I've been to the oceans, both Atlantic and Pacific, and enjoyed each for very different reasons. At nineteen I took my first plane ride, solo, to visit Southern California for two weeks. There I met up with my best friend, who visited her dad there each summer; soon after I arrived, my brother and his best friend joined us. Renee and I stayed at the apartment of a family friend named Dolores. We slept on her living room floor, and took in a kitten that we found on the patio. At night we met the boys at the ocean's edge, where we drank beer, looked out into the black sea and sky, and talked about the meaning of life. It was glorious. I was very young. The ocean made me feel small and strong at the same time.
My visits to the Atlantic came much later. My eldest daughter fell in love with an east coast boy. She had met him online and we traveled to the region first to meet his family, then a couple years later to celebrate our children's marriage. In Maine we walked out on rocky shores to see the urchins. Later we soaked in sun and shopped in tourist trap shops and ate lobster dinners. It too was glorious. We made friends who became family. It was a scene from a book: young romance, good food, and the scents of sea spray and pine.
I'd seen the oceans and I'd spent much time in pools, lakes and rivers. Sometimes I was elated just to swim in the local park at Turtle Cove, more than happy to relax on the pontoon near my brother's trailer. Sleeping in a hammock, I was rocked to sleep as I traveled to islands in Brazil.
I loved the waters, from Lower Crooked to the Amazon River. Both oceans filled me with awe. But I needed the sea. Turquoise and exotic. Faraway and warm. For so long, I've dreamed of taking a trip there. And now I've gone and come back, and I've so much to say that I'm not sure I can. For now I just have to feel it, but I don't want to forget.
For many, this might be laughable. A trip to Mexico for a week -- so what? A stay at a resort with a couple thousand other tourists? Big deal. But for Aaron and me, it was indeed a big deal. We had had no honeymoon, no trip for a whole week together for just the two of us. That alone would have made this magical - the fact that we finally gave ourselves this gift. But the sea...it gave to me what I have trouble finding elsewhere.
Ten years ago next month, Celeste was born, and four months later she died. When I wrote about her in my book, I thought, at first, that I was done telling her story. Soon I learned this was hardly the case. I found her inspiring me to change and to help others do the same. She provoked me to continue sharing with all the gift that we each have in this one life. She made me passionate about reminding people of this. She made me want to live a life of courage and grace, the kind of life that she had lived.
Those who have read Celeste's story will recall (I hope!) the image of the sea at the end. I share an image of "The Sea of Souls" that I believe, in some way, will greet us when we get to Heaven. The water is a place of healing on this earth, and I have no doubt that an eternal sea will be a part of the glory of the Beatific Vision.
One of my goals on this trip was to photograph the sea. I have in mind a very special project for Celeste on her tenth birthday into Heaven. I knew I would feel her in the sun and the sand, and see her in the sky and especially in the azure waters. Oh my friends, she was there!
One morning we got up before sunrise and headed to the beach. I don't recall if I've ever seen a sunrise....and I know I've never seen one like this. The sky was cloudless, and as the moon crept over our shoulders, the smallest amount of warmth broke the horizon. As I took one photo after another, catching the movement of the sun that we scarcely notice once it reaches midday, tears streamed down my face. A man and his daughter walked along the sand. The little girl smiled at me and ran after her dad. I snapped a photo just as she raced by. She was dressed all in pink.
I looked at Aaron and he smiled, his eyes wet with tears as well. He showed me the time. It was 7:23. Celeste was thinking of us; her birthday into Heaven was on July 23.
Another morning we took a long walk around the resort. There was a chapel at the furthest point from the lobby; it was where couples who wanted a church-like setting said their wedding vows. It had a crucifix, pews and a statue of Mary, but of course no tabernacle, so it was pretty but not truly sacred. On the way back we found an empty area of the beach that was quite lovely. Of course we stopped to take photos -- there was a perfect palm tree framing the scene of the ocean. I took a shot of Aaron and he took one of me. I glanced at the pictures and thought they looked great. As we started to head back, I was overcome with joy. The natural beauty was just so overwhelming, and I felt such profound gratitude. I said a little prayer of thanksgiving, and my heart felt Celeste so strongly. I knew that she had played a part in getting us there. I imagined her grinning and hugging Jesus and thanking Him for giving her Mama and Daddy such a special gift.
I took a moment to close my eyes and raise my face to the sky. When I opened them I saw her. A tiny monarch butterfly stopped for a moment on the pampas grasses that waved in the breeze. I approached and she was gone, and I begged her to come back, but that's not how it works. When visitors come from heaven they are usually unexpected and their stay is brief. The beach was beautiful, but she was eager to return to true paradise, and I can't blame her for that.
Later that day, or maybe it was the next, I looked through the photos again. This is the part where I say that I could not believe my eyes, which is hokey, but it's true. That palm tree where we took photos of each other? Someone had painted a heart on it. I didn't notice it when I was taking the photos, I swear. And even if I had, it was still perfect. What are the odds of there being such a perfect piece of graffiti in such an unlikely place? The odds were great, of course, because there are no coincidences. There is grace. There is love. And there are so many blessings for those of us willing to open our eyes and see with our hearts.
So I return from the sea, to home in a land of snow instead of sand, but the warmth remains. I'm committing once again to honor Celeste with a life of joy.
She deserves that. And so do I.