Last summer we went to the beach, as we always do. I have spent years honoring the sea turtles, watching for the trails of the mothers making their clumsy way up the sand, weighed down by the lack of bouyancy on land. I have hovered over new nests until the turtle patrol arrived to rope it off from more unwary humans. Rest assured the day we move to the beach is the day I join this sacred turtle work myself.
However, in all my years of beach living and beach going, I have never seen a baby turtle emerge. Until last year. One of the nests closest to our approach hatched while the world slept. Tiny eruptions of sand showed atop the mound and tiny flipper prints traversed the sand, wavelike, to the water. I knelt down and touched them, reverently. This was a miracle. I had brushed against it, and yet, somehow, still missed the moment entirely it seemed. Eventually the turtle patrol arrived, and someone more familiar with turtle nest etiquette than I, gently sank his hands into the sand, sifting it softly through his fingers, assuring himself every hatchling had made it to the water.
One tiny turtle was still in the nest. Smaller than a fifty-cent piece, it was still struggling upward but couldn’t break free of the earth holding it down. What once kept the small one safe, now threatened to kill. A group of us gathered to witness what would come next. As the turtle was lifted from the nest, its head cocked, as though listening. It’s eyes narrowed against the light. Turtles are born by moonlight, so no doubt this abrupt brightness only added to the confusion. But as the gentle rescuer moved closer to the water, the turtle became less confused. Tiny fins began to row in rhythm with the waves. The baby knew what to do, even if it wasn’t sure how to get there.
It’s hard to describe how I feel about what happened next. All my strongest mother-instincts kicked in as we all expectantly approached the water. Here, in this vast ocean, we were going to let this wee one go alone, where we could not. We held our breaths as the gentle captor finally released his tiny ward. The baby turtle bobbed in the waves for a moment, looking for all the world like a wine cork with feet, and then it dove beneath the waves and towards the deep. I remember thinking, It has no chance, no chance at all. How can anything survive this, as my eyes swept the blue expanse stretching beyond sight. But then I remembered the Mother, who decades ago made this same journey, and who returns now, year after year to the same space to tell her tale in her own birth pains. Reminding those who watch, that some survive. Somehow, against all possible odds, some survive.
I thought to myself, this is holy. What we have just witnessed is holy.
Sometimes when I am at working at my desk at the top of the stairs, a child will break free of its caregiver and race heedlessly towards the top step, glancing over her shoulder, daring anyone to stop her. Sometimes we all race towards her together, pleading for her to slow, to wait, until we can snatch any piece of her, preventing what will end in a hard stop after a long fall. So far, we’ve captured every one. When we do we laugh and commiserate. They’re so fast, we say. I only took my eyes off of her for a second. And it’s true. Nothing is more unlikely and miraculous than a child entering adulthood relatively unscathed. They’re so fast and everything they do lacks caution or caring for personal safety. There are so many monsters in the deep dark places. We only have to blink, shift our eyes for a moment, and the worst that can happen happens. It’s amazing, really, that any one of us survives to tell the tale of our lives. It is holy work, to care for another living being, to love without caution or caring for our personal safety, when it’s just as likely our hope will end in despair as it is that it will end in happiness.
When my daughter returned home from her stay in Northern Ireland, she confided in me that before she left she imagined the worst things that could happen while she was away, a list which included one of her family members getting sick, and her dog somehow dying before she could get home. Had she told me these things beforehand, I’m certain I would have given her every assurance they wouldn’t happen. These two remote possibilities couldn’t possibly touch us in a window of a few months. When she came home we would all be waiting for her, happy, healthy and ready to move ahead together into the beautiful life we planned.
But I did get sick, and Annie did die, and all I could do when she got off the plane was hold her as tightly as possible because I sent her off into the great big world, and she survived. She returned to us safe and sound, carrying only a backpack and her broken heart. As we all gathered around her, her sisters, and her father and I, and petted her arms and her hair, assuring ourselves of her material soundness, and wiped our tears, I reminded myself once again, of the holiness of the moment, that all of us together are more whole than broken, despite everything we had endured in the previous months.
Last night we rang in the new year together. Every year as I grow older, it gets more difficult to stay awake long past the late hour of 10pm. Honestly I think everyone else would rather be in bed than wait with me. It wouldn’t bother me if they went, but I want to be there, awake, to witness the holiness of entering another year. I survived.
We survived, all of us, despite everything that happened, neither the hope nor the hearthache buried us under their weight. We made it. Some sprinting and laughing, glancing over their sholder all the while, some carried gently in the hands of an unexpected rescuer. But running or limping or carried, if you are reading these words, we made it. This is sacred, a holy mystery too deep to understand. Life willing, this won’t be my last New Year’s Day, but if it is, I stood witness. I watched and made note: this too is holy. May we not be unaware of how unlikely each unfolding moment may be.