Rushing towards the airline’s boarding ramp, my wife suddenly stopped, turned to me, and burst out crying. In contrast to Pat’s usual wave and a broad smile, it was a troubled face and a river of tears. She pirouetted and faded inside the dark boarding tunnel, and the airline agent slammed the door shut. I stood rigid in shock, rooted in place. My heart dropped to my knees, and my eyes welled up in tears.
Pat was usually upbeat, gregarious, and under control. She seldom cried unless in the grip of intense emotions. Like on the transatlantic flight to America when she first left her home in England. This time, the airport episode again flared her feelings, but the reason was different. A week later, a doctor diagnosed her with a severe illness.
It was a sudden, surprising, traumatic end to what had been a lovely retreat together. I was on contract with an internet company in Emeryville, California, on the East Bay across San Francisco. During that time, Pat stayed in Dallas, and we were apart except for short visits. Consequently, I was not aware of the onset of Pat’s disease. She had seemed to enjoy the time at my apartment. Freshly equipped with new, comfortable furniture and enveloped by a marina near the east end of the Bay Bridge, it seemed an ideal place for Pat’s vacation, for private time.
“This place is nice! The bay, a Trader Vic’s within walking distance,” Pat cooed as she entered the apartment days earlier.
It was an opportunity to enhance romance. We renewed our marital commitment in a refreshingly different scenario, away from our humdrum routines. It felt like the beginning, in London, when we were courting, falling in love.
Amid pleasant memories, I hate thinking about that painful experience at the airport—it has forever seared my mind. I try to ease the pain with thoughts about our courtship, sincere love, romance, family, and the good times we shared. Nonetheless, the dark days remain like a shadow; and the agony lingers. Anyone who has dealt with a similar experience—especially about a loved one—feels its heart-wrenching effects and permanency.
Many years later, I’m sitting on the sun deck of a beach house on Crystal Beach, Texas, contemplating writing my story. It’s a perfect place for kicking back, taking in the best of the Texas coast. This delightful Tuesday morning, the radiant sun glitters brightly, reflecting off the line of cascading waves. The weekend beach raiders have vacated and gone back to their homes or local hotels, routines, and surrounding communities. The Gulf of Mexico current undulates its pearl-crested waves that sweep the mauve-pink sand—a placating, hypnotic white noise, pleasing to the ears. I plunge deeper into the far reaches of memory. The ambiance of a misty breeze blowing across my face under the Texas sun stimulates nostalgia. My mind begins to unfold the past.
Some memories are exquisite, like glistening jewelry in a box. Like the time I first saw Pat marching down the American Embassy hallway in front of a group of Marine Guards (I was one of them). Her head down, she blushed in embarrassment, her stiletto heels clicked quick-time on the marble-slabbed floor. Then there was the time when we first met. It was by chance, face-to-face in the embassy doorway. And later, having lunch together in Grosvenor Square was an absolute delight, and enjoying the beautiful way she savored the sight and aromatic scent of the flower garden.
I’m smiling broadly now.
I recall the days of strolling the streets of London with Pat. We went to jazz clubs in Soho, concerts at the Palladium, espresso shops, and touristy places. Often, we would stop at a fish and chips shop or buy roasted chestnuts from street vendors. After duty on liberty weekends, we would rush to take an Austin Black Cab to St. Pancras train station and board a steam locomotive I nicknamed “Beetle-Bomb.” We sat in its vintage cabins on velvety burgundy seats, looking out the panoramic window, watching the lush landscape slide past. The train chugged towards Corby, some 100 miles north of London, to visit her family. I particularly enjoyed going to the open market to shop in the town square on Saturday mornings. I usually had a breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, pork sausage, and another link called “black pudding,” a type of blood sausage. On Saturday afternoons, Pat’s dad Albert and I would sip Johnny Walker Black and watch sports on the “telly,” all the while, trying to avoid the eyesight of Pat and her mother, Lovey, a name short for “Lovina.”
Then there were the trips to visit relatives in Aberdeen, Scotland, Pat’s birthplace—a beautiful area bordering the North Sea. We sometimes navigated meandering dirt roads in the Highlands near the clouds, delighting in the fresh air amidst the heather's purple hue. Another treasured memory: Pat sitting on the ground with her arms around her knees, a gentle breeze brushing across her stylishly coiffed, silky auburn hair. Her hazel eyes emanated love, humor, sensuality, and sincerity. A beaming smile on her creamy white, squarish face with a lovely duchess nose created the perfect portrait for a photoshoot.
