The chilly wind swept across the beach, gathering sharp grains of sand and scouring everything in its path.
In self-defense, to hide from the stinging onslaught, I pulled up the hood of my windbreaker and pushed my hands deep into my pockets. I had been walking for some time but I wasn’t ready to give up and head in. I still had some thinking to do.
I was looking for a way to say goodbye.
I’ve never been very good at goodbyes. I tend to stop just short of the words, circling round to pick up a dropped thread of conversation, skirting what ought to be said, stalling for time.
I hate to let go of anyone or anything I love.
Last week I managed to write the beginning of a farewell letter. I had only one more column to get the job done. I hoped a long walk in the salt air would show me how to say what I needed to say.
As I walked, I noticed two women ahead of me, equally bowed into the wind. My footprints traced theirs as I followed them.
Like me, they were beachcombing, stopping now and then to pick up a stone or a shell or a piece of driftwood. Farther down the beach I could see distant figures, others who had come this way hoping to find a souvenir. I stopped and turned around. There were more people behind me. They were doing the same thing.
It struck me that each of us was treading the same ground, but seeing it with fresh eyes. We were all walking the same path, but each of us was able to discover something that others had missed; something unique, something that spoke to us alone, that made us stop and take a closer look.
Lost in thought, I didn’t realize that I had almost caught up with the two women until I looked up. They had been so busy picking up stones and shells, their pace had slowed and the gap between us closed.
One of the women held a child’s sand pail so full of rocks and bits of shell and beautiful agates, it looked as though they had swept the beach clean leaving nothing behind.
But when I looked down at the ground I immediately noticed a footprint made by one of the women. And inside that footprint, almost glowing in the weak and watery sunlight that couldn’t quite burn through the heavy mist hanging over the coastline, was an agate. It was bigger than any I’d seen all week, as gold as amber and tumbled smooth by the churning surf.
The beautiful stone had been there all the time, but escaped notice. She stepped on it, pressing it deeper into the sand, and walked on. I only saw it because I happened to look down at exactly the right moment, from the perfect angle. The way, if you’re fortunate, you catch a shooting star as it streaks across the night sky
I picked up the agate and studied it for a moment before, still clutching the stone in my fist, I put my hand back in my pocket.
I had found my words.
I keep little souvenirs to remind me of people and places that are special to me. I had a pretty stone to remember my day on the Oregon coast. A place that I love.
But I had also been reminded that what I will take away from writing this column – something I have loved – is more than a stack of clippings. More than a box filled with cards and e-mails and letters.
What I will hold onto, long after the newsprint is brittle and yellowed with age, is the knowledge that I didn’t walk alone. That every step of the way I was following other footprints. I got the chance to look at a well-traveled landscape. I had the freedom to stand and watch for shooting stars.
And I left my own mark.
What I will cherish most are the relationships I made through the column. The people I have grown to love.
It’s been a wonderful walk and I am a better person for it. But it’s time to say the hardest word of all.