Saying Goodbye

She teetered out onto the wet rocks, groping behind her with one hand to grasp the hand of her son. In her other hand, she clutched a cardboard box tightly to her chest.

Those of us who’d stayed on the shore held our collective breath, not exhaling until she’d reached the outermost rock, the one she’d chosen because the water that whooshed around it streamed straight east, toward the ocean.

A woman walked by in the midst of all this, smiled and asked, “A turtle?”

“No,” we said, shaking our heads. She walked on.

Now that she was firmly in place on the rock, she released her son’s hand and began to open the box. It seemed so awkward, something that should be so solemn. Shouldn’t the box be more cooperative at a moment like this? Finally, she worked the lid free and pulled out the plastic bag. She began to waver a bit, but her son reached out and steadied her with his hand on her back. At last, she eased her way down to a kneeling position on the wet gray rock, and reached that lovely hand of hers into the bag.

For the next several minutes, the only sounds were the musical trickling of water headed seaward, dodging rocks on its way, and the sandy shoosh of my mother-in-law’s beloved as she released him into the water, bit by bit.

My youngest daughter pressed her face into my stomach, stifling her tears. My eldest stood behind me, huddled into the arms of her aunt, their tears sliding silently down their faces. My brothers-in-law stood nearby, deep in their own private thoughts.

And my husband remained on that rock, standing sentinel at the side of his mother, ready for her to reach for him at any moment.

When it was finished, Peter reached out to help his mother rise and they made their wobbly way back over the rocks to the shoreline where we all stepped forward to receive them.

And so we said goodbye to our dear one, Cornelius Bailey Houk. We released his body to the sea; his soul to heaven; but his memory, we will not release. That we will hold tight, and cherish, and share.

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