I just got off the phone with my parents who are now 85 and 86 years old. They called because they were at Starbucks and they wanted to share that time with me. It’s one of our favorite things to do together when I go back home to where I grew up, and to where they’ve lived for 52 years now.
All of a sudden, an early memory floats to the surface: it’s the last day of vacation at Canon Beach, Oregon. A couple days before, a local kid who lives here with his grandfather brought me a souvenir from the tide pools. A tiny starfish. He’d collected 10 or 12, and they were nearly dry. Their arms were stiff and straight, preparing for death. I thanked the boy for his present, though I wondered why he’d chosen me to receive this sad gift. I watched him walk away, his navy blue windbreaker bobbing up and down, getting smaller and disappearing. Then I ran to the water, scooped a bucketful of ocean and dropped my starfish in. It fell — more like a leaf wafting on air — to the bottom of the pail.
After that, I sat back to wait for the miracle. The dinner bell rang, my grandmother calling the generations inside. That was okay, because back then I still knew that miracles could happen unattended. Dinner over, I returned and one had. “Sammy,” the starfish — named in the stubborn belief that living things have names and named things, it follows, have life — was clinging to the side of the bucket. After that, he never let go.
He was mine less, I think, as a possession than as proof. An article of faith. Which is why, as I made preparations to transport Sammy home to Los Angeles, the verdict that he wouldn’t survive the trip and would have to remain behind, was not a possibility I’d considered.
Once considered, I didn’t believe them. Adults, in my experience, didn’t like mess. Nature’s gifts always came unplanned and unprepared for. That was its way of showing you how anything could happen, and would. But, it was teaching me another lesson, as well — the difference between me and them — which is what adults had become that summer.
That last morning, my father carried me and Sammy in his red plastic pail down the beach till we arrived at Haystack, that giant rock jutting out of the sea. I cried all the way there; I was simply a child grieving the first conscious loss of my life. My tears were lost in the coastal Oregon rain. The gray, sad sky never let up.
I buried my face in my father’s yellow sweatshirt and knew that he wasn’t to blame. With my head on his shoulder, looking back the way we had come, the sand down the beach as far as I could see was marked by my father’s footprints.
When he let me choose the place to leave Sammy, I remember I chose a pool teeming with the life of the tides, one protected from the crashing waves by a basalt ledge of Haystack’s 16 million year old rock. “Say goodbye,” my father said, “and think how every starfish that you see for your whole life might be your starfish.” I concentrated; I waved goodbye. I knew that I would never see him again.
I’m 62 years old. I still have a clear image of my father and me on that beach. And, what I’m struck with now is the gift my father gave me, one that has lived through a lifetime of losses — the gift of hope.
If, in looking back, we can map the places where our lives took off at an angle far different from the original line, then this for me would mark the first and greatest trajectory. My life was changed. As Sammy was set adrift to wander the world of my imagination, I was also set loose in that drifting dream. Life at sea seemed risky, navigation difficult, loss inevitable, and hope an act of courage.
Just before I said goodbye and my parents got back to their coffee, I heard Tina, my mother’s caregiver, in the background asking, “When is she coming down?” My father repeated the question to me, then added “Ahh, your mom says you told her you don’t know.”
Memories come for a reason, don’t they? When I’m done writing this, I’ll get online and book my ticket. It’s time to go home.