It’s 2 am and my squinty eyes can hardy see the road ahead.
“It’s Memorial Day weekend. Traveling without reservations will be tricky,” Larry warned this morning. This happens a lot. He offers up a sane tidbit. I listen. And then think he’s being too conservative. That I know better. I have to remember to stop doing that.
My retreat house will be available in 24 hours, I thought. How complicated could it be? All Merry and I need is a small bed for the night. I’m going to Carmel; the entire town is filled with beds. Dog beds, too. Outside of Paris, it’s the most canine-obsessed location on earth.
I was just so pleased with myself for leaving the day before. So relieved not to be doing my customary mad-dash to pack, drive six hours the morning of, requiring shots of caffeine to stay awake. But after encountering “No Vacancy” signs all over town since 1:15 am, I’ve driven the twenty-five minutes down dark windy roads to Pacific Grove, begging Merry to “hold it” a little longer while praying the lady on the phone has indeed held the room she’s promised us.
“You got lucky,” she says. “A guest had to leave unexpectedly.”
“Hurry up and do your business, baby,” I beg Merry, hoisting two bags onto my shoulder as she wanders off in the dirt attached to her 26’ leash. I drop a bag as the weight yanks on my hair, as it always does when I hurry, which is still too often. “Ouch!”
Are you ever going to stop rushing? Will you ever remember to wear a ponytail so you can pick up your freaking bags without ripping out your hair?
Holding tight to the old-school heavy metal hotel key, I spy our door up on the second floor. Merry puts on the brakes at the base of the stairs, and then heads in the other direction, which I don’t notice until I’m two flights up and the leash goes taught and I whip around and drop another bag.
“What’s wrong, baby girl?” I ask, trying not to lay my stress on her sweet self. Merry won’t budge, stares me down. For a dog the size of a cat, she’s remarkably courageous, low maintenance, stair friendly. I’m not used to having to pamper her furry ass. I take a breath, drop my stuff, descended the stairs, and scoop her up in my left arm, maneuvering everything else with my right.
The minute I open our door, I feel it. Oh no. There are ghosts in here. Dead people. The smell of stale air fills my nostrils. A sense of heaviness; a sadness washes over me. I hate this about myself sometimes—being so sensitive to my surroundings. I hesitate before shivering in the cold night air and forging on. My lungs tighten as I lie on the saggy mattress.
My eyes adjust. Blue walls. High ceiling. Washed white beams, a nice contrast to the blue. I hear the crash of waves in the distance; the view, I imagine, will be stunning. This is Pacific Grove. We’re a rock’s throw from Pebble Beach—some of the world’s most coveted real estate. The image soothes me.
I call Larry. “I’m in an old lady room,” I say, not admitting I fear the old broads are all still here, playing Gin Rummy and split-pot poker at my bedside table, Camels and Lucky Strikes hanging from their lips and atop invisible ash trays. Lare accepts my woo-woo weirdness more than any man ever has. Finds is “entertaining,” he says. But I’m not about to push my luck broadcasting each instance.
Fuzz and I sleep just fine. Only a few bumps in the night wake us up, Merry running to bark at the door. But we’re in a hotel on one of the busiest weekends of the year, so I don’t think twice about her uneasiness.
Until I wake up. Expecting to see the ocean when I pull back the gauze curtains, my gaze falls upon something entirely different. Headstones. Yep. We’ve been sleeping in a cemetery. Not across the street from a cemetery, but in one. The large upright headstones are not fifty feet away, the flat stones marking individual, less-expensive gravesites only a few paces, without so much as a gate between my room and them.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I say out loud, laughing, before falling back to sleep.
As the sun warms the sky, I awake again to a different vision—men, women and children of all shapes and sizes carrying fresh and plastic flowers. Big American flags sway in the breeze. Ah! Memorial Day! In deference to my grandfathers and father, all military men, I feel compelled to join them, to pay my respects. Merry and I walk amongst the headstones. I read the names and details, so very grateful to be upright.
“Every day above ground is a good one,” Dad said nearly every day of his illness.
One of Mom’s best girlfriends, Kay Grace, meets us at the retreat house. With six books to her name, she’s one of the first writers who inspired me. It’s intimidating and thrilling for me that she’s decided to come. Growing up, when our two families celebrated Mother’s Day brunch together at Stanford University, her alma mater, I’d sit openmouthed at her stories of “clients.” How does a self-employed woman get clients? I’d think. I’d listen to her speak of flying the globe to work with some of the most powerful nonprofits in the world and think, “I want clients!”
The last time Kay and I were here together, Dad had weeks left to live. Our “Goodbye-to-Carmel” day trip (which sounds morbid, but how can you not say goodbye to such a place?), saw us gliding Dad through the Dansk store, where Kay bought me white ceramic dishes with dark blue piping. A moment of gladness before Dad, and soon after the store, left this world. The close of two beloved eras.
The chef I hired for our retreat has cleared the dessert dishes. Our private sessions are about to start. As I get up from the table, I hear muffled whispers and giggles in the next room and Kay comes over to my side.
“You’ve created the most magical life for yourself,” she says, rubbing my back, her blue eyes filling with tears. “Everyone is so happy. Your parents would bust their buttons.” Kay was one of the few Mom vented to back in high school when I didn’t appear studious enough. She was by my side when my parents died five years apart, and again, when my husband left for another woman.
“I’m not entirely sure how I got so lucky,” I say. “I had so many inspirations, you chief among them.”
“You never know who’s watching, do you? I was just trying to put food on the table for my boys.” Kay’s story is an admirable one. Three sons, a tough divorce, followed by another, even tougher divorce. Creating her own consulting firm in the sixties and seventies when most of her friends didn’t work or held traditional roles of flight attendant, teacher, or like Mom, secretary, was new territory.
“We do the best we can with our messes” she says.
As I sit at the kitchen table writing this blog, I hear several ladies whisper and laugh in the next room, trying to be quiet as lunch comes to a close and our private sessions are about to start. I think about how this trip, like those before it, has opened up my heart. I’m not entirely sure how I’ve been entrusted with the great good fortune to bring people to this magical place so often—but as I look out on the ocean and remember my folks walking hand in hand on its rocky shore, something tells me it just might have something to do with dead people.