My Old Mom and the Sea

This morning, on the ocean

I got up early on this first full day at sea, and was too excited to fall back to sleep. So I got up, got my coffee mug, my morning reading and writing material, and went topside to see what I could see of the sea. No one else was up but the deck crew dudes, doing all the deck crew stuff that requires doing while the rest of the ship sleeps.

I bid them each a good morning as I made my way with my mug o’ joe forward, enjoying the pitch and yaw of the ship in the choppy Atlantic waters, rocking me into the day while all was still quite black upon the sea, save a few distant ship’s lights, or maybe that was lightning?

I remembered I’m on one of the ships that has a topside basketball court in the very front of the ship, mesh-screened in so balls don’t go flying into the drink. Shootin’ hoops is one of my very favorite early morning things to do at sea on these ships, the two that have this feature. It’s even more challenging when the ship’s a pitchin’ and yawin’, and a wind is blowing across its bow.

I become Pistol Pete Maravich, making amazing moves, dribbling two balls at the same time, firing them up at the hoop one after the other, doing blind behind-the-back shots, stupendous sky-hooks, incredible gravity-defying, game-saving shots from behind the 3-point line.

This went on for 45 minutes and 2 miles logged on my steps meter, until the rising sun began to appear behind the clouds off the ship’s foc’sle. It was still about 10 minutes before the official sunrise time when I left Pistol Pete on the court, and transformed into Peter Ralston with my trusty Iphone camera, poised and ready to capture the new day’s dawn.

Trust me when I say, I do come up short of both of these legends, in reality, but in my mind, my fertile imagination, I give ’em both a run for their money. After this, I reheated my mug, found a comfortable spot in Quiet Cove, the adults-only section of the boat, and settled in for a little early morning quiet time. It was sublime.

I thought about my Mom, it being Mother’s Day and all, and how much she would have loved this cruise. She, like me, was a big lover of the sea. I will always remember two moments with my dear Mom, both involving the ocean. The first was a day in April, 2001, the day we moved her down to Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, from her home of the previous 28 years in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

After everything was done with the movers at her new home, while we still had plenty of unpacking and setting up housekeeping, we took a break, and hit the beach for a walk. Walking beside her on that beach that day, looking over at her, I saw her spirit just beaming at the realization of her lifetime dream. She had always wanted a home by the ocean, and now, in the Autumn of her life, she was there. This was where she would establish herself in her own right, and become the lady she had spent her lifetime becoming. I felt honored to be there with her on that walk.

The other moment was the day, eleven years later, when she said, “Let’s go to the beach”. She had been dying all summer, and dying to go to her beloved beach. I had gotten her there, for the first time that summer, the month before, on one of my stints as her caretaker during her downhill slide. I spent the better part of 3 months down there with her.

She was, by then, on oxygen, and had to keep her legs wrapped tight at all times, after having suffered a terrible edema problem. Her 88 year old body was breaking down on all fronts, while her spirit fought valiantly to hold on to life, to squeeze one last summer out of that tired old body. She did it, too. She made it to Labor Day.

It was the week before that we had been down in Charleston, celebrating Kathy’s 50th birthday, and drove up to Pawley’s to spend that weekend with Mom. Sister-in-law Dorothy was on shift as caretaker, and at dinner that night with her, Mom and Kathy, Mom had leaned over to me to confide, “I’m going quickly, now.” I’d looked at her and said, “That’s still what you want, right?” She beamed back, “Oh, yes!” Mom was ready to get on with the business of dying. She never messed around with things. She’d made it through that summer, and now it was time to go.

But, before she went, there was one last piece of business to take care of. One final day on the beach. I didn’t see it coming. She’d been really sick that day, and the next morning, had slept all morning. By the time we got back over there, it was unsure whether she’d even be up to going down to lunch at the Independent Living facility’s dining room.

But, she got up, got dressed, and came out, saying, “Let’s go out to lunch. How about Landolfi’s?” That was a quaint little Italian joint run by New Jersey transplants, like Mom was, that we all loved. Surprised, we all agreed, and had the most wonderful, and memorable, lunch out with Mom, there. She was so animated, so full of life, so in the moment.

As we left Landolfi’s, she said, “Who wants to go to the beach?” We, of course, all were into that, so to the beach we went. And there we sat, for three, beautiful, life-affirming hours, Mom in all her glory, no longer dying, no longer worried about losing words, just looking out onto the ocean she loved, with people she loved, and relishing it all, in the moment.

It was such a beautiful moment to share with her. Again, I was really humbled to be there with her. I had been the screw-up son, the one she probably spent the most time worrying about, the one who caused her the most grief and disappointment, but who she’d never given up on, and who eventually bloomed, later in life, and finally came into my own. That I got to be the one to be there for that was one of the finest moments of my life.

Nine days later, on Labor Day, I began the long drive down to South Carolina, from my home in Virginia, to be with Mom, as she drew her final breath. I was there, holding her hand, as her spirit left her body and ascended to the great oversoul of the universe, freed from that old bag of bones, young and free and full of life, the eternal kind, now. The holiest moment of my life, right there.

Two days later, as I rode my brother’s bike through Debordieu, I swear I saw Mom, out of the corner of my eye, riding right beside, slightly behind me, a much younger version of herself, with a radiant smile on her face. I said goodbye, then, and knew she was okay.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You were the best Mom this kid could ever have hoped for. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Thanks for always believing in me. You did, when practically no one else could. I’ll always remember that final, beautiful, summer spent with you, on the downhill slide. You made each and every moment of it count. I love you.

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