The ocean doesn’t factor much in my memories. If anything, it was a trickster. When I was a child in Hawaii, it would lull me with its disarmingly benign surface, warm and inviting, only to upend me with a sudden swell that turned my world upside down. I emerged gasping and chastened, salt water filling my throat and churning in my stomach. When we crossed the ocean, I looked out from our ocean liner in fear, aware that our vessel was no more than flotsam in the unending sea that stretched from one vista to the other.
This is different.
We spent New Year’s eve and morning with two families we have known since we were young invincibles. Before kids. Back then we sat in tight huddles (the women), punched each other’s shoulders (the men), sat on laps (the couples), drank too much and stayed up late. The talk was salty, silly and sometimes serious. If we talked of the past, it was about our childhoods, our relationships with our siblings, mothers and fathers. If we talked of the future, it drifted toward where we would travel, the possibility of jobs and whether our children would like one another. Through years of three-day weekends spent together, one belly after another swelled with pregnancy. We carried the future in front of us.
Three girls and three boys we had between us. For a time, when the kids were small enough to curl up in sleeping bags on the floor, we crammed into a house together. A house on the beach. We hiked through the cut in the dunes down to the blustery shore where the kids would run up and down, chased by the waves, laughing. I see us adults clustered on the shore, bathed in orange light, watching contentedly. At night, the children dropped into exhausted sleep to adult chatter punctuated with regular bursts of laughter.
Pulled by the demands of jobs and families, we reformed in occasional twos and fours — girls’ weekends, and less often, guys’ weekends. Dinner with two families. Our gatherings became more infrequent.
We planned to gather on December 22 for a long-anticipated reunion, all twelve of us, at the instigation of our young adult children. But instead of twelve, we were eleven. Debbie — Debbie the Loyal, Debbie the Connector, Debbie the Loving — Debbie was suddenly and irrevocably gone forever. A hole had been punched in our universe.
We gathered again on New Year’s Eve in Santa Cruz. Eleven, not twelve. As we walked on the beach, listened to our kids riffing on guitar, poured the wine, gathered over dinner, played a raunchy game, and finally watched 2013 turn into 2014, I kept thinking, “Debbie would have loved this.”
And this: “Where two or three are gathered in my name.” Jesus understood the power of community as a way to bring Him present.
When we gather, I do not feel a void where Debbie should be. I feel her presence. But I ache that she is just beyond my reach, beyond the thin veil that separates her world from ours, that I cannot tell her how much I love her and miss her.
It is our last full day at the beach. My children, now grown, are sleeping downstairs. The ocean laps nearby, seagulls cry and sea lions bark. Of all of us, Debbie loved the beach. I think of this as where Debbie lives now, watching the surfers stream like otters toward the horizon where the swells are biggest, grinning at the children who delight in their wet sand creations, turning to me with love. She is smiling at all of us.
I look for the words that fail me, and find this: