While sitting in Atlanta International Airport awaiting my connecting flight that would take me to my getaway spot for the next several days I kept telling myself that this trip was not to be squandered.
The elderly woman - Patty, my surrogate mother - whom I'd spent the past 12 years caring for had suddenly died, and I was days away from going into the hospital for a scheduled abdomonal hysterectomy. Grief, loss, sorrow, and the fear of being unemployed overwhelmed me like nothing I'd ever experienced. Somehow, I needed to muster enough willpower to leave thoughts of the past few weeks at home and live in the moment; to distract myself long enough for my mind and body to prepare itself for the next stage in my life. For a planner and a natural-born worrier like me, that seemed like a tall order to fill.
Perhaps you feel like I do when recalling a past or present crisis in your life. Just days or even hours before, you move along living your life like everyone else. You get up, eat your usual breakfast, go to work and run errands afterwards. You make an effort to eat well, exercise and have dinner. You spend what is left of the day talking with your family members, make plans for tomorrow and go to bed. Although sometimes a bit mundane, it’s a routine that you’ve developed and it works for you.
Then, suddenly – your entire life skids out of control like a car on wet pavement. When the careening finally stops and you realize that you’re still alive, everything around you is a complete and total wreck. Have you ever noticed that when Life hits you with a sucker punch it knocks the breath out of you and forces a cold stop, while it continues to move along like nothing ever happened? It’s like you’ve been shifted onto a parallel universe where the people around you go about their usual business without realizing that everything is different. You want to yell, “Don’t you see what just happened? Life has stopped, here!” But people continue their ritual of getting out of bed in the mornings while you struggle to touch your feet to the floor. They eat their usual breakfast while you can barely tolerate a bowl of cereal due to the knot that’s settled in the pit of your stomach. They go to their jobs; you no longer have one. Their days pass with not enough time to complete life’s many tasks. Your day drags on. And on. And feels like it will never end. You’re so consumed in your own grief to see that it’s your life that’s changed, not theirs. This is your battle to fight.
I heard from a dear friend during my time away. I told her that I was struggling in my attempt at being in the now; I couldn’t shake the despair long enough to enjoy even the simplest cleansing breath. She gave me in part, this advice:
Feel the warmth of the sun; appreciate the cycle of life, anomalous circumstances, compensation, beauty, simplicity, complexity. Life is good, my friend.
I understood and appreciated what she was telling me. I made the decision that I was going to sift through the muck clouding my heart and head and find the beauty that was surrounding me. As it turned out, the beauty found me.
I have a special fondness for Loggerhead Sea Turtles. They are some of the most beautiful, endangered creatures of the sea. The last time we were in Florida we arrived at the end of nesting season. During that time, my husband and I were given GPS coordinates to a turtle feeding ground. We kayaked to the area a couple of miles off shore and watched as several dozen or so rose to the surface to gather air before plunging back into the depths of the bay. This year our arrival coincided with the beginning of nesting season. It’s during this time of year that the female Loggerhead swims to shore and uses all of her energy to make her way to the upper area of the beach where she uses her flippers to laboriously dig a hole deep enough so that she can deposit anywhere from 75 to 100 eggs. Using her flippers once again she covers the nest with sand and then uses what little energy she has left to push her way back to sea. It’s uncommon to witness this kind of activity, however if you’re walking the beach at daybreak you can spot evidence of the turtle’s activity from the previous night. She leaves behind clues in the sand that looks like this:
Around mid-week my husband and I decided to take a walk on the beach. I didn’t particularly want to go but reluctantly agreed. It was around 10:30 PM. We walked silently, enjoying the solitude of our surroundings until I spotted a dark object on the surf. It was large enough to stop us dead in our tracks – most likely four feet long by three feet wide. We stood there watching as it slowly worked its way onto the beach. We looked at each other and I whispered, ‘Is that what I think it is?’ He didn’t answer, but we both knew exactly what it was – a female loggerhead looking to lay her eggs. We watched in awe as she struggled against the sand, dragging herself to the perfect spot on the beach. We remained nearby (within 30 feet or so) for almost an hour and a half before she finished covering her eggs with sand and made her way back to the water.
While we sat watching her in silence, I had some time to be alone with my thoughts. Here was this nearly three hundred pound creature who likely traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles just so that she could offer the gift of life to her offspring even though roughly, only one in 5,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. I thought about how incredibly precious her life was; how beautiful she looked and how incredibly lucky we were that she allowed us to share such a personal moment with her.
Then my mind started wandering to thoughts of Patty. For the past year or so she often said to me, ‘Ellen, if I died tonight I’d die a happy woman. I have wonderful memories and have known some wonderful people. I’ve enjoyed my life, and feel very fortunate.’ There I was, in the midst of dealing with death while the beginning of life was unfolding before my eyes. I missed her terribly at that moment, though my tears weren’t coming from the same sorrow I’d been feeling these past 3 weeks. They were tears of understanding, acceptance. We all lose people we love in many different ways. We mourn broken friendships; loss of pets, the end of marriages, and the death of those whom we cannot imagine existing without. We wonder how we will carry on. I wondered how I was going to carry on with all of the changes in my life that are happening. But then I’d shift my focus back to the turtle on the sand, and I felt at peace with it all.
When the sea turtle made her way back across the beach and slipped into the water it was around 12:45 AM. I walked up behind her as she was about to disappear and took this photograph:
Early the next morning we waited anxiously for the proper authorities to come and mark the nest - tamping stakes into the ground and surrounding the area with orange tape. They attached a sign to the site as a warning that it isn’t to be disturbed. We thanked the team of volunteers for their time and effort, and one of them asked if we’d be interested in adopting the nest. Along with a certificate and an open line of communication regarding the progress of the nest, we eagerly accepted with the standard $25 donation and asked that it be dedicated in honor of Patty’s memory.
I recently read a passage on grief. I cannot remember where I read it, but in essence it stated:
Grief is nature’s way of assisting us to cope with the loss we have experienced. We learn to take all the love and emotion that we had in the person we have lost and reinvest it in those living around us.
I take comfort in that statement, and on that night, felt the love and emotion over losing someone dear to me being reinvested into that turtle. She was a gift. She gave me a deeper appreciation of the cycle of life and reminded me of how precious it is.
As I await the Memorial Service on Wednesday I know that Patty wouldn’t have tolerated my sadness in this way. Instead, she would have reminded me to be happy that we had each other for as long as we did.
For that, I am very happy.
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