“Follow me,” she said. “I want to show you something.”
She was a dark silhouette in the doorway, surrounded by early morning light. And while her voice sounded nice enough, I couldn’t see her face. She was just a shadow, a stranger, a woman we had met only 30 seconds before. I held my little brother’s hand tighter.
I was 8. It was the year a stranger had tried to pull me into his blue Chevy Nova… to do what, I will never know. It was the year I began having breathing “episodes” in which, in a panic I would struggle to get enough air into my lungs. There just never seemed to be enough… air. It was the year I finally realized I had a Dad… who was never ever coming back.
I worried about people. I worried about getting lost. I worried about people leaving… and especially dying. The world had suddenly become an unsafe place. A place that couldn’t always be trusted.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as if I was in a constant state of terror, