I remember my mother's last birthday. I had taken her to the ocean off the North Carolina coast. It was May, and the water was very cold. We wore wetsuits to swim and to ride the waves into the shore. We flew dragon kites. We ate fish caught at dawn. It would be our last trip together. My mother was dying.
I had three children in tow. The youngest was five. On this particular morning, this birthday morning, the children and I trolled the beach looking for treasure. Blackbeard had favored this place, so perhaps we might find a Spanish doubloon, a mermaid's purse, or a letter in a bottle. After a bit, the oldest and the youngest decided to return to the house for a game of ping-pong and some lunch. My son Alex stayed with me, making the comment that he was a beach bum just like me.
We watched our footprints disappear in the surf. Alex found a small piece of blue and white plate, and we decided that it had come from Blackbeard's pirate ship. We laughed at the thought that maybe his dinner had not been to his liking and he'd thrown his plate overboard (along with the cook!)
That's when we saw the whale! About the length of a football field from the shore, the dorsal fin appeared above the water. My child and I stopped, I pointed, and I said, "That's the biggest dolphin I have ever seen!" A man surf fishing close by said, "Lady, that's no dolphin. That's a whale." By this time, every man, woman, and child was standing at the edge of the shore, watching the whale perform. We were not disappointed. The whale even came up high out of the water and fell back in, as if it knew it had an audience to impress.
The next day was a rainy day so we all went to the small aquarium in town. I asked the curator about the whale and she told me it was most likely a pilot whale, and undoubtedly a juvenile judging by the closeness to shore.
By August, my mother made the journey home. I was devastated. Losing your mother orphans you in a way that no other loss can. After the funeral, I sat alone with my thoughts, my memories, my grief. I felt so alone. Then, I remembered the gift I was given on my mother's last birthday. I had seen a whale in the water, but that whale had always been there. The notion that so many of life's truths exist without our seeing it, without the confirmation of our physical senses.
Whether I was aware of it or not made no difference. No difference at all. The whale has always been there.