The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
A Long Goodbye
I held my son, rocking him on the porch outside my bedroom and I cried.
Pop left a message for Harry to call him at the conservancy house at his earliest possible convenience. My father, like me, was overtaken by Sunshine's death and he had no idea what else to do.
He was too shaken to go to work.
Harry called his secretary each morning to check his messages at the conservancy. As soon as Harry heard Pop's message, he called the conservancy house. The message told him something had gone seriously wrong. My father never left a message for Harry when he was in Washington. Pop hadn't missed a day's work in the six years he'd worked for Harry.
Harry had inquired about Sunshine's health to my father often. He had some idea her condition was serious. When Sunshine took a turn for the worse, she was gone in a week. None of us were prepared for it.
Shortly before noon Mama called Pop to the phone.
My father told Harry that Sunshine died during the night and the family was not doing that well. He told him work would be impossible until his daughter-in-law was put to rest and Pop didn't know where to start.
“Do you have a place for her, John?” Harry asked.
“They've just come for her, Harry. We haven't had time to take a breath. I don't know what we'll do. We're in shock at the moment.”
“If Clay has no objections, I'll make the arrangements. I've buried my father and one of my brothers in the last two years. I need make only one call to set the process in motion. I've done business with the proper parties and they know me. Tell Clay I'll be on my way home in... two hours. I have a vote to make at one. After that, I'll be in the air within a half hour.”
“Clay will be glad to hear that, Harry. You go ahead and make the call on my say so. I can't think at the moment. That would be a big help. Clay's not up to this.”
“It'll take them two hours to have the plane on the runway ready to go. In the mean time I'll set the wheels in motion to take care of Sunshine before I leave the Capitol. All the Olsons need to do is mourn. Give Clay my best. Tell him my thoughts are with him, John. I feel so bad for him and all the Olsons. She was such a beautiful girl.”
“Thank you, Harry. I wasn't sure how I was going to get through this. It's like I'm about to bury one of my own children. She'd become part of our family.”
“How's Clay taking it, John.”
“Not well. He has Dylan at the moment. He hasn't let go of him since Twila fed him earlier.”
The phone call ended and the responsibility for making the arrangements for Sunshine passed from Pop to Harry. I wasn't going to be any help to anyone. I knew nothing about burying someone. I had no thoughts about a funeral or what to do.
I'd been rocking on the porch outside my bedroom with Dylan in my arms since they took Sunshine away. Then Pop came up to tell me about Harry's call.
“Harry is going to make the arrangements for Sunshine. He's on his way home, Clay. He's worried about you.”
I nodded, feeling temporary relief for a problem I hadn't considered. Of course Sunshine had to be buried.
I felt relief because Pop didn't need to do it. I was nineteen and unacquainted with the ceremony surrounding death. I was just becoming accustomed to being alive.
Hard wasn't a word I knew when it came to my life. Everything had been too easy for me. The year before I was dealing with Boris being gone. As awkward as my relationship with Ivan became after that, he was just up the beach when I couldn't be with him.
I thought Ivan would always be just up the beach.
Dealing with the loss of his brother wasn't easy on either of us and I wouldn't crowd him when he was drowning his sorrow in booze. Then I dealt with Ivan leaving the beach. It was like death of a sorts. He was coming back, one day, I thought. It's what he said and it was still my hope he would. He called less frequently once I married Sunshine. When he did call, it was to update me on what was going on concerning his search for Boris. He always said he loved me.
Sunshine didn't take Ivan's place. She'd created a place for herself in my life. I couldn't be with the person I loved completely and I couldn't love completely the person I was with. Sunshine gave my life a depth it hadn't had before she came into it.
There was no passion in my relationship with Sunshine but there was affection. I wouldn't have married her if I didn't love her. Sunshine wasn't looking for passion. She was looking for a safe haven. Passion was how she paid her way as a young girl out on her own.
She knew the price if she wanted to be fed and relatively safe. The currency of teenage street people was simply sex. Take it or leave it. It was a suit yourself world. If you didn't mind not eating, you could refuse to play the game.
How long could someone go without food?
Being with me allowed her to relax. Our friendship was unconditional. I wanted her to be herself and I assured her I had no desire to jump her bones.
Sunshine knew far more about life than I did. She gave me an education while enjoying my company and concerns for her. She was just fine the way she was and now she was gone.
