We slip into the blue-lit water, our drip-splash slapping against the silence. My husband and I are the only two in the pool and it is coming on midnight. The resort we are staying at in Key Biscayne, a small barrier island off the coast of Florida, is oddly unpeopled. Canceled trips and altered vacations hang in the air, evidenced by so many dark hotel rooms.
A week earlier Hurricane Irma ripped into the island, toppling banyan trees like dominos, tugging up bushes, shattering lampposts, tearing through screens, and shredding the stately royal palms that line the hotel entrance. The storm literally de-fronded the trees. Leaving a single spear of palm jutting into the sky.
On my morning run, I cannot find enough clear sidewalk to stay off the pavement. I jump over piles of branches, navigate mounds of debris from damaged flora, damaged furniture, damaged toys. All clumped in wet heaps along the road. Landscape crews labor at every turn, more work than they can handle.
We were re-routed here from Naples, where the hotel we were planning to stay at remains closed and in need of repair. But Key Biscayne faired better than anticipated. The fellow from Cuba at the check-in desk told us, “We didn’t doge a bullet. We dodged a cannon ball.”
Cubans, Haitians, Dominicans, Argentines, Brasilians. They all work here and they could not be more polite, more warm, more helpful. It feels as if we’ve launched a little further into the Atlantic and pulled out our passports.
While the thrashing of ocean on this beautiful island troubles me, and my brother, who lives in Houston is still gutting the houses of his neighbors, and we are watching Maria bear down with a second, devastating swipe on Puerto Rico, the sun has returned to Key Biscayne. And I can’t help but let its warmth and healing settle me.
I trade my jeans and long sleeved blouse for a swimsuit and bare feet. We swim in the dark. I float on my back and look up into the sky. Crowded pool days of summer, with kids begging me to watch their tricks, boys belly-flopping inches away from my elbow, girls grabbing my ankles and hanging on my shoulders, are in the past.
And I have this moment. Of lying on my back, gliding slowly across the pool, hearing nothing but my own muffled movement under the surface. I’ve longed for this feeling of weightlessness, of levitation, of water over my ears, under my thighs, cradling me.
As I gently pull myself across the water, I look up into the night sky. Thin clouds drift across the stars. Opening vistas of cosmos and stellar lines. And I want to rise off the water, float among them.
I remember the yellow caution tape stretched across the beach, guarding tourists from felled trees and fallen siding. I gaze up at the stars, constellations arced over this storm-torn island and I feel small, even dispensible. Like I am nothing.
And I remember something one astronomer said. That we are the ashes of dead stars. Bits that once swirled around the universe. Carbon. Matter organized.
And to know this is not demeaning. For we are unique but not independent. And when I feel this nothingness, it is freeing. Because there is no need to “prop myself up,” as Rabbi David Wolpe wrote, “with artificial rigging to ensure I stay afloat.” And I think how much I want to cast off all that rigging and tether myself to God; let go of every pretense, pre-perception, or world-worn worry.
The next day we sit on the beach and watch pelicans dive and feast on a school of fish that have made their way unusually close to shore. I decide to comb the beach for treasures and walk alone, in and out of the soft tide. It has been months since I have really been alone.
For decades now, quiet and nature have always brought me two places. To God. And to my Mom. My sweet Mom who loved nature, and quiet, and God. And as I walk, my brain slips back to the day she died. What it was like to watch her take her last breath. That parting.
It was traumatic. An assault on my spirit. A severing so painful that with all my anticipating, I couldn’t anticipate the anguish.
Four months have passed and I am starting to understand, or believe, that every time I long for her, she comes.
I do not see her or hear her voice, but the Holy Spirit whispers to me every time, “She is near.”
My eyes dart across the shoreline, hunting for gifts, for something she would love. I can tell the ocean has been churning. The tide is bringing all kinds of things onto the sand, handing them over gently, like a flurry of fingers holding out gifts. Enormous pieces of sponge, large slabs of wood, a sock tangled in sea weed, coconuts split in half, bottle lids, a variety of shells, and fragments of broken coral.
And then I see it, hiding in the waves. A gorgeous sand dollar. Unspent. Untouched. Waiting for me. As if it knew I was coming. As if it had washed ashore only seconds before I saw it tumbling in the foam.
I examine the markings, its Messianic symbols of blood and death and birth, a message from the sea. A sign from the stars. A love note from my Mother.
I hold my gift from the sea. In this place where islands tell stories of destruction, of temporal-ness. While this sand dollar tells a parallel story. A story of preservation. Of existence. Of beauty. And I know we are more than nothing. We are eternal. With spirits that can wield great courage, overcome the leveling of any storm, and live on, even when our bodies turn to bits of carbon in the sky.