 12 years of marriage, too, when our marriage didn’t “get well.” I left my religious community for a time when it didn’t go well.
“You did not leave me. You are still with me, too.”
And there he was. I could faintly see him, walking as he did, ramrod straight back, leaned slightly forward as if he were walking into a strong wind. His gait was unmistakably characteristic of a man who was purpose-driven to get where he was going in spite of his stiff joints. He was heading toward the tip of the sandspit.
I paddled quickly to meet him there. He, standing on the slim sliver of beach at high tide, and I, in my little boat out on the rippling water 25 yards away. He was watching me, smiling, as he so often did while I played as a child. His arms were crossed in front of his wool jacket. “I love you!!” I called to him. “I don’t want you to go! Please stay!”
He said, “You have these gifts from me to remember me. My eyeglasses. The wedding ring I gave Grandma. Your music. I gave you your gift of music, and your husband gave you your harp. Play your music. I made your garden possible. Make your garden a beautiful place for others.”
He waved a wave of goodbye. I looked back across the cove toward my garden and realized how he had made it possible for us to live here and to make the garden a place for others to come. I needed to do a lot of catch-up work on it, because my physical pain over the last year was too intense to allow me to prune, pull weeds, sweep and all the various chores. I realized how his life story was impressed on my children, nieces and nephews, and their children, so that it would go on.
And the song that came to my mind was this:
My G-d, my G-d,
May these things never end
The sand and the sea
The rustle of the water
The lightning in the sky
The prayers of Mankind.*
Shelo yigamer le'olam:
Rishrush shel hamayim
He was gone.
I sang the song over and over. It was as if he was saying to me, even the sands and the sea will pass away, how much more must we pass away? We are only here for a little while. But we will see each other in eternity, when heaven and earth pass away, there we will be in a new heaven and a new earth. All new, all whole, and together again.
For now at least, the searing emptiness that came with thoughts of my grandfather is gone. We met at the beach. And we closed the circle.
* Written in Hebrew by Hannah Senesh (1921-1944) went to Israel from Hungary at age 18. She studied at the agricultural school at Nahalal and joined kibbutz Sdot-Yam.
In 1943, at the height of World War II, she volunteered to go into Nazi-controlled areas in Europe to save Jewish lives. In 1944 she parachuted into Yugoslavia. After staying with the partisans, she went to Hungary, where she was discovered and executed by the Germans. She is known both for her heroism and her poetry.