On the Reality of Life, Death, and the Ocean

In the span of the last eighteen hours, I have arrived home from my honeymoon and attended a memorial service for a friend.

That sentence sums up the paradox I’ve been struggling to understand for the last several days, beginning even before I knew my friend’s life was in jeopardy.

David and I got married in March and delayed our honeymoon so we could, essentially, have a baseball honeymoon. We planned a two-week trip that spanned four cities, an entire coastline, six baseball games, and one amusement park. It was, to say the least, epic. At least in theory.

In practice, it began with a small disaster. To sum up, American Airlines lost our luggage on our first day of travel. And, not to spoil the end for you or anything, but: We never got that luggage back. Even still, 15 days later and home, we are missing a big ol’ suitcase full of almost all the clothes I owned before we left. And I cried about it during the first couple of days. And then we bought new stuff and moved on with our vacation.

And it was a great one. A large chunk of it involved the ocean. We spent two hours on a cruise in Seattle that started in Lake Union and ended in the Puget Sound. We ferried across the bay from San Francisco to Oakland. We spent almost fourteen hours driving down Highway 1, perhaps better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We stopped off at turnoffs and cliffs and beaches along the way and breathed deeply of the salty air every chance we got.

And all this ocean-y fanfare (plus the other fun stuff we did along the way) represented a way for us to honor our marriage. To celebrate our wedding, three months past. To mark the symbol of our new journey and life together from this day forward.

At one point along the Pacific Coast Highway, when more than a week had passed since the last time we saw the suitcase we checked in Kansas City, we stood along the coastline together. The surf crashed loudly in, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. We ran forward after the water pulled away from the edge of the beach, and laughingly retreated as it came rushing toward us again, squealing if it touched our toes because we didn’t want to soak our shoes and socks. We watched surfers try and fail to catch waves over and over again.

And I was suddenly struck with the immensity of it all. This ocean in front of me – of which I could see only a fraction – was so powerful and so vast and so alive. And I wanted to be part of it.

A couple hours later, a little farther south on that same highway, that same coastline, we stood on a rocky bluff, on top of a cliff, at the edge of the water. This time we looked down on the water, and even though I was above it, I still felt smaller than I’ve ever felt. And, inexplicably, I again felt that pull to be part of it. For the first time in my life, I think I finally unraveled at least a little bit of what the appeal of surfing must be. Surfing is not about conquering, or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be about being part of something so much bigger than yourself.

Which is what we all want and chase after in some way or other. It’s why we join organizations for causes or for religious beliefs. It’s why we participate in the live-tweeting of big events, whether it’s sporting events, conferences, or award shows. It’s why we run after any number of thrills and rushes in this life. To connect, and feel connected, not only with the people around us, but with the living world itself.

It’s why I got married. It’s why I had the wedding that led to the honeymoon that brought me to the ocean’s edge. To be part of. To connect. To understand a fragment of life. To learn, grow, weep, mourn, sacrifice, rejoice, and be victorious. To be in harmony.

While we made that picturesque drive down the coast of California, I got word via text that a friend of mine back in Kansas City, back at home, had taken suddenly ill and wasn’t expected to survive the day. He was sedated and on a ventilator. He was unresponsive and unconscious, as far as I know. I couldn’t even say goodbye to him.

The last time I saw Ryland was last summer. We were doing what we usually did when we got together – watching baseball at Kauffman Stadium. He spent most of that night expressing his disbelief at my sudden engagement and pending wedding, for which I can’t blame him; at that point, I still couldn’t quite believe it myself.

The last time I spoke to Ryland was in May of this year. He hadn’t been able to attend my wedding, but I knew just the same that my friendship was important to him. The last conversation we had, he initiated by asking when we could get to a Royals game. With the craziness of newlywed life fully upon me, I intended to contact him to set up a baseball outing after we got back from our honeymoon; I put off a lot of social engagements until after our honeymoon, at which time I thought I’d be able to get a better handle on my new life and schedule. Unfortunately, this particular social engagement will now never be scheduled.

As we drove down the PCH and I began to share with David all my memories of Ryland and the time we spent together, I started to feel guilty. Many of my friends were back in Kansas City, standing around a hospital bed and grieving. One particular friend of mine was lying in that hospital bed and dying. And here I was, daring to enjoy myself, celebrating life, reveling in the simplicity and the reality of my aliveness.

It was so unfair. I couldn’t comprehend the juxtaposition of the two. Honeymoon and death do not go together. The sunny, chilly beach and the sterile, dank hospital bedside should not be invited to the same party.

Life, death, joy, suffering, celebration, mourning.

How could I do both? How could I be experiencing both?

And yet I was. I saw some of the most beautiful parts of the world I’ll ever see in my life, and I saw them through tear-filled eyes.

And then I thought about how silly it was that I had been crying about my lost luggage just nine or ten days before. But if you think about it, there’s a paradox in there too. We are told not to sweat the small stuff, to see the forest rather than the trees, to look ahead, to remember what really matters. On the other hand, we’re told not to cast away any moment, no matter how small it seems, to stop and smell the roses, to appreciate the little things, to live every day as if it were our last.

Of course, this isn’t really a paradox. The message, when you situate both paradigms right next to each other, is that the little moments are important because they form the mosaic of the big picture. The trick is to distinguish which moments are worth our tears, our attention, and our awe; and which moments can be forgotten.

My luggage can be forgotten, certainly. And it mostly has been. The crashing ocean waves will never be forgotten. And neither will my marriage. And neither will my friend.


1 Comment

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One response to “On the Reality of Life, Death, and the Ocean

  1. Aunt Leigh

    Beautiful. *hugs*

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