Class Assignment: Abernethy Garden

As Sam stood in the doorway, hints of lavender and mint wafted past his nose. Springtime in Scotland was, in his opinion, the best time of year. For the past eight years, every morning, Sam woke up at exactly 5:42 to ensure that he would have time before his day started to do what he loved best: sit in his garden and sip his Earl Grey tea. Not long ago, Sam and his wife, Martha, put the final touches on the garden of their dreams. Within a circle of knobby trees grew a lush tangle of ivy and wisteria, bordered by baby-pink rose bushes and a rainbow of towering lupine. On a damp morning like this, the rich scent of the life-sized bouquet was almost overwhelming, and nothing satisfied Sam more. His most treasured piece in the garden was the stone wall that Martha built just weeks before she died. Her fingerprints were still visible in the mortar; muddy proof that she really had lived and loved him. He wanted nothing more than to spend his time here.

Sam gazed past the willow toward the pond where a lone doe savored her cool, morning drink. “Briiiing-briiiiing!”  The rhapsodic noise wailed from the kitchen, piercing the tranquility like a jagged knife. He startled, spilling his tea. Muttering frustrations, Sam shuffled down the cobblestone walkway, back to his cottage. 

“Good morning, yes, is this Sam Abernethy?” said a concerned voice. 

“Speaking.” 

“Yes, good morning. Doctor Nelson here, calling from University Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am calling to regretfully inform you that I’ve spoken with Dr. Greene from Royal Edinburgh Hospital and he has reported to me your condition. The growth that was found on your lung is filled with a lethal fluid and at its current growth rate, we estimate that it will burst before this time tomorrow.” 

Taking in this barrage of information, Sam felt faint. He grabbed onto the counter while the voice rattled off instructions. 

“I recommend that you pack a bag, catch the next plane to the US and expect not to return home for the next six months, maybe more. The treatment for your condition can only be performed by our specialist here in Salt Lake City.” 

Sam hung up and replayed the options in his head. He knew, without a second thought that he would not be leaving his Scottish home. 

He lurched to his closet and dressed in his finest suit. He packed a blanket out to the garden. There, on a bed of clover next to the urn that held his wife’s ashes, he made a pallet where he lay for the rest of the day and into the night. Sam knew he would rather die next to the one he loved than to live alone in a place where he would never be able to sit in his garden with Martha again.

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Strawberry Cake

I am four. My birthday was yesterday and my parents threw me a huge party where all my friends and I ate the world’s biggest strawberry cake. Strawberry cake is my favorite food. It has been since the day I was born when my aunt baked one to celebrate the occasion. The spongy treat was cold because she left it in the fridge overnight. I guess you could think of the cake as older than me by the time all my family ate it.

But now I am four. Four years and eighteen hours younger than that cake would be if no one had eaten it in the first place. Everyone loved my strawberry cake until Robert got sick. Then Emily threw up. Micheal pooped in the pool, and I had the worst belly ache of my whole life. My dad piled us all in the car and rushed us to the doctor. One by one, we were each diagnosed with food poison. Turns out, there was a recall on the strawberries and E. coli was the culprit.

I am amazed at how quickly my best birthday turned into my worst birthday, all because of the cake. 

Learning to Surf

On a recent trip to San Diego, I learned how to surf.

“Was it hard?” you ask. Yes. “Did you put in a lot of hours?” Yes. “Are you any good?” No.

My husband and I decided that we’d been putting it off for far too long. So, we booked our trip to the southern coast of California. Every day for the next two and a half months we were going to surf.

Week one proved to be a total disaster. Neither of us was having an easy time standing up on our new, floating planks. Many times did I fall off my board into inches-deep foam. My wrists were not happy with me.

Week two was hit and miss. I was now able to stand up but only if I didn’t think too hard about it. Our surf guru gave us pointers like, “Don’t look down! Straight ahead, point your eyes STRAIGHT AHEAD!” and “Paddle, paddle, paddle, NOW!” On the rare occasion that I did make it to my feet, I would quickly lose my balance and nosedive in the ugliest way.

During weeks three and four, Pete and I started noticing some improvements in our levels of performance. Instead of eating it 95% of the time we were now down around the 75% range. We were feeling good!

A swell came to town during the first week of month two. With it came the biggest waves Pete and I had seen since we’d actually started tracking things like wave heights and wind speeds. We sat on the sidelines and watched the real surfers take flight. Feelings of inspiration and jealousy jerked in our bellies. We wanted to do that, too. We decided that although we were newbies, it was time to see what it would be like to paddle out past eight-foot breaks. Well, as anyone with a brain would assume, we weren’t quite ready for that. Our asses were handed to us. A surfboard to my face resulted in a bloody lip, Pete gashed his foot on some rocks, and we did the walk of shame back to our car.

A week or so later, we rallied for a mellow day at Old Man’s, the bunny slope of San Onofre, an old, famous surf spot known for its views of the big, nuclear boobs. What started as nothing more than a cold, flat-water morning shifted into our best surf day yet! Pete and I both caught all the waves, one after another. We hollered and high-fived as we soared over leopard sharks and right past a green sea turtle. After a series of soul-crushing surf sessions, our moods were lifted back out of the mire and restoked.

