A few days after Karen died, the phone rang. It was the funeral director, informing me that her remains were ready to be picked up. Since it was a warm sunny day, I asked him if they could fit into my backpack. He said that they would.
It was an uphill bike ride, fitting, I thought, after the last years. When I got to the oddly pink painted funeral home, I was given a small plastic box that I placed in my green backpack. It weighed a little less than a newborn baby. And so, I found myself taking care of Karen again.
We headed off on the main road towards downtown. Bike rides were just one of those little things that we hadn’t been able to do during the years she battled cancer. We coasted down the long hill from the funeral home, past Safeway. Turned right at the light there and into the boatyard. Through the marine projects in various stages of construction or destruction, so much like the boat that had brought us together, twenty-one years ago. Then two good looking single women, Gail and Karen, both now dead, had come to me and asked if I’d be interested in buying a sailboat with them.
We bought the small daysailer from Gail’s neighbor Dave. Became part of the Fauntleroy Cove Yacht Club, a fake name for an informal group of sailors in the bay that allowed privileges at any yacht club when traveling. Dave had come up with a burgee, the little flag that real yacht clubs fly. He also put together the summer parties on the beach south of the Fauntleroy ferry dock. We dumped an old engine block in the Sound to make a buoy anchor for the boat.
The boat bobbed out off the beach, occasionally having its outboard engine stolen. If I didn’t get it out of the water by late October, a November storm could result in a call from the Coast Guard to come fetch it off the ferry dock. We raised our son on it for eight summers, sailing to every cove and park in the north and south Sound, the San Juans and Canada.
The beach parties ended as Seattle became more gentrified and rich. The laid back old-timers who had owned the houses on the beach retired, replaced by new, aggressive and protective multimillionaires. The newcomers resented the community feel, the fact that those above the beach had been allowed to walk through their yards for fifty years to have some fun. Fences went up. Police were called. Angry words exchanged. That is how Seattle is now. It was time for the boat to go to someone else, so it was sold.
We rode the bike away from the harbor and into downtown Port Townsend. I stopped at Karen’s favorite coffeehouse. Took a table inside. I put her box on the chair next to mine. Laid my bike helmet on it. Ordered two espressos, which made the clerk look at me with puzzlement.
The radio in the store was playing an old Van Morrison song, “Brown Eyed Girl” that I hadn’t heard in a long time. A song Karen loved.
I drank both drinks slowly, one at a time. Took out a photo of her I carried. There she was, happy, on a sunny day two months earlier. On her stomach on the hospital bed on the porch in the sun, smiling at the camera.
Bussing the table, I glanced at the man sitting beside me. His laptop was open to an ultrasound image, a womb with the baby inside, perhaps a soul coming back through the image on the computer screen. Karen would have laughed and said that it was part of the Circle Game.
At the north end of downtown was the other harbor. There, the Wooden Boat festival was getting underway. It was free Thursday, open to the locals with no admission. I rode the bike to the gate area, dismounted and walked it through the fair. Festive flags flew in the breeze against the blue cloudless sky, signaling the hard work and dreamers that make up the world of sailing. Karen had loved looking and taking it all in. So we did. At the point at the end of the harbor, I mentioned to her that it was here where we’d dug up an old crab apple tree. Her friend Martha and her Airstream trailer were forced out of their long-term parking because the harbor was being ‘cleaned up’ for proper campers, not long term trailer housing. Now it was crowded with cars, RVs and tents. More gentrification of the town. The tree was to be destroyed in the remodeling of the soon to be new campground. That tree had been like the kids she saved in her work. A thing living on the street. We had brought it to a better fate in our yard and it flourished under her care, blossoming every spring.
Leaving the festival, we rode past the food co-op, where she had armed herself for hand-to-hand combat with the dragon that killed her. Vitamins, potions, organic foods. All touted by the most righteous new age magazines. She tried them all, but the cancer proved more powerful than they were.
We returned home, to the place she loved, with the blue waters of the Strait in the distance. Michael was there, having arrived from Seattle while I was gone. After dinner, as the sky turned pink, we built a fire and watched the embers rise surrounded by the tall firs that had comforted her as she lay in her hospital bed. I took out the bag of her ashes from the backpack placed it on a plank and divided it in two.
As the sparks from the fire leaped up, circling, vanishing into the stars, Karen’s spirit seemed to dance on them. Finally, long after dark, under a sky full of the Milky Way and passing satellites, I handed Michael a shovel. We crossed the street, hiked into the woods, along the trail that led to a nearby pond. Climbed to a place on high ground, near a small tree. There, during the day, you could sit and see the Canadian shore. We dug the hole we’d been told we couldn’t dig, because you can’t bury your loved one’s ashes in a State Park.
After we placed her ashes in the hole, Michael and I sat and listened to the coyotes howling through the timber in the hills to the west, the frogs singing from the pond into the night.
Beautiful writing, Al! So heartfelt. I’m glad you could express this most difficult passage. So many goodbyes these days.
So moving and tender, Al. Eyes thoroughly hydrated. Thank you.
it’s all beyond words now
Blessings. This one is full of heart and soul.
What a just right way to honor the journey of someone we’ve loved dearly and have known so very well. I imagine Karen delighted with the knowing and the celebration of it all. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve offered it on to a number of friends who have lost their partners in recent days.
We’ll done Al. The story has a very warm and tender personal feel to it. A nice tribute to your loved one.
Thank you for a beautifully written, sensitive story of Karen’s last day. I didn’t know her, but I know her cancer story and what your lives were like during the struggle. You behaved courageously and lovingly even during adversarial times. I’m sure the park burial will ensure that her remains continue to nourish life. Sometimes one has to break the rules to honor a passing.
Beautiful. Love the flow of life, as we wrap ourselves within it.
Lovely tribute, Al. You’re an excellent writer. Thanks for sharing this.
Al, what a beautiful send off to your mate. The changes you describe in the old and new neighborhoods are like a rite of passage – ever changing. You had a lovely and tender final trip that day with Karen, and beautiful memories to soothe your soul. Thank you for sharing such an intimate moment.
Thank you. I’m waiting for that call right now.
Very sorry Ted.
Thank you, Al !
Touching review of life, love, & what follows.
Love ya’ man… 😀