On March 9, 2017, I rode with a minister as he drove his SUV onto a public beach near Galveston, Texas. Although it was a weekday at noon on the outskirts of town, the windy beach was not quite deserted; there were a few people in sight. One couple walked looking for seashells, and two different cars were backed up with occupants reading or napping inside, their legs on an open tailgate while they listened to the sound of the waves they faced.
He pulled to a stop a respectable distance from others who were there. On my lap was the box I’d picked up from a local funeral home. I unbuckled myself and stepped out onto the sand, put my valuables into a zipped plastic bag to remain in the car while the preacher did the same. I had unwrapped the plain butcher paper from the box earlier while waiting for the preacher at the west end of the Galveston seawall nearby, where I’d left my car. I handled the box with care while the two of us walked, seemingly unnoticed, down to where the surf was washing up onto the beach. Even though it’s common for Galveston, we marveled at the amazing number of seashells and sand dollars embedded in the wet sand.
The pastor pointed out how unusual it was to see so many almost fully complete sand dollars there in the sand and showed me how difficult it was to pull one out of the sand intact. It seemed we broke almost every one we tried. Admitting I was unfamiliar with the “Legend of the Sand Dollar”, the minister told me about it and how deeply rooted in Christianity it was. We talked about how fitting these sand dollars were to be here for a man like my recently departed brother, a man who had loved his God like few others I’ve known.
It was just the two of us there, and that simple fact made an impression upon us as we began a simple service. Our purpose was to follow my brother’s wishes that I release his cremated remains into the Gulf of Mexico from a Galveston beach he loved. For years my brother and I had spoken about this; in almost every conversation we had, he constantly reminded me that I must do this for him. The man that was both my big brother and my only living family member was one who kept to himself, with few friends or acquaintances, and almost no one close to him. That meant the fact that only a pastor and I made up the entire group of mourners would neither have surprised nor bothered my brother at all.
The man of God with me was a Methodist pastor who had not seen my brother in a few years, but considered himself an old friend surprised by his passing. He graciously accepted my invitation to perform a service, to “say a few words” on behalf of a religious man with few worldly friends. I felt compelled to include someone like this man, believing I owed it to my brother to be joined by someone we would both have described in advance as one who “does this on behalf of God for a living”. It seemed so much more appropriate than me saying a few words, reading a few scriptures from my Bible that had come with me on the trip to Texas. I could do that, even though I’m sorry to report I’d be required to do a lot of homework first. I would certainly feel comfortable doing that, but then I met this pastor who claimed my brother as a friend.
That’s why there were two of us there with the box of cremains instead of just me by myself. This is a good place to mention that I am a Christian who believes God is involved in making a lot of things happen that many see as coincidence. Things like going to Galveston not expecting to find a minister to conduct a service however small, only to find this man willing to participate in my mission by performing a service in front of just one person.
Things like the way, just as we were to begin our service, the cloud cover hanging over the coast the past many days broke, allowing beams of sunlight to come through and shine down upon us. Yes, really. We smiled at each other and remarked on the perfection of that happening, and began. Appropriate scriptures were recited, and prayers were said accordingly. There was recognition of my brother’s relationship with God and the end of the physical and mental pain he had endured for years, upon which I referred to my brother’s similar observation when our father passed away over 20 years before. At the minister’s request, I contributed a few thoughts of my own, and it was time to proceed.
With that, I opened the box from the crematory and removed the large plastic bag that contained the cremains. I carried it while we walked into the water along the sandy bottom, the waves pushed by a strong wind crashing onto us. The early March Gulf water was predictably warm, but still more comfortable than I’d expected. After a little more scripture and another prayer, and probably a few more words from me, I untied the plastic zip that kept the bag shut. I lowered the bag below the surface, and began releasing my brother into the Gulf’s water that he loved so much. It took a little while, moving the open bag in the water back and forth as the contents mixed into the surf, disappearing into the expanse of the warm water until those coarse grounds that were his ashes became unnoticeable.
The bag was empty. The minister and I walked back to the wet beach just beyond the reach of the waves and reflected on the experience. I sensed someone was walking toward us, and turned to confirm it.
What I can only call “a moment” was about to happen:
From the direction of one of the vehicles backed up near enough to the water line maybe 40 yards away walked a beach-attired young lady, one I guessed was about college-aged. A few paces away, she slowed and came closer respectfully. She excused herself, mentioning her name while apologizing for interrupting, hoping it was not inappropriate to approach us. She obviously was aware of the meaning of the pastor’s purple shirt and collar indicating he was clergy. After we assured her it was fine, she asked, “Did you two just do what I think you did?”
For a fleeting second, I visualized the ticket she was about to write me for not having the right permit or something. “If you think we were releasing ashes into the Gulf, yes, we did”.
“Oh, that’s wonderful, I’ve never seen that done before. Was it a loved one?” I thought that was a strange question, but I didn’t judge. Neither did I try to come up with a snappy smart-ass remark the way I often might. I simply answered her.
“Yes, yes it was. That was my brother. He died a few days ago, and that’s specifically what he wanted me to do once he passed.”
The young woman began tearing up as she said how beautiful she thought this was, but then quickly changed to explain why she was here today. She told us she was in profound pain, caused by a loss of her own: her grandfather had just passed away the day before. She described how much he meant to her and how much it hurt. Watching us, she had grown to believe that coming to the beach today might have been for the purpose of showing her that there were other people hurting, too.
The pastor had some comforting words for her. As she thanked him for what he said, she added, “I’m studying to be a minister”. She said she is pursuing a theology degree at the same University of Houston campus where the pastor standing with us attends similar classes a couple of days a week. “I’ve really been struggling with how I could ever be strong enough to do what you do,” she directed at the preacher, “Because the pain of my loss is so strong right now. But what I just saw the two of you do was so beautiful, so meaningful, it really touched me. I just had to come over and tell you that”. We both had words for her that included thanking her for doing just what she’d done, but may have made her tears rain heavier.
I thought the minister was in his element while he ministered to this young lady, so I was stricken at how he then looked to me with an unspoken encouragement that I contribute more to the conversation. I took that to mean he was inspiring me to “witness”.
Acknowledging the pastor was far more qualified to say what I was about to, I started with, “One of you does this for a living, and the other of you will do this for a living soon enough. I’m just an old man here to take care of his brother, but let me tell you what I think.” The pastor gave me room, and the young lady gave me undivided attention.
“If you’re studying theology, studying to be a minister, then you’d agree you believe that God does things for a reason?” She nodded. “Then I’ll tell you what I believe: I think you’re here for a couple of reasons, and I think God put you right here today. I think God put you right there whenever you arrived so that you could watch the two of us and what we were doing. I think he also put you there for my brother, and for me. And, I think all those combined to draw you over here to talk to us. I think you are here for God to soothe you in seeing what we did. I also believe you’re here because – look around. There’s no one here for the burial of a deeply believing, very devout and religious man like my brother. No one but his only living family member, me; and an old friend who is a Methodist pastor who could help properly send his remains on their way, back to the earth. Perhaps you were unwilling, and no doubt it was unintended, but I believe you are also here to be a mourner for my brother. I think you were put here right now by God because He knows your grief is confusing you. He knows you needed to see someone else in mourning, and how they were doing it. He put you here, in this very situation, knowing you’d be compelled to first watch us, and then come over and talk to us. He put you here for this very conversation that we’re having. He did so the same way He put me in this spot to be a witness, to give my brother a mourner. And a Christian one at that.”
The preacher had words supporting my observation, and it was clear that she was comforted by it all so far. Discussion on the beach turned to the passing of her grandfather, of the pain she wasn’t sure she could get over, of how she was with him often and always loved seeing him, so often she was struggling with how to imagine her life without him in it. We listened intently while she shared about the man that meant so much to her. I had reason to both hope and expect the preacher to jump in at that point. But, he didn’t.
