Casting Flowers to the Sea
My classmates and I grew up with the ocean. As children we learned to romp in the break and to respect the mighty sea. As “big kids” we ventured farther, boogie boards in tow, spending summer day after summer day in its salty embrace. The more adventurous among us graduated to surfboards and never looked back, while I, cut from a more timid cloth, have always been content to simply float.
We took the sea for granted in our younger years. In the carefree, languorous days before 16th birthdays and working papers, we spent entire summers at “The Cut” lounging in tangles of suntanned limbs and sandy hair, snacking on cold strawberries or delivered Chinese food, and taking long walks up the beach to Flying Point for bathroom breaks and visits to the ice cream truck.
We’d soon find ourselves in high school, a few weeks away from a summer break that looked very different; day after day cooped up in the shadows of retail jobs, praying for good weather on our days off. But first we had Regents exams, and that meant pack a bag, wear your suit, and the quicker we’re all finished the quicker we can head out. We suffered from some sort of ingrained amnesia that let us continue to conflate the seven minute drive (“It’s right around the corner!”) with the one hour walk (“We’re NEVER going to get there!”), but it was worth it to steal hours of beach time from the school day.
We took it for granted – the unrestricted days before first jobs and “real” jobs, our proximity, our time alone with the ocean before summer truly hit – we took it all for granted. And, we soon learned, we took a lot more for granted too.
I was fortunate enough to make it well into high school before experiencing my first truly scarring death, and even then to suffer only from the shrapnel of the event and not from a direct hit. There is the death that comes in old age, sometimes slowly and painfully and other times all at once, and it is in these ways that I had watched my community say goodbye to grand and great grandparents. But there was another kind that I hadn’t met yet, a devastatingly tragic and untimely death. I met this death for the first time through one of my closest friend’s eyes as she lost her father and saw the world as she had always known it unravel before her.
When my phone rang on the morning after the funeral and I saw that it was her, I assumed she was calling just to talk or maybe to ask me to come over and be with her for a while. But when I answered the phone she sounded so strange. She urged me to meet her at the beach and to bring my camera, and without any more information I did. When I got there I saw the flowers. Her father had been cremated, but after the funeral the pastor brought everyone down to the beach to be together in prayer. We bought flowers and one by one cast them into the sea. They had washed ashore in the break during the ceremony and when we left the beach was strew with blooms. But today they were different. All along the shoreline in an irregular, meandering pattern, the flowers were standing, planted in the sand, reaching towards the sun. The sky was overcast but while we were there sunlight began to break through and stream down onto our discovery party. I snapped a photo of my friend and her mother, walking arm in arm down the beach through the garden of his flowers.
We spoke later, sitting near the dunes, about what had happened and what it all could mean. We had no answers – I still don’t – but I do know that the ocean gave the family exactly what they needed that day. They felt her father’s presence in that garden, found meaning in the inexplicable, and peace from the sea.
Many years passed and many of my friends from that tight-knit high school community left Southampton and began planting roots in towns and cities across the country. I was in Boston, and one of my best friends in Baltimore, when I got the call. Her father had died; suddenly, unexpectedly. A small town like Southampton builds strong bonds of community, and as news of the loss spread across the country we dropped everything, changed plans, and headed home.
After the wakes were over, the harrowing funeral passed, and the burial concluded, friends and family returned to the house to continue mourning and to celebrate the life we had lost. We stayed for a while, but after a week of houseguests and noise and an endless menagerie of foodstuffs, my friend and her siblings wanted to get away. We went to the beach down the street and organized ourselves around a bonfire; a familiar tangle of limbs in the sand. Here, we cared for our friend in the best way we knew how. We sat by the sea together and told stories, first about her father who we had loved, and then slowly about other things – how beautiful the stars were that night and how many, where we had come from, this group of friends, and where we had ended up, and how much we loved her and would care for her. She fell asleep eventually with her head in someone’s lap and when the fire burned low we walked home.
Once more, at a beach just a few hundred yards away, we gathered on the sand to say goodbye to someone we had loved. It was a birthday party for a friend who dared to dream big, and always chased those dreams, but whose life ended suddenly, shockingly, tragically. Nearly one hundred surfers paddled out at The Cut – our old haunt – to honor him in the tradition of the surf community. As I sat on the shoreline with less sea-worthy mourners, the flowers from the paddle-out began to wash up onto the beach. I took up the one closest to me and eased out into the break. As I let the waves crash over me I thought of him and of his life and of all the ways that I hoped to let it inspire mine. I let the flower go and watched it fold into the waves, imagining our friend joining the rest of those that we had brought here.
We return here to the ocean to share in the company of the community we have built on these shores. We offer up those that we have loved and have lost to the sea so that we might feel their presence—vast and deep—in this hallowed place. So that we might feel them surround us, wash over us, and buoy us up as we continue to float.