On March 17th 2020, a physician at a local rehab center told me, “Kim the safest place for your mom is at home with you……the seniors here and at other facilities are gonna get that virus and die”. The actual delivery was a bit harsher, but I will be forever grateful for his grave warning that may have saved Mom’s life. Starring at him in disbelief, the message was clear and without much discussion at all, my partner Nellie helped move mom into our home a few days later.
Nellie has stood by me without question as we navigated care for Bear. As you can imagine, a 92 year old post hip replacement surgery has a few needs that just can’t be ignored. Nellie and I have discovered the art of parenting, two middle age gals and a dog. Nellie defines the meaning of unconditional love. Without hesitation, she joined me on this most incredible journey.
As we navigated care for mom, a few weeks turned into months, months into a year. International Blue Water trips were canceled, paper work done at my new office, a couch next to mom’s recliner chair. Stories were told of growing up in rural Ohio, her first martini with Dad, our moves from the suburbs of Cleveland to the sultry south lands of Florida to the wild west of Marin County in the early 70’s. Stories were shared and shared again and again.
Each day, I savored listening to Mom’s voice, a sacred and treasured ritual. As we sheltered together, Moms’s life was unveiled, a life devoted to my brother Michael and I. Michael and his partner Dan are leaving their life in Portland soon and moving here to join us during this long last dance.
Unconditional love surrounds me.
For the last 410 nights, it has been a great privilege to tuck Bear into bed. Some nights, that magical hour couldn’t come quick enough but it became a ritual that I loved and now so deeply miss. Mornings are painfully quiet. Foxy, our 16 1/2 year old canine paces around the house. For 410 days, Foxy became part of the Bear Team literally standing guard next to her by the well worn recliner or nearby commode. Never missing a beat, my brother Michael called daily, an intricate part of the Team. I could hear the welcomed laughter between them when the mother daughter dynamic needed it most.
On Tuesday afternoon, we transitioned mom back to Assisted Living as Nellie and I make plans for life on the road again leading our blue water adventures. While on an intellectual and financial level I know we need to work again, my heart was still breaking, it felt so heavy. Tears were flooding my eyes, yet I put on the happy face, as my mother always did with each of our childhood moves. I reminded her that it was time to make new friends. It was time to be surrounded again with those treasures of her life, the antique pump organ, Dad’s artwork, her favorite photos that remained in her apartment like a time capsule. It was time for me to let go and throw myself into the ocean.
Eye of a Gray Whale in the Lagoons of Baja
Then, the magic happened. After dropping mom off and fighting back the flow of salty tears, James and I grabbed our surf matts and headed out. James has become a treasured gift during COVID. We have always been friends, but the ocean and its wonders unite and soothe us each week. Rather than swimming, we talk, we listen, we look for Simon, a distinctly hued harbor seal who joins us, sometimes swimming within a few feet of our fins. Simon’s soulful brown eyes meet ours each day expressing both trust and curiosity.
Off in the distance I saw the distinctive back of a California Gray whale. Turning to James, with a wee bit of excitement I proclaimed….“James, there’s a whale don’t be afraid….. follow me” Having heard this before, James knew the drill and we slowly kicked off in the direction of the whale, a few 100 yards away. We only caught a glimpse of this majestic sea creature as it disappeared from sight. I explained that Grays will often dive and make long swims. It was likely well beyond seal rock by now.
As we turned towards Cowel’s Cove to complete our usual swim route, the magic unfolded. A mother gray whale and her calf were coming our way! A surge of adrenaline pulsated through me, a familiar sensation felt over a career of guiding. I suggested that we tuck into the kelp beds close to shore. As we nestled ourselves into the leafy comforts, I started “talking whale”. Dipping my face into the chilly water, moans, groans and chirps were emitted in a playful rendition of one of nature’s greatest musicals, the song of a humpback whale. Mama gray and baby found it amusing enough to spy hop, lifting their heads out of the water for a better look. They turned their direction towards us. We held our position in the kelp bed as the curious pair moved in for a closer look. They approached within 30 feet, spy hopping as they glided towards us. Mama, weighing in at perhaps 70,000 pounds rolled at the surface, her pectoral fins reaching towards the sky as her baby made bubbles through a double blow hole, visible from our perch. When we moved closer to shore so did the whales shadowing these curious beings that made funny noises.
Eventually as the night sky was approaching, we decided to head in. Within minutes of our departure, the mother gray rallied her calf and headed north. Perhaps a lessen had been learned and it was time to get back to business, the journey to their Alaskan feeding grounds.
Throwing my wetsuit off and sticky clothes on with matted salty hair still dripping, I headed over to Sunshine Villa. Bear was tucked away in bed, but eased her tired body into a recliner chair and listened to my story. She asked some very profound questions, but mostly she listened with such great patience as she has done over the decades of my life.
Nature presents many lessons and sometimes a reflection of one’s self is revealed with acute clarity when surrounded by the wonders of our natural world. I am the mama whale now. I am protective, sometimes hovering, nurturing and caring for a special being that needs me. As time passes with changes ahead, I remain hopeful as I prepare for the next chapter, letting go and letting grow. Sometime soon, in the relative scheme of a long life journey, the spirit of my Bear calf will soar on a most amazing and profound adventure. Someday, I will follow but for now, she is tucked under my pectoral fin as we journey together.
Bear on the Road….Lookin for Whales
Oh……the phone is ringing, she’s calling now…..time for a visit.
I will end with a quote Mom shared with me, written in the back cover of the Book Jaguar. I had recently led my first expedition to Belize and this was a gift, November 5th 1987, my birthday. Bear was 58 and I was 30.
“What does a girl do but walk across the world, her kids in tow, stopping at stations along the way, with friends to tie her to the mast when she gets too close to the edge and when the voyage ends, what does a girl do?