The Gift

Chatham Village
Main Street, Chatham Village, Cape Cod

Christmas Eve in 2014 was just three months shy of the death of Nancy.  The children and I were visiting Nancy’s family in Chatham, Cape Cod, which was often our tradition. I had geared myself up to exude at least some Christmas cheer, sharing holiday greetings, hugging Nancy’s nieces and nephews, and stacking up the gifts under the Christmas tree. Nancy’s family members were optimistic people, even through many tragedies in their lives, so I tried to immerse myself in their holiday activities, and keep my grieving to a minimum.

The family was large and extremely close knit: throughout the holidays, Jack, Nancy’s brother and his wife Beth would be surrounded by all of their five grown children, their spouses, and Nancy’s mother and brother Pete.

Jack, Nancy’s oldest brother, and his wife Beth had been stalwarts in the life of our family. Jack’s love for Nancy was intense. The two siblings’ bond likely had been strengthened by the loss of their sister when she was just twenty-eight. But they had been close buddies since childhood, routinely “borrowing” idle sailboats in Chatham and sharing a love for the sea and boats ever since.

Jack’s warm and gregarious wife Beth had fostered the relationship of the two families, cheerfully visiting Michigan with Jack on regular occasions, and spending many holidays and vacations with us.  They had been second parents to our children, caring for them while Nancy had undergone chemotherapy, and walking with us through many moments of our life, both joyful and dark.

The Gardner home in Chatham had been a place of joy and respite for our family for several years. It was a large rambling home close to the ocean, the fish pier and Chatham’s antique downtown.   The kids made annual treks to the infamous Candy Manor, and I had often visited the coffee shop where regulars would gather on the benches facing Main Street during my early morning walks.   On Friday evenings, folks laid out their blankets early in order to occupy a place on the lawn to enjoy the Chatham band concerts, which featured old timey music, with elderly couples gracefully dancing to big band music and children joining in on the bunny hop. Chatham was almost the cliché of the small town all-American village, although its wealth shielded it from the harsher truths of life.

The Gardner’s had moved to the village shortly before retirement, and Jack had bought a boat, which he had lovingly named the “Nancy Alice” (Alice was Nancy’s middle name). The boat became a centerpiece around which many vacations revolved.   Jack often took us out to the deep waters so that we could marvel at the whales that cavorted off Chatham’s shore. On one such trip, we were surrounded by whales swirling dangerously close to the boat, so that we had to take off in fear that the boat would be tossed into the ocean waters as the animals played. Still, even that was part of the fun. There were so many photos of Nancy on that boat, completely at home on the ocean and with her family.

Since Jack moved to Chatham he had taken on the vocation of fishing with a vengeance. Jack had often enticed the girls, and sometimes Nancy, into rising at 5 a.m. to go deep-sea fishing at sunrise. Photos of Regina and Maia struggling under the weight of huge fish with extravagant smiles on their faces had elicited sighs of envy and admiration from many, especially my colleagues who were fishing aficionados.   The memories of that house and of that place had always included Nancy. Surrounded by her family and the sea, there was perhaps nowhere on earth where she was more joyous.

On the Christmas Eve after Nancy’s death, the Gardner’s were hosts extraordinaire, providing everything needed for their visitors to have a good time. Beth had been busy all day long, making preparations for the feasts for both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. On Christmas Eve, I’d been eating wonderful lobster salad sandwiches and drinking good red wine. We engaged in a rollicking “Yankee Swap,” involved picking out an anonymous gift, and then swapping with others until the last player got to choose the final gift. Finally, the group was onto another rousing game of Guestures, a fast-paced charades game, which generated much silliness and hilarity.

Gardner Clan on Christmas Eve, 2014

But I had gotten tired of all the revelry and needed to retreat to my room, where I could gather my thoughts and experience feelings that were out of place in a merry Christmas Eve gathering.  The hollowness that lurked behind my holiday persona was overtaking me.

Fortunately, Beth had chosen to give me a different guest room than the one Nancy and I had shared year after year.  Because Nancy was ill, we had been granted what was arguably the most beautiful room in the house on the ground floor and just off the deck.   At first, Beth thought that I might sleep in that room on this visit, but, fortunately, she changed her mind when other visitors arrived. I was relieved.

How could I now sleep in that room, where looking through the window you could see the ocean peaking through the horizon, where you could walk out on the deck to view the placid waters of the salt water pond at the bottom of the hill, the vibrant rambling red roses, and the humming birds at the feeder? Nancy had often relaxed, as she did so well, lying on the hammock or lounging on a chair on the deck right outside of our bedroom door with a cup of coffee in hands, swaying to the warm breezes from the nearby surf.

Nancy Relaxing on the Deck
Nancy Relaxing on the Deck

In the middle of July, Jack and Beth had held a wedding party in our honor, and everything in that room, from the bedding to the curtains and the view, was the same as it had been during that short respite from Nancy’s treatment. The thought of sleeping in a place that had brought so much pleasure to her was seemingly unendurable.

But, thankfully, I was assigned to sleep in a room where I had never slept before and which had recently been redecorated. The room was restful; the calm colors of brown and blue provided me with a space that was comfortingly neutral, where I could get away from the holiday frivolity when I needed to.

