The first glints of morning light peep through the vertical blinds. On cue the Holden ute next door, the one always parked right next to our fence, roars to life. No muffler, so the bedroom walls tremble, like every other morning.
It’s my sign to get out of bed and look forward to my morning ritual. I smile at the ball of fur that is our dog, curled up next to Jack, at the other end of the bed. Neither of them even stir at the sound of that bomb of a car next door.
After slipping into comfy walking gear, I make my way quietly out the front door, into the fresh morning air. I wave at the old guy across the road who is out on his front porch having his first smoke of the day.
It’s a beautiful, still morning. My pace quickens at the thought of what awaits me a few hundred metres down the road. The blue of the Pacific Ocean always takes my breath away on mornings like these. Never fails.
The guy with the two French bulldogs is heading up the steps as I make my way down to the rock platform at the entrance to the beach. I see him most mornings.
“Hey, take care” he says. “I just saw a juvenile brown snake on the path; Mum’s bound to be nearby.”
I thank him for the heads-up and make a mental note to keep Grover on his leash, when I take him for his walk later.
The water is really glassy this morning. It’s low tide, so the sand is firm and perfect for walking at a faster pace. There are three or four surfers already in the water, hoping for a few waves before work. I can see more arriving at the car park at the top of the stairs to my right. I love the way they jump out of their cars and vans, and run down to the water, like they can barely wait.
As I walk, my mind is calm. Thoughts and memories flow easily, I start planning the coming day. It’s like the perfect tonic to start the day. I don’t know why everyone isn’t out here, doing what I am. But I’m glad they’re not.
Halfway up the beach there are couple of steep sand dunes, about 10 to 15 metres high. It’s great to break away from my walk and run up the dunes to get my heart rate up and the blood flowing. At the top, I can see the adjoining golf course. I stop and watch a group of early morning golfers tee off. One of the player’s golf balls heads way off course, towards the out-of-bounds area just in front of me. I spot the ball, hold up my hand and point to the general area it landed in. The men yell out their thanks and give me the thumbs up.
I run back down the dunes with long, slow, jumping steps – my favourite bit. As I look out at the ocean, I catch sight of a whale tail flipping about 30 metres or so beyond the waves. It’s the time of year when the whales are moving back down south. These dunes are a great place to view them. Another reason I love to climb them.
I continue on my walk towards the end of the stretch of beach that culminates at the headland and the quieter bay. It’s a popular surfing spot for locals, at the rocky point. They use the rock platform to gain access to the ocean further out where the waves break.
I have spent many mornings watching keen surfers negotiating the incoming breakers over the rocks, so that they can take the shortcut out to the surf break beyond.
As I look ahead I can already see that this morning is different from other mornings. A colourful group of people, about 25 to 30, are gathered under the headland at the far end of the bay. It’s a strange sight at this time of the morning. The group is close together, some holding hands. They slowly move towards the water’s edge.
As I get closer I can see two surfers with their boards floating in the water at their knees. They are facing the group on the shore moving towards them. I can see lots of flowers, single bouquets and wreaths, carried by the moving crowd. As they approach the surfers, there are many hugs and handshakes shared among the group. The flowers are placed on the boards and some are left floating in the shallow entrance to the bay. The two young men gather as many as they can. Then they wait as a young woman steps forward and faces the group.
I make my way discreetly behind the group at the high end of the sand, toward the flat rock. This rock is where I usually stop and stretch my calf muscles and lower back. Today I sit quietly, cross-legged on the rock.
The scene is so quiet for such a large group. I can hear the young woman say: “Thank you all so much for coming. Brendan will be smiling at you all. I can tell you that I know Brendan’s last thought before he left this life was about this place.”
She pauses to steady her voice and smiles beautifully and calmly out at everyone. “I am certain that his very last thought went something like this: ‘I wish I had taken a sickie today and gone surfing’.” There were a few quiet chuckles and muffled sobs.
The young woman continues: “You don’t really know how your day’s gonna end when you set out. Whether it’s work or whatever. I just know that Brendan would have wanted his day to end here. So we are sending him off here, on his favourite stretch of coast. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful morning.”
She turns to face the ocean with everyone else. The two surfers set out with their boards covered in flowers. They paddle out to the edge of the rock platform where the waves form. Someone on the beach notices a telltale puff rising from the water, a few hundred metres out. A whale is out there.