The time I'd been spending with Ivan, I now spent with Sunshine. She'd merged into my life while I did a final favor for Ivan. Speaking of preordained blessings in my life, Sunshine was one of those. For nearly a year she'd filled the void Ivan left. She'd done it her way and she departed on her own terms.
I'd be perfectly alone now, if Sunshine hadn't given me the gift of Dylan. He was all that was left as proof of Sunshine's existence. Her body was empty, life gone from it. She'd gone on to whatever comes next, but she'd left me with a life to cherish and care for.
Like Sunshine didn't replace Ivan, Dylan didn't replace Sunshine, but he was my responsibility. I wouldn't have time to mourn for long. No matter what I intended to do, Dylan came first. Now I had to go to school, work, and make something of myself for my son's sake.
I sat and rocked on the porch outside my bedroom next to the empty rocker Sunshine would take so she could rock beside me. My rocking wasn't in vain. There was a lot to think about. After all was said and done, Dylan was at the center of my universe and I his.
There would be an overwhelming grief and sorrow for the next few days. It would pass and we'd go on with living. I would go on with what I'd started before Boris disappeared, before Ivan left, and before Sunshine came into and left my life.
My life's plan was waiting for me to show up. Out of sorrow came the next blessings. I can't pretend I understood it then. I can't say I understand it now.
I didn't believe in God, but every day, in the Gulf and under it, I observed the power of the universe at work around me. I believed in the power of the universe. This was what my life was about.
The Olsons were short some kids. We'd made a place at our table for Sunshine. It required Mama alter some clothes, Lucy seeing her as the sister she never had, and I took a second rocker from the storage shed to the third floor porch.
Sunshine settled into our lives as if we were made for her. She'd been created to make us smile for a little while. Mama adored her. Pop saw her as an innocent sunny child, not unlike his own children.
Standing in the doorway to her room, I tried to remember if she'd really been there and how she could be gone so fast?
A year was suddenly too little time to get to know someone. We didn't even get a whole year.
Sunshine wanted to have her baby. She believed Dylan would be someone special without knowing how special she was. Hadn't she noticed our reaction to her? If she saw us now she'd know our hearts were breaking.
Dylan gave me a purpose. From the time Twila left, after feeding him that morning, he'd slept in my arms, unaware of his loss. I couldn't stop crying but I didn't stop thinking either. I saw my future and it hadn't changed since the day I walked up the beach to get Sunshine. My future was still right there waiting for me.
Dylan would never know his mother but he'd know more love than most children. Everyone in the conservancy house would mother him. I'd double as his daddy when he needed it.
Dylan loved the “Sunshine room.” It was his room. He related the sunshine to the murals Mama and Lucy painted for his mother. In his room the sun would always shine.
I'd see to his needs. If I couldn't provide something that was important, my family would furnish it, and we'd learn to smile again, when we talked about Sunshine. She'd made an impact on us, even though she left us before we were ready to let her go.
“You OK, Clay?” Pop asked, as I rocked and wasn't completely aware of him as my mind sorted through my sorrow.
“I think so,” I said.
I rocked with Dylan in my arms and Pop in the doorway.
“Harry called,” Pop said, relating the conversation to me.
“Is that OK with you, Pop?” I asked, wanting my father to tell me he approved of Harry's plan.
“Like Harry said, he knows everyone. I don't know who to call or where to start, Clay. I'd ask someone for advice. He inquired about you.”
“It's not about me. It's about Dylan now,” I said. “We'll have to make sure he has everything he needs, Pop,” I said, wanting to reassure myself he would.
“I think that's why Sunshine let go of life so easily. She knew Dylan was in the right place, Clay. We'll do all we can for him,” Pop said thoughtfully. “She trusted us to do no less.”
“The last words she spoke to me were, “Take good care of Dylan.”
Then she added four words so softly I needed to put my ear close to her lips to hear. She'd saved those words for me. I'd keep them safe until Dylan was old enough to hear them, and then I'd say those words to him. As I didn't need to know, neither did anyone else.
I knew why she'd saved them until that moment. I'd never asked her for the answer to the question the four words answered. I married Sunshine to give her my name. I married Sunshine so Dylan had a father. I didn't need to know any more than that. I wasn't going to ask her the question.
“Harry'll be home later today. Are you up to talking to him. I have a feeling he'll want to see you to assure himself you're OK.”
“I'll want to thank him, Pop. As long as you say it's OK, I'll tell him we appreciate his help. He does a lot for me.”