My daughters slept in the room just next door to me with two twin beds. I was grateful to have a space where I could retreat when I needed to, but appreciated the close proximity to the girls.  My deep loneliness was abated when Maia came home from school for the holidays, for not only Nancy but Maia had also left home this past fall, leaving Regina and I with a house that was half empty.   Although Maia did not grieve overtly often, whenever I expressed my pain an angelic look would come over her face and she would lovingly comfort me.   But there were days over the holiday, when her grief did overcome her, and she had difficulty sleeping. One day she told me that she could not bear to see anyone connected with Nancy, and spent the day alone in her room.

But on Christmas Eve she had enjoyed the games.   Still, she had difficulty sleeping. After reading and thinking, I fell into a sleep, which, if not quite restful, was at least a relief.   Later that night, I felt a thump in my bed.   Thinking it was Regina who had often asked me to sleep with her at home, I began talking to her, but she did not answer me. My next thought was that someone had gotten into the wrong bed. But, no, it was my daughter Maia (who was hearing impaired and could not hear me), who had not joined me in bed for many years.   She was seventeen now. I felt her warmth beside me, the solidity and roundness of her being.   After a few minutes, she put her head on my chest, wrapped her arm around me and said: “I’m so glad that you’re my mother.” I pulled her closer to myself, and relaxed into the restorative warmth of her being.   This was my gift on Christmas Eve: the love of my children and the legacy of my life with Nancy.

Me and my Girls, post Nancy: left to right, Maia, Regina, Julia
Me and my Girls, post Nancy: left to right, Maia, Regina, Julia


Idle boats

Today I walked on the beach in the footprints of past walks with Nancy. We were in Chatham, Cape Cod, for the winter holidays. Chatham was the home of Nancy’s brother and his family, as well as the village where she had spent many blissful summers as a child.    Nancy’s brother, Jack, his wife Beth, and their five grown children would be joining us for various of the festivities: Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and Jack’s birthday the day after Christmas. But the festivities were all a bit much, just shy of three months after Nancy’s death. I would have to walk alone in my grief, trying hard not to spoil the enjoyment of those for whom the Christmas festivities should not be marred by tears and lamentations.

One morning I rose before the others and walked down to the fish pier, just a short walk from the house. The winter sun did not warm but illuminated the sharply evanescent cold blue of the sky, with the promise of lightening the dark blue of early morning waters.

This brief walk to the fisherman’s pier was one we had taken time and time again. From the pier you could see not only boats, small spits of sand, and sea birds, but even seals, especially after the fishermen had brought in their haul.   It was an annual pilgrimage for our family to arrive just as the fisherman came in and discarded their trash fish to the hungry seals that awaited them.   I don’t think that the children were more excited than we were, when we saw the seals diving for fish, playing with each other, going down deep and seeming to disappear before they popped up again right in front of your eyes. Now that the children are aging into young adulthood and Nancy is gone, how many more such walks will we take as a family?


Walking down the beach, I noticed the foot prints of other walkers: a child’s footprint next to the three-legged print of a sea bird, then a larger footprint, maybe that of a father.   Now I saw what I took to be a father, his dog, and his child. Did they realize the memories they were making? Nancy and I and the children had made many such footprints through the years.   The footprints, so finely etched, would be washed away, but what would happen to our memories?  Without these written words would they too gradually or quickly lose their contours?

I heard the seabirds calling, some of them sounding almost ethereal, like ancient musical instruments. Once I had seen them as ordinary sea gulls, too ordinary to notice. Now I forced myself to listen and look not only for the remarkable but for the ordinary, newly realizing how attention to the ordinary is one of the great blessings of being alive.


I stopped to take photographs of the lonely boats, idling in the cold waters at the fish pier. I found some boats to be beautiful floating vessels on the sea, but to Nancy boats were more than just physical constructions but embodiments of pleasure.   She dreamed of boats, constantly cruising Craig’s list for the perfect little sunfish she could find to putter about in Nantucket Sound in Cape Cod, then bring home to put on Lake Lansing. I worried about the finer details of bringing the boat from the Cape to Michigan, let alone whether her health was good enough to maintain and use a boat during the summer, which would end up being her last one.   If she had lived, she imagined joining the skipper of a sailboat and navigating the waters off the East Coast or even some more remote area for some lengthy period. When she verbalized these wishes, I was secretly skeptical of the possibility, given her poor health, but felt guilty about my inability to dream along with her.   And, worse still, I knew I could not remain on a sailing vessel for long and feared that I would miss her were she to take off on such a trip.

What she saw in sailboats continued to elude me. During my one stretch overnight in a sailboat of her friend’s, we all got seasick from the swells of an unforeseen storm, the friend’s baby throwing up and crying endlessly.   I was struck by claustrophobia.  Day trips off the shores of Cape Cod with Nancy’s brother were delightful, but I dreaded the experience of actually living on a boat for more than one night. But this was not my dream, but Nancy’s.

Nancy was a big dreamer, always imagining the possibility of having spectacular adventures, while I limited myself to more mundane and affordable visions of the future. Although a dreamer, more than most people I know, Nancy really knew how to partake of the pleasures of the world, putting petty issues behind her to focus on what was really important: like the first bloom of spring or the first warm rays of the sun after a tough Michigan winter. While I worried about laundry on a Sunday morning, Nancy wanted to sit on an easy chair in the sun with a cup of coffee and experience a day without being encumbered by my trivial annoyances.

The ordinary moments, the extraordinary ones, and even the ones we may or may never have speak to me in new ways as I seek to experience and remember all that Nancy has left behind.   I mourn the footprints of where she been, as well as all the new ones she will never make and the rays of the sun that will never warm her back again.