She angled her head with a twinkle in her eyes and asked in a classy Aberdonian accent, “How’s this?”
I can still visualize Pat years later, on the pier near my apartment complex in Emeryville, stretched out on a lawn recliner reading a novel. It thrilled me to know she was in her element and enjoying it immensely. I can see her now: while Pat savored a book, a bright, sunny day, a gentle breeze whisked through her silky hair and smiling face.
Another jewel in the box, albeit a slightly sad one: our temporarily parting after my tour of duty in London was over. Clad in a heavy woolen overcoat, Pat stood on a snow-blanketed train platform in Corby, waving goodbye amid falling snow-flakes, as Beetle-Bomb began chugging down the tracks taking me to London. That’s when our two-year courtship in the U.K. had ended. When I made it back to the States, I immediately proposed marriage by phone, and she was to join me in America when my time was up in the Marines.
Then tragedy struck.
Before Pat was to leave, she was in a car accident and suffered significant injuries to her head and leg. I flew back to England to stay with her. Being a resilient Scottish lassie, she steadily recovered, and we flew to America together. We got married, raised two beautiful children, traveled, and had a happy life together.
I pause my cogitating momentarily to survey the expanse of Crystal Beach again. I notice a woman in a bikini pulling a red wagon with two small kids inside: a girl and a boy. It reminds me of myself at age ten, with my red Radio Flyer wagon. I would use the Radio Flyer and a scale to sell Dad’s juicy tomatoes for fifteen cents a pound. Mom, a first-generation Italian-American, and Dad, a direct Sicilian immigrant, kept a quarter-acre garden where we lived in Pear Ridge, a rural part of Port Arthur, Texas. Besides Dad's garden, we had a cow, chickens, two giant pecan trees, and a half-dozen fruit trees. So far as food, we were reasonably self-sufficient, only buying flour, sugar, condiments, cold cuts, and a pork roast for our traditional spaghetti dinner on Sundays.
Here on Crystal Beach, people-watching, bird-watching, and sun-worshipping combine to create an intimate setting for stress release and reflection. I think about the many crazy times my close friend, Lucian “Bo” Guilbeau, and I had at McFaddin Beach, about a mile northeast from here. Bo was a classmate and more like a brother to me. We would swim, sunbathe, hang out all day, and, depending on how much money we had, buy a burger and fries at the Breeze Inn, a nondescript restaurant-bar. The place was a rustic cedarwood, bijou structure perched high on pilings protruding from the beach, like most in hurricane zones.
At the beach house where I’m staying, a sign on a wall says, “The Sea Called My Soul and I Answered with All My Heart.” How true that is. At this moment on the sun deck, the circumstances couldn’t be better: a cup of bold Seaport coffee, the brand Dad used in his old-fashioned aluminum drip pot, and a fresh, soothing breeze. I watch a swarm of playful swallows chirping, fluttering around a cluster of gourd nests hung on a galvanized pipe, stuck in the berm that rims the beach. The sky is a mosaic of scattered, thin layers of misty stratus clouds. The subtle, soothing sound of waves crashing on the beach is hypnotic. Sometimes, the sun peeks through the occlusion and winks. Perhaps it’s God’s way of watching, warming the soul, and hopefully, casting His grace and light. I often think Pat is shining her light too! I tilt my head back, fixed my gaze through and beyond the haze, and wondered, Is Pat looking down at me? I’m mesmerized, a hopeless sentimentalist.
I pause to sip my coffee and scan the horizon, across the bay towards Galveston Island, where just yesterday, I had boarded the ferry. Waiting for the vessel was calmer than the frantic tourist weekends on the Gulf coast, but monotonous. Once on the boat, I leaned on the bulkhead railing, enjoying the brisk 25-knot wind in my face. I watched a pair of dolphins oscillating in and out of the water and a flock of cawing seagulls—Black Skimmers—on the search for prey. The setting reminded me of Pat when we courted in Texas, frolicking at the beach, and lounging on the levee in Port Arthur that borders the Intracoastal Canal.
It’s the same choppy water, the same coastline, the same soothing breeze—the same scene—our Chevy at the levee and having a picnic with Pat.
Now, on with the story.