Carlsbad

     I have this image of my mom, sitting in the late afternoon sun on the front step of my little house in Carlsbad. I was walking back from the beach, a block and a half away, after a swim. I waved and then called out.
     She recognized me then. She was drinking a little bit of red wine and had just finished a smoke.
     She was so happy with the trees and new plants that had been put in the front yard, and she talked about how beautiful they were with a simple and pure enthusiasm.
     She had lost the ability to focus sufficiently to read a book or a newspaper, or even watch TV and make any sense of it, but she could still carry on a good conversation with her kids. She laughed at my little jokes.
     We had just come back from a short stay in Pasadena. She had gone to the pub, had dinner and a couple glasses of wine, and the waitresses loved her. This little, gray-haired old lady, breaking down physically, but with a sweet smile and a discipline about conversation and charm, that was on call whenever new people were met.
     Born in Paris, she grew up during World War II, lived through the German occupation, and had an inner toughness that belied her frail figure. Paris
     She met my dad after the war when they were both part of a camping club that took trips into the countryside around Paris. Her nickname, I heard many times during my life, was “sac-a-pattes.” Or sack-on-feet, based on what the backpackers following her up the trail would see.
     Story goes that I came along and my dad decided the bohemian life was not the way to go for a family, and we all moved back to the U.S. We eventually settled in Pasadena where my mom had a full time job raising three kids.
     She and my dad threw great dinner parties and often went out on the weekends to visit friends. Mom always had a little make-up table and another image I have of her is sitting at that table, as seen from the hallway leading into the master bedroom, having finished with the make up, in a form-fitting dress, putting her hair up into a dark “chignon,” a swirl of hair pinned up on top of her head. The beautiful Parisienne.
     But mom did not like the constraining life of Pasadena and, when the last of the kids took off for college, my mom followed the next day, walking out with nothing but a suit case, headed for the beach.
     And there she lived for many years.
     When my sisters moved to San Diego and started families, she followed and ended up in a condo in La Jolla, close to the kids. Nick and Alli, two of her grandkids who were also twins, would get off the bus on their way home from school, come and visit with her for a bit, before catching the next bus.
     At Christmas time, they would bring a small tree by her place and help her decorate it. Last year, Nick, who was and remains legendary for his thrift, got the idea of taking the branches cut away from his family’s big tree, taped them together and constructed a serviceable tree, and then took it down to “Granita,” as the kids called her, to decorate.
     She spent some time in the hospital a couple years ago, and since then, I would call every day and drive down and see her on Saturday for dinner. Spending time with her took the same patience that one would need with a child. Everything was slow, and she could do very little herself. But her emotions were crystalline, clear and pure. And it became a great pleasure to be with her.
     On Friday after midnight, I saw that one of her home helpers had called on my cell phone, and I figured it was trouble. The helper has a little song, instead of a ring tone, with the words “life is short” in the refrain, and that song will forever remain associated in my memory with the words that followed when Bes picked up: Bill, your mom passed away.
     Mom had had a massive heart attack and sank down into the arms of her helper. Mom closed her eyes and she was gone.
     The paramedics arrived quickly but could do nothing.
     Since then, the only place I have been able to find any peace, the only place I can get away from the hurt, is in the ocean. On Saturday, I swam in the ocean off Carlsbad, out in front of the beach shack she loved so much, clean, cold water swirling around me, tumbling, white breakers, limitless sky, the pelicans gliding in formation overhead. It gave me a respite, a little bit of calm.
     I couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t rest and I couldn’t sleep, so I stayed at the beach until early evening. On my last swim, before going back to the shack to cook my traditional ribs, I stood in the ocean, the water boiling around me, watching the horizon and said quietly the same thing I always said to her when I dropped her off on Saturday night. “Bye bye, Mom, bye.”

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