Victoria Lewis grew up on the Oregon coast, not far from Tahkenitch Lake. She taught school for 30 years, was a computer programmer for five years and has been writing full time for the last year.
West of Tahkenitch
On a clear Saturday morning in May I sat in the parking lot of the Tahkenitch Lake campground waiting for Tonia’s family. We were going to hike a couple of miles west, to the Pacific, and scatter her ashes on the beach. As I hung my day use parking tag on the rear view mirror I wished again that I hadn't come. Even though she'd died five months before, I wasn't ready to admit she was gone.
Gravel crunching under her hiking boots, Tonia's daughter crossed the parking lot and took me in her arms. In spite of my smile she knew I was a mess. I should've been comforting her but just like her mom she was stronger than me and she knew it.
"Are you OK?" she asked.
"This is hard. This is really hard." I said.
"Yeah, I know," she said.
After a quick stop at the bathroom we started up the trail. A canopy of douglas fir, hemlock, spruce and cedar arched over us, their slim trunks crowding the narrow uphill path. The sharp scent of evergreens and the faint, musky smell of fern spores, moss and dead leaves filled the still air. Here and there, almost hidden in the dense understory of salal, sword ferns, fallen limbs and logs, late trilliums lifted their trinity of white petals.
Tonia first followed this path to the beach when she was a kid growing up on the shores of Tahkenitch Lake. Now her husband was carrying her to her favorite beach for the last time. My throat closed with tears and my nose started to run. I pulled a Kleenex out of my sweatshirt pocket and glanced back. Tonia’s daughter looked up from the trail and smiled at me. I took a deep breath, wiped my nose and kept hiking.
The quiet of the forest deepened as younger trees gave way to mossy old growth. One tree seemed to stand on thick legs where its roots had grown down around its long decayed nurse log. Even in death a tree nurtured new life in the forest. The trail was steep and after an hour of climbing we stopped to drink from our water bottles. The smell of salt air and the sound of waves filtered through the trees, a sure sign the beach was close. It was almost time to say goodbye.
The trail ended on the crest of a dune and in the distance the water, flat and calm, spread to the horizon. From up there, in the bright sun, the push and pull of the ocean tides were as invisible as the new moon. Scattered across the dunes, patches of beach grass, roots holding tight to the blowing sand, leaned away from the wind.
After the cancer surgery Tonia was defiant, determined to hang on to life. "I'm going to outlive all of you," she said. Her belief powered mine. Of course the drugs would work. Of course she'd be OK. In those days I stood on firm ground, as hard as the asphalt where Tonia and I had played hopscotch and jumped rope six decades ago.
Then, out of nowhere a cold tide of doubt and fear would sweep over me. What if she didn't make it? How could I face life without my down-to-earth friend to believe in me? To mother me? In those moments, my knees gave out and I'd sit on the edge of the couch sobbing and gasping, engulfed in pain and confusion.
We started down across the tilted wall of the dune. With each slow, soft step we sank to our shoe laces in loose sand. Once on the beach the north wind pulled at our pant legs and the surf rushed toward us, pushing wads of foam like bunches of antique lace over wet, packed sand.
Shorebirds the size of hacky sacks, ran on short, stiff legs through the incoming tide. Leaving their nests in the sanctuary of the soft, dry sand above the high-tide mark, the Snowy Plovers, with their white bellies and grayish brown heads, raced in groups of two or three through the inch-deep water.
Tonia’s husband slipped off his backpack and pulled out a plastic bag. Instead of ashes it was full of small, rough rocks.
“Tonia loved agate hunting,” he said. “I promised to scatter these.”
Tonia's daughter, sister and I gathered around him, shoulder to shoulder, hands outstretched. I closed my fist on my share of the waxy looking, translucent stones. If I gripped hard enough maybe I wouldn't have to let her go.
Then, just like her mom would've done, Tonia's daughter took the lead.
"I'm going to throw mine in the water," she said.
Stone by stone we threw our votive agates into the shallow water. I felt like a kid for a minute throwing rocks into the surf. But before long the agates were gone and Tonia’s husband took out a small bag of white ash. Was it time already? We faced south, our backs to the wind. He tilted the bag and the ashes whipped away in a low cloud.
Suddenly the wind let up and the last of the ash, white as laundry soap, fell on the gray sand. We circled her one last time. Without warning a thick, foamy blanket of water silently washed over the ashes and pulled them west.
Tonia’s daughter looked down at her wet shoes.
"That's Mom telling me, 'Never turn your back on the ocean,'" she said.
We climbed back over the sloping, sliding face of the dune and stood at the head of the trail back to Tahkenitch Lake. Tonia’s daughter pulled a bag of nuts and dried fruit out of her pants pocket.
“Do you want some? They’re good,” she said, as if coaxing me to eat.
As I chewed the salty almonds and sweet cranberries I looked down. Flat to the ground, wild beach strawberries with white flowers and berries the size of pomegranate seeds lined the path.
Then I noticed something else. The push and pull of hope and fear of the last few years had stopped. In its place was a deep, still ache.
I reached in the pocket of my sweatshirt and closed my fingers over the smooth edges and rough faces of an agate and headed back down the path.