“Harry understands how special you are, Clay. You were inspirational to him. He decided on the direction he wanted the conservancy to go in because of your interest in the Gulf.”
My father was not an emotional man but he too was dealing with sorrow. He'd always taken care of his family. He found a way to keep us safe even at the worst times. Sunshine's death reminded us how fragile life could be.
The Olsons had been lucky with death, until now.
I'd need to let go of her and focus on my son, but not yet. It was too soon to stop mourning. It was too soon not to expect her to call my name. It was too soon for me to stop waking to listen to make sure she was OK.
Twila returned by lunch time. Harry had called his house and told Reginald to bring her over to be available to keep Dylan fed.
Once I rocked myself out, not sure of what to do next, I took Dylan downstairs and found Mama, Lucy, and Twila sitting in the kitchen with coffee cups in front of them. No one spoke. They sat vigil, having nothing else to do.
“Where's Pop?” I asked, noticing he was missing.
“Where do you think? Your father is at work. Work takes his mind off his pain. Your father thought of Sunshine as his daughter.”
“The baby still asleep?” Twila asked, looking at him in my arms..
“Yes, ma'am. He hasn't stirred since you left at nine. As long as I rock him, he's happy as a clam. Me too.”
They'd all been crying, but so had I. It wasn't something I invented. It wasn't something we could hide. I was cried out for now.
I got a cup of coffee and put one of the buttered biscuits on a plate. It was all there was. Nothing had been cooked that morning. When I sat down, Dylan was watching his father pig out. I swear he was smiling, not making a sound. Maybe he suspected a treat was on the way.
With butter on my finger I put it on his lips. He immediately took it in his mouth and began to learn the delights of fresh butter Mama bought at the dairy along with the cream for Sunshine's bread pudding.
“Look at that child. He be loving his daddy,” Twila said.
“You're a good father, Clay,” Lucy said admiringly.
“A young father.” Mama couldn't resist reminding me.
Mama still wasn't sure about me and fatherhood. She hadn't forgotten how I'd disappointed her over the last year. She believed I deceived her about Sunshine.
Mama was a good mother. She could do anything a woman was responsible to do. She could do many things most woman couldn't do, because Mama did what needed doing. She'd also jumped to conclusions about her youngest son.
It would take five years for her to realize her mistake. Mama was not a woman you wanted to cross, but arguing with her was no contest for me. I knew the truth and I didn't need to convince her. She'd land some body blows over the next few years, but in time she'd admit her error.
I'd all but broken with my family, once I became a fisherman on Mr. Aleksa's boat. It wasn't exactly a full time job, but it had me out of the house for three days and nights a week. When I came home in those days, I came home to Ivan's house next to the river.
For most of three years I was independent, except for meals. I didn't feel that connected to my family. I felt completely connected to the Aleksas. I loved that I was part of the fishing fleet. What I learned as a fisherman brought me full circle back to my family.
When I came back, I was working for Pop at the conservancy, but it was Harry who ran the show. Harry presented me with the opportunity of a life time, after introducing me to a world I hadn't imagined existed a few feet below the hull of the Vilnius Two.
Everything was changing in the spring of 1968. I'd been noticed by Harry McCalister. He introduced me to his marine biologist friend, Bill Payne. Bill introduced me to the future that grew out of my interest in the things that came out of the sea.
Harry was quick to see that my interest and his coincided. His concerns for the Gulf had him wanting to preserve the Gulf and what lived in it. Harry and I were on the same page.
I gave up the fisherman's life to get the education Harry offered me. He'd pay my way. I'd work for him while I studied the sea. I liked him and I liked his plan. It was a very good plan.
Once Boris met his fate in Vietnam, it turned my life upside down. Luckily the conservancy was there to keep me focused on something besides what Ivan was going through.
Everything changed when Boris was wounded. I had reintegrated back into my family by then and I was on my way to becoming a marine biologist. I could have been distracted, but I wasn't.
Being able to investigate the creatures that fascinated me was a step up from the observations I made on the fishing boat. I would begin to understand the sea creatures and their environment.
Until Harry put the pieces in place, studying the creatures and keeping their environment safe never occurred to me. Once it did, it's what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn't work but it was a career.
Sunshine was a favor I was doing for Ivan, because she came to his house, and he didn't know how to get her to leave before he left to go in search of Boris. Ivan and I found a way to deal with the situation, but he had a problem he didn't have time to solve.
