Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock

A Sanctuary While Grieving Far From Home

Student Work Narrative
by Shari Shepard Sep 15, 2014

I moved to Seattle from Berkeley four months before my dad died from cancer.

I would have stayed. I was unattached to place, work, or romance. I very well could have stayed. I knew he was dying. But he, being the fighter until the end that he always was, couldn’t accept my offer. He couldn’t accept the idea of me sleeping in the guest bedroom to hear him better at night. Nor could he accept me doing what needed to be done in the new quiet way that was so unlike me. It would have made it real, and he wasn’t there yet. He never did make it there.

Carolyn, a grandmother to me from my native Berkeley, sought to connect me with her friends up north when I moved last summer. One of her close ties, Ron, and his wife, Laura, invited me to housesit on Whidbey Island for the last week of September.

Before my week-long stay, they hosted me for a weekend to get to know the house, their dogs’ quirks, and the town of Langley. It’s a cliff-hugging hamlet with place names like “Useless Bay” and “Eagles Nest Inn,” home to farmers markets and a healthy grocery and old houses that line the main drag along the cliff edge of South Whidbey Harbor.

Friday evening we drove out to the water, met up with Ron’s friend Eddy, and hopped in a boat to go pink-salmon fishing. I relearned how to cast on a glassy sound and caught nothing. It was late in the season, and the sealions and porpoises were hunting alongside us. Every now and then one would arc over the water with a large dogfish in its jaws and flail it against the hard surface before plunging down again.

The gulls lingered above, waiting to snatch up bits of fish flesh that floated to the surface. I relished every moment out there on the water, holding myself steady on the rocking eddies. Ron and Eddy opened beers and wondered at the squall coming in from the west.

Everything around me was robust, youthful even — the rabbits, the centuries-old trees, the community gardens, the ferns, the porpoises, the seawater. All was deceptively thriving while my dad was dying at home.

Sitting out there I couldn’t help thinking about the uncanny simplicity of walking to a car, driving down a road to some water, and getting in a boat to fish and rest beneath the milky sky. I couldn’t help but think how I didn’t have to think about how I did these things, while my father was at home pre-planning every sojourn from his bed to the hallway to the doorway to the car, negotiating each step through cancer pain.

The next day Ron took me to the Whidbey Institute. It was where he and Laura had married several years before. There in its gateless arms was a labyrinth, a sanctuary built from native timber, and some paths through the forest. Ferns and moss blanketed the ground beneath canopies of pine. I found myself at the mouth of the labyrinth and stood there bargaining with my guilt, as if any emotion, nameless or otherwise, could be bargained with.

I remembered Carolyn saying something beautifully simple like: “Hold on to the serenity of it all, and send some to your dad. But make sure you keep some for yourself.” It wasn’t uncommon to hear such words coming out of Carolyn’s mouth, just so that you’d remember it one day while you were resisting what was.

After Ron and Laura left, I measured time by the dogs’ bathroom schedules. Every morning in the damp stillness with the dogs yanking me on their leashes, I saw the same pair of rabbits nibbling on the lawn. Langley was overrun after several breeds of bunnies got loose at the county fair years before. On the country roadsides and sidewalks, I saw longhaired ones, and some with odd splashes of color, some with awkwardly long ears, some miniature, some large. They were the kinds of sightings that brought me out of my emotional muck and made me laugh.

Other things happened. I decided halfway into my stay that I’d go farther away. In a neighboring town, I got fingerprinted for my application to teach English in South Korea at a small police department. A day later I received a message from my dad to come home. I drank tea on the back porch to ease the stomachache I got after my stepmother told me to wait. Nothing was certain. I couldn’t leave the dogs.

Everything around me was robust, youthful even — the rabbits, the centuries-old trees, the community gardens, the ferns, the porpoises, the seawater. All was deceptively thriving while my dad was dying at home. I thought about Carolyn’s words often. I thought how perfect it would be if I could give him the sensation of dew on skin and crisp outdoor air flowing into nostrils, the sounds of creaking evergreens rumbling through the walls and the big ravens calling to each other from treetops too high up to be seen.

I left the island by ferry, a day earlier than planned because I got the call: Dad had been discharged from intensive care on hospice. The sun had just gone down. The dock was quiet and swaying. Light raindrops drifted slowly sideways in the spotlight of the dock lights. Ahead of me was movement over water, by car, bus, metro, and air. I walked over the ramp into the hollow belly of the ferry and went home from sanctuary.

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