A handful of good days followed by a handful of bad days were followed by another handful of good ones; this seemed to be the norm with this sport. You’d be hard-pressed to find a surfer who says every day in the water is perfect, but I realize that while wave conditions and my surfing abilities may ebb and flow, one thing is for sure. If I spend my mornings in the waves, chasing dolphins and watching the pelicans glide silently just millimeters above the shining sea, can I really say it was a bad day?

As Peter Heller wrote in his book Kook, “I felt honored and humbled to take my place among the fishes and the birds.”

I mean, what more can one ask for, really?

Swimming With Whale Sharks

photo: National Geographic

With its massive size, distinctive features, and docile manner, it is quite simple to spot a whale shark in an underwater crowd.

If you are ever fortunate enough to swim side by side with one of these gentle giants, its sheer size will remind you that you are swimming with the biggest fish in the sea. Whale sharks typically grow up to thirty-three feet long and can weigh as much as 50,000 pounds! So, like I said: hard to miss.

Although its name and benign nature may have you convinced that you are swimming with a whale, you should know that in fact, you are swimming with a shark. Don’t be alarmed though! Whale sharks feed mainly on the microscopic plankton, eggs, and krill that inhabit the water around you. With a multi-gallon gulp of water, the oversized, elliptical mouth slowly filters out tiny organisms which somehow sustain this beautiful, colossal life.

The markings of this fish are among the most impressive oceanic decorations. Mixed-media patterns of stripes and spots are as unique to each animal as fingerprints are to humans. Whale sharks are grey in color but often appear teal as shades of aquamarine reflect from the water onto their bodies. Their bellies are a creamy white and often bear distinct scars from attacks or getting caught in fishing nets. By snapping photos and observing these unique scars and patterns, scientists are able to unobtrusively study these sharks and their individual behaviors.

Whale sharks like to gather in warm, tropical waters that are rich in nutrients such as plankton and krill and while they do have tiny teeth, they have no interest in eating meat of the human variety.

While we know many facts about whale sharks, little is known about how they reproduce. In fact, scientists still have no strong clues of how or where they mate or give birth. The closest that man has yet come to unlocking this mystery was upon observing a pregnant female who was caught in Taiwan in the mid-90s. Other than that, studying the reproductive phase of a whale shark’s life has proved next to impossible.

You don’t have to be a marine biologist or a diver to experience swimming with the biggest fish in the sea. Many tourism companies offer short boat rides into bays where you can pop on some flippers and a snorkel and hop right in. Feel free to swim alongside the giants but remember that you are a visitor in their home. It is important that people keep their distance from all marine life, not only for the safety of the swimmer but also for the safety of the animal. It is important not to put any stress on the animals and keep your oily hands to yourself. Whale sharks and most other marine life sport a protective coating on their skin which helps keep out foreign bacteria. The last thing they need is to get an infection caused by sunscreen-drenched hands giving them a backrub. This rules out riding the animal, too. Lastly, please don’t feed the marine life or any wildlife for that matter. When we train animals to rely on us for food, it teaches them bad habits which can result in injury and sometimes even death. The best way to enjoy nature up close is with all due respect.

If you want to learn more about the stunning whale shark, check out this video by National Geographic.

Going For A Swim

It is six forty-seven in the morning. That is early for me. I am getting ready for my swim lesson and waiting for my coffee to brew. Skippy longingly stares at me in hopes I will feed him so he can soon go back to bed.

In just over one hour I will be trying not to sink to the bottom of a pool.

I am a thirty-three-year-old surfer who frequently goes SCUBA diving. Water sports are what get me through life. I am, however, a terrible swimmer so I figured it was high time to rid myself of that title.

I swam a total of eight hours last week and I am quickly beginning to resemble something more akin to a fish than a drowning tourist. Call me crazy, but I think the lessons are working!

I Write Now

Every so often in this short life that I’ve been granted, I decide it’s time to try something new. This time it is writing.

Someone told me that if I want to become a writer I must start a blog. So, here I am. Blogging.

What is a blog anyway?

Is it a place where I tell the internet what color my new favorite lipstick is? Or is it where I go when I want to convey to someone how they too can do it themselves(!)?

I’ve decided that for me it will be a place to practice. I will practice my writing until I feel that I can finally call myself a writer without being sheepish about it. I will write into the abyss as I ease into it.

As I write my inaugural blog the tick of fingers on keyboards is all I hear. I’m sitting on the couch with my husband and our dog, Skippy. Pete is chatting online with his clients, learning all about their woes. He listens to stories about what a mess their world has become; parents who want to disown children, secret siblings that one girl didn’t even know she had, and of course, the usual relationship drama. Did I mention he is a therapist? He is rattling out ways that he can best help them cope.

Next to him lies Skippy, wrapped in the velvety blanket that he refuses to rise from all winter long. He is bundled like an overstuffed burrito and his tiny, pink nose twitches as he dreams.

Outside the window I see afternoon shadows hanging over our quiet drive. The neighborhood is tranquil most days and it’s been at least an hour since any car has driven by. Wait! There strolls a new mom pushing a buggy which I presume carries her most prized treasure. Behind Mom follows an old dog. I can sense the age from his stiff, slow gait and also by the amount of fur that no longer covers his once lush tail. They choose their steps wisely on the icy path. The furloughed mailman now parks his little, white truck, and two doors down the neighbors’ dogs go wild.

Although it is bluebird out, the bitter winds whip the snow from our lone tree and into a blistering twister of white. I take a sip of my chamomile tea and thank the universe for the warm roof over my head. And I write.