Earlier that morning, when we’d met and got to know each other over breakfast, we talked about how we were both grandfathers. It seemed to me it should be helpful to this girl that we share our perspectives as such, without presuming whatsoever to know what her departed grandpa’s wishes might be. I looked again at the church man. I took his silence to urge me on.
“I think He also put you with us right now because we are both grandfathers. Everything I know about the relationship you had with your granddad is what you’ve told us in just a few words. I don’t know him, but I can see how much he meant to you. I can’t speak for him, and I can’t speak for the Reverend here, but I can speak for myself.” In my mind, I could now clearly see my own grandsons, the ones I love so dearly – maybe a little too much. My own grandsons, about whom I think too often how I so desperately want them to have a chance to get to know me; a chance to grow big enough while I’m in their lives to make up their own minds whether they liked me; to decide on their own whether they’ll miss me. My grandsons are fortunate to have two Grandpas. It’s up to their parents how much opportunity we have to interact, and I’ve been so lucky to be with them a lot. Whether or not their lives get something positive from us – from me – is not up to anyone. But it’s their decision how they remember me. I know how I hope they will.”
This is all a product of my never knowing the one grandfather I had, and I’m aware of that. Of him, I have only one memory from being a 4-year-old at most, being led to his death bed just before he died.
“I know that I want my grandsons to smile when they think of me. Sure, I want them to miss me. But remember that all of us who’ve ever lived all have one thing in common: we die. We live, we die. The three of us, even you, will die one day – just speaking for myself, I hope those all happen a long time from now. But life is fragile, and fleeting, and all too short. When we drive away from here today, we may not make it back out to the street. Any number of things can happen that end our lives, all directed by God. We’re ended at just that time, at that moment, for a reason. Just like the moment was chosen for my brother, and just like the moment will be chosen for all of us, I believe the moment was chosen for your grandfather.” We each used a few words to agree that even though this is what we believe, the truth is, we really don’t know anything about death factually. I emphasized one of the main premises of my novel “Gabriel’s Creek”, that for something each and every person who ever lived has or will experience death, the fact is we really don’t know how it happens. “But that’s a source for debate another day.” I turned back to thinking of my grandsons.
“If something happens today that ends my life, I want my grandchildren to not focus on the fact I died, but on the fact I lived, and they knew me, and I hope they got something positive for their lives from me. I wish that they smile with a lifelong memory of how much I loved them. I want them to live knowing they got the opportunity to know four grandparents, and along with their mom and dad, that they were children at the center of those six people’s universe. That they were a grandchild left behind who gave so much joy and pleasure to those people in their lives. And I want them to know that there are millions of people who never had that much love in their lives. I just don’t know how it can be a bad thing that a child not only has loving people in their life, but that they can go through their lives remembering that those people were there. My wife, the in-laws that are the other grandparents, and me.”
I was beginning to get as emotional as I’d been all day, proud up to that point that I’d been able to get through all this at least without showing the depths of my feelings. But it was the vision of my grandsons – the face of the eldest in particular, frankly – that both helped me empathize with this girl as I imagined her grandfather’s feelings for her, and made my tears flow, too.
“I truly have no idea, but I think it’s entirely possible that your grandfather felt the same way. So my advice is to smile, remember him with fondness, and be glad you had the time with him that you did. And use this to realize that any of us – anyone in your life, anyone you love – can be gone at any moment. That tomorrow, you may be doing this again. See your life and theirs as a gift, and treat everyone in your life that way. When they leave – yes, when they die – you’ll mourn their passing, yes, but focus on celebrating their life.”
I made my apologies as I wiped my eyes and got myself together. The young lady seemed to feel much better, for whatever reason. She hugged the preacher and I, she went back to her vehicle, and we to ours.
Inside the car, I said to the reverend, “I think it’s safe to say we just had a Moment there”. He agreed, and he drove me back to my car.