A Sacred Place
Spending a Day in My Idea of Heaven
My connection to this place is deep and treasured. We began to come down here the year after Dad passed, in 1997. Dad had always been the glue that held this large family together, as he was the great communicator. We all had some form of regular communication with him, and he would pass along any news of interest from each of us to the others. He was the hub on the family wheel. We weren’t sure what would happen with him gone — would we all just go our separate ways and eventually fall out of touch? Would someone else step in to fill the void he left? We were a family of nine (now eight), us seven kids and Mom, who lived in seven different states, all across the country.
That summer of ’97 brother Chris, the second oldest of the seven of us, invited anyone who could come to join his family and Mom for a week at North Myrtle Beach. From that summer through 2019, we never missed a week down here. Sometimes we even made it two weeks.
Mom was still working full-time running the Ala-Call Hotline for Contact 609 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, something she’d been doing for 27 years. In 1999 she finally retired, and began to look in earnest for where she would spend her retirement years. She decided on a lovely townhouse in Pawley’s Island, getting a great deal on an end unit before it was even built. Kathy and I helped her move down from Cherry Hill in April of 2001. It was a grueling move, and as often happened in those days, I threw my back out from overdoing the lifting and moving of big pieces of furniture and boxes, and the long drive down.
But Mom had finally made it to her place by the ocean, a lifelong dream. On the second day in her new place, after much unpacking and beginning to get settled in, she said, “Let’s take a break and go to the beach.” The beach was about a mile away, so we did that. As I walked along that beach with her, I remember looking over at her and seeing how she glowed, truly beaming at finally being at the place she loved the most, the ocean. She and I shared that love of the ocean. I got such a deep sense of satisfaction for the honor of being able to help her to get here. After all, she had helped me in so many ways to get to a place where my life began to make sense, after many years of futile efforts on my own to find that place where I fit. Mom never gave up on me. She’d always remained a champion in my corner, always egging me on to dust myself off and get back up and try again, each time I fell on my ass in life. Believe me, there were a lot of falls in my early adult years!
Each summer, more and more of the family began to come down to South Carolina to get together. In 2004, for Mom’s 80th birthday, everyone made it in. It was such a grand two weeks, that year. We had to rent three large beach houses to accommodate everyone, but it was truly wonderful. From that point on, we needed to continue to rent at least 3 places each summer, even after brother Chris and wife Cindy built their own place down in Debordieu Colony, which was where we always gathered. We had that many people coming, as each of the respective families grew, and a next generation began to make the trek, as well.
Mom had a couple major back surgeries in 2005, the first of which I came in for a few weeks after to be with her and help her manage things until she was more mobile. That began a slow, steady decline of her ability to get around, as her physical self began to wind down its days. She remained pretty sharp, mentally, to the end, but by the summer of 2012, she knew her days were numbered. I was with her at her pulminoligist’s appointment when he literally told her her days were numbered. “It’s only a matter of months now, Rosemary. You should consider getting home hospice care.”
I’ll never forget coming out of that appointment with her, both of us in a bit of shock at the conversation we’d just had with her doctor. “I’m not surprised — but still a little shocked”, she said, when I inquired as to how she felt about it. I felt the exact same way. Of course, brother Chris had been involved with the best Hospice Care group in the area, and had it all lined up to begin the next day.
But, for that day, we did something Mom hadn’t been able to do all summer, up to that point. As we got into the car, she asked, “Do you have beach chairs in the trunk, Pete?” I nodded that I did, and she said, “Let’s go to the beach.”
And, so we did. That day will stay with me for as long as I’m alive. There we were, her with her legs wrapped tight with ace bandages to manage the terrible edema she’d been suffering in her legs, her oxygen tank and transfer chair, but we’d made it down to the beach! I sat beside my Mom there like I was sitting beside her in heaven. Indeed, sitting on the beach was the closest thing to heaven Mom would know in this life. She dearly loved the beach, as do I.
At some point, after an hour or so, some very dark, disturbing looking clouds came in from the land side of the sky. I looked over at her and said, “Think we should head back?” She shook her head and with a determined assurance said, “They’ll just blow out to sea — they won’t affect us.” It was almost as if she was willing them to do so. Indeed, much to my delight, they did just that! Mom looked so pleased, the smile in her eyes just a bit brighter, the grin on the upturned corner of her mouth just a little more approaching a full smile.
But then, with little warning, those clouds blew right back in, and just opened up with buckets of rain drenching everything in sight, including us! The mad dash for the exit ramp we were sitting beside had begun, and we quickly joined the mass exodus, me stumbling and falling a few times on the way to the van, both of us laughing like a couple of little kids, laughing so hard that my sides hurt as I loaded her into the car, just having a blast together as we got soaked to the bone. It was a beautiful experience I will never forget.
A few weeks later, as the end was fast approaching, on a day when she hadn’t even felt up to getting up for breakfast, having had a rough night, she came out of her bedroom dressed and ready to go, saying, “Let’s go out to lunch!” Kathy, sister-in-law Dorothy and I were there with her then, and we were all surprised, but delighted, that she wanted to go out. “Let’s go to Landolfi’s” a favorite Italian/Pizza place run by a family from New Jersey. We had a truly spectacular lunch together there. On our way out of the restaurant, she said, “Let’s go to the beach!” Another delightful surprise!
We spent about three hours on the beach at Debordieu, this time not marred by rain, just three more hours in heaven with Mom — for those three hours, she was not dying, but very, very much alive. I have thought of that day so many times over the past ten years. It was such a blessing.
It would be ten days later that I would hold her hand as she drew her final breath, and could feel her spirit leave her body as she did. She was gone — but not forgotten.
Kathy and I came down for a few days, just a get-away, which we’ve found we need periodically, as most of our time is spent in our house in Fredericksburg, since the onset of the Covid pandemic. On our third day down, Kathy encouraged me to get out and enjoy the day, go do something for me — she knew I needed to do this.
I went out and drove down to the beach at Surfside, where we were staying, then drove down along the beach to Garden City, just enjoying driving through these seaside towns. As I was heading out to Rt. 17 from Garden City, to continue my southbound trek, I thought of Mom, and immediately became filled with an unexpected wave of emotion. I knew that feeling. She was with me. Her spirit may have left her body, but it didn’t go too far. She just shows up, from time to time, and I always welcome these visits.
I decided to maybe take a drive down to her old stomping grounds, Litchfield and Pawley’s Island. However, a big traffic tie-up coming into Litchfield changed those plans. I turned around, and found myself driving to Huntingtion Beach State Park. I almost felt like this was what Mom wanted. She didn’t want me to take a drive down memory lane — she wanted to go to the beach.
And, so we went. I spent the rest of that afternoon walking that beach, feeling her very close, feeling that commonality of our love for the ocean just course through my being, and for that day, I felt like I walked in heaven.