For a moment everyone forgets why they are there, and watch in awe as the creature breaches high above the ocean and performs a magnificent backflip for all to see. It sends an incredible wave of emotion through my body and I can feel tears well up at the corners of my eyes. Some of the people on the beach clap and the surfers kneel on their boards, hoping to catch a glimpse. A few more paddles and they stop and bob up and down in the waves. They start to send the flowers afloat on the beautiful glassy waves.
The surfer who is furthest out lifts a small earthenware container up, releases the top and lets the dust flow out through the still air to settle on the water among the petals of the flowers that are now drifting with the tide. At the same time someone on the beach turns on a portable music player. The sound of Tracy Chapman’s ‘The Promise’ wafts on the breeze.
The waves are bringing in Brendan’s surfing mates. The whale seems to be hovering out there, the spouts of water still clearly visible.
The scene played out before me is amazingly peaceful.
Two young girls with beautiful voices start singing along with Tracy Chapman. The words are perfect: “If you think of me. If you miss me once in a while. Then I’ll return to you. I’ll return and fill that space in your heart.”
I stay quietly sitting on the rock until the people move away, on their way to the surf club café up on the hill near the car park.
I stretch my legs and lower back and watch for a while to see if I can see any sign of the whale. But all I can see are the flowers. They remain floating in one place near the rocky point.
I start my walk back along the beach towards home, feeling like something has shifted in my universe.
Most mornings, on my way back home, I feel a wonderful sense of how lucky I am that I can drink in this scenery and smell the fresh salty air, every day. Today, words cross my mind, which I usually don’t like to think of. In fact, when anyone I love even says the words, I tell them to stop it and be quiet.
As I walk, the pictures in my head are of the beautiful scene I had witnessed earlier and the words come to mind easily and without fear this time: When it’s my time to leave, when I die, I’d like to go, just like that.
I feel peaceful and free right then, and I feel like something which has always seemed the worst thing in the world to me, dying, now seems like nothing to fear at all.
The tide starts to come up a little higher on the beach and it makes the walk a little more strenuous, with my ankles twisting in the softer sand. The sun is higher and warmer and it’s time to pick up the pace and head home.
When I reach the steps heading back up the roadway, I see a small brown snake curled up under one of the small spiky bushes on the side of the path. It looks so harmless – just another little creature, but one with a deadly bite.
Margaret, the lady with the three poodles who lives down the road, is just arriving at the top of the stairs. I wave and point at the snake, and tell her to keep the curly haired little pooches on the leash until they are safely out of harm’s way.
She is grateful and squeezes my arm on her way by.
The traffic on the suburban street is starting to build up now as people make their way to work and schools.
It’s been a year now since I was part of that so-called rat race, rushing to find a park and catch the train.
Although I miss some of my co-workers, I really don’t miss the daily commute. I pinch myself most mornings when I realise I get to see that beautiful coastline every day.
As I turn the corner to the street where I live, I reflect again on this morning’s unusual walk. I wonder if I will talk about it when I get home. I decide probably not. I would find it difficult to express the change inside me and why it was so important.
Regardless of the fact that we have a wonderful long partnership and understanding, Jack is of that generation who doesn’t really relish discussions about feelings and their meanings. It’s something I’m more likely to chat about later with my sister or a good friend.
I realise it’s always been that way and wonder if, in this new world of the ‘sensitive New Age guy’, whether my daughters will be having deep and meaningful conversations with their partners. It makes me smile; I can’t imagine it. For all the progress made in the world between men and women, things are still pretty much the same on that front.
I arrive at the front garden and toss my sandy sneakers onto the front porch.
I am greeted by a very excited furry friend, who greets me like this every time I return, whether I’ve been gone for hours or just 10 minutes.
“How was your walk?” comes the familiar voice from the kitchen.
“Great,” I say. “Life is great.”
I think that I am really glad it’s not quite my time yet.
About our My Story author
Born in the south of Holland in the province of Limburg, Howarth migrated to Australia in the early 1960s with her parents. They later returned to Holland, while Howarth married an Australian and made her home here. She has worked most of her life in the hospitality industry, including owning and running a motel and restaurant near Canberra for 18 years. With a passion for writing and painting in her spare time, Howarth says her greatest achievement is bringing up three wonderful and talented children – her son, a sports scientist who works with elite athletes; her eldest daughter, a Sydney architect; and her youngest daughter, who recently graduated university with a law degree.