Once I took Sunshine to the conservancy house, she didn't leave, until now, almost a year later. I sat with our son sucking on my finger, until the butter was gone, and then he focused on Twila and he began to squirm. Oh how that boy could fuss.
It was time to eat.
Twila lifted him out of my arms and he went expectantly quiet. Mama got Twila a tea towel and she took Dylan into the dining room to be fed. It's the first time I'd let go of him, except for two diaper changes, since Twila fed him that morning.
I was fine. My mind refused to stop. The thoughts kept going round and round. Why Sunshine? Why now?
Mama, Lucy, and I sat silent, thinking, or not, about what had been lost overnight. Our lives were changed. We would regroup and pick a direction soon, but not yet.
I needed to talk to Ivan but I was afraid of what would happen when I did. I couldn't hide my emotions from him. He'd know before I told him that something was wrong, and yet he was the only one who could console me, and then, only if he came home to hold me.
I had no hope Ivan would stop his search because of me. I couldn't ask him to come home. As much as I needed him, I wouldn't do that to him. My heart told me he'd come home if I asked. Doubts wouldn't allow me to risk rejection from the man I loved.
Congressman Harry McCalister was a man of his word. He knew everyone. He knew who to talk to and what to say.
His plane landed late that afternoon on a strip near his house. The twin engine Apache, his latest plane, he purchased to make the trip to D. C. and back. He landed at Hyde Field, Maryland, ten miles from the Capitol. He bought his first plane while he was elected to the state legislature. He wanted to eliminate his time in airports.
Reginald drove him to the house without Harry stopping to shower or eat. He wanted to let the Olson family know he was home and arrangements for Sunshine had been made.
Most men would have called.
“I can't tell you how sorry I am, Clayton,” He said, grasping my hand and forearm before hugging me warmly. “What do you need, son? What can I do for you?”
“Pop said....” I began.
“No, I've taken care of that. I have a place to show you not far from your laboratory. You'll like it. It was certified for burials for my family years ago, but we've never used it. When you're ready, I'll take you there. Not today, it's getting dark, but when you're ready. You call me any time if you need something? I'll be home until we take care of Sunshine.”
The tears began rolling. He hugged me again. I couldn't speak.
“I wish I could take away the pain,” Harry said softly.
“You have,” I said. “Thanks. You came home for Sunshine?”
“I came home for you, Clay. You're a major part of the future of the conservancy. Seeing that you're OK is one of my priorities.”
“I haven't done much lately,” I said. “I'm sorry, Harry.”
“You are important to me. I regret I couldn't do something for Sunshine, but I've cleared my calendar. I'll do what I can. There's nothing essential I need to attend to in Washington.”
Harry talked to Twila and asked her to stay at the conservancy house until after Sunshine's funeral so she could take care of Dylan. She would go with Reginald to make arrangements for a neighbor to look in on her children.
Two of Twila's daughters were almost grown and they took care of the younger kids when Twila wasn't home. Mama packed the food she'd cooked for dinner, letting Twila take the meal with her so her kids got fed.
The Olsons could mourn without needing to take care of details. Mama got busy fixing dinner for the second time Monday. It was how she handled difficult days. When she cooked, she was in her element.
We buried Sunshine on one of the brightest days I can remember. Not a cloud in the sky but a brisk westerly wind blew off the Gulf.
The spot where the services were held belonged to Harry's family. From the hill you could see the conservancy and the laboratory on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
I was able to see the hill from my window in the lab. Later, I put a marker on her grave so I could locate her place in a glance. Dylan and I walked there as he grew and spent more time at the lab.
I stood holding Dylan beside Sunshine's grave on this day. I couldn't sit. I didn't want to be too close to the grave. Dylan didn't know what was going on. In fact he slept through it all, but I worried that one day he'd tell me he remembered the hole in the ground where I put his mother.
Mama and Pop, Lucy, and Twila sat together in the front row of the seats that were provided. No one suggested I shouldn't stand or move around.
As the short services started, Harry stood on one side of me and Captain Popov stood on the other. It didn't stop me from feeling alone, but they saw to it I wasn't. I must have been a sight to see. I'd cried myself out by Wednesday. but Thursday morning I was at it again, When I realized what I had to do. They more overflowed than ran and they wouldn't stop. The bright sun warranted sunglasses, but I didn't wear mine. I was too numb to care.
Mostly people kept their distance. Perhaps that's why Harry and Captain Popov stood sentry. I wasn't able to talk and the one person I would have talked to wasn't there, and that made me angry.
The fishing fleet had returned a day early. They wouldn't go out again until tomorrow. It was another sign of respect I didn't think I deserved, but seeing them reminded me of who I had once been.
I hadn't gone out with the fleet in over a year, but to them I was still a fisherman. I was never far from the fleet or the sea. It was a connection we would always share.
Dylan slept, my shirt in his fists, his face buried in my chest. Twila fed him just before we left the house. He was unaware of what we were about to do. I'd explain it to him in time, but for now he slept, protected from the stiff winds of the world.
Dylan was a comfort. It was a scary prospect to be responsible for such a tiny fellow. I was only just past being a child. I had only just begun charting my future, but I had him to live for and to care for. I would never again be the center of my universe. Dylan took his place there now.
This wasn't like Ivan leaving. There was no longer a Sunshine. She wouldn't be back but I'd see her clearly every time I looked at Dylan. I'd see her smile and hear her laugh. There wouldn't be any time to be lonely. My future and my son would keep me busy.
This wasn't what I was thinking while I stood on that hill, but it's what I'd figure out as time added distance between Sunshine and me.
Harry provided a mahogany casket. The lining was pink and a red heart was embroidered above her on the lid. I told him to take the cost of her funeral out of my pay. He said he would. He never did.
As time went on, he claimed he couldn't afford to pay me what I was truly worth, but he took up the slack when I ran into trouble.
The wind whipped our pants legs. I was anxious and I was exhausted. I wasn't connected to anything that happened. I was there but I wasn't. My mind wasn't able to grasp onto the priest's words. It was thankfully short and sweet. I was numb, unable to think, unable to stop thinking. I was unable to cry, unable to stop crying.
I was a mess.
After the service, Captain Popov put an envelope into my hand before speaking to me.
“This will help. It's from the fishing fleet, Clay. Nicky sends his condolences. He apologizes for not being able to get here.”
“You talked to Ivan's father?” I asked, taking note of the man who first let me go out on the Gulf.
“I did. He is well and sad for you. He inquired about your son.”
“Thank you, Captain Popov,” I said. “Thank him for me when you talk.”
“Just Popov, Clay. We still remember you as the boy angel of the fishing fleet. We never did so well as when you came to fish with us. If there is anything Popov can do for you, you come see him. I told Nicky I'd look after you.”
His heavy Russian brogue made me smile. I remembered his voice booming over Mr. Aleksa's radio on the Vilnius Two the first time I fished on the Gulf. No one had a voice like Popov's.
“Thank you, Popov. That means a lot,” I said. “Thank the fisherman for me.”
“Consider it done. We said a prayer for your wife when we heard.”
Popov patted my shoulder, smiled at my son, and walked away.
“You've made many friends on the island, Clayton Olson,” Harry said, as he watched Popov's departure.
Captain Popov met Captain Tito. He was standing behind the seats with fisherman I knew from my time with the fleet. They wanted to be there for me. Popov was the leader of the fishing fleet.
“You call me if you need anything. I wish there was more I could do for you. Don't rush back to work. Spend time with your son.” Harry advised, sounding more like a father than my boss.
“I can't thank you enough, Harry. I've never known anyone who is as considerate as you are. You treat me like I'm your son, and I appreciate it. I won't let you down. I'll need a few more days. I'll enroll in school and start classes on time. I'll call Bill Payne when he gets back and I'll tell him I'm ready to get busy.”
“He'd be here if he knew about Sunshine, Clay. He's out in the Atlantic on a research vessel. I didn't try to contact him. He'd just feel bad that he couldn't be here. He'll be back next week and I'll give him a rundown when we talk.”
“It's OK, Harry. I understand. Thanks again. Thanks for letting us borrow Twila. Speaking of angels, she's been one for us.”
There was finality that came with the funeral. There was a comfort in almost everyone I knew coming to bid farewell to Sunshine. She would have been surprised by so many people.
The major absence was Ivan's. I doubted he could have made it home in time, even if he knew what had happened. I made no attempt to contact Sunshine's people. Her name, Joy Gabriel Johnson, written on our marriage license, never registered with me, until later on. They hadn't appreciated her while she was part of their family and she hadn't once mentioned wanting to contact them.
She was Sunshine Olson on Dylan's birth certificate. That's who she was when she died.
That's who Sunshine would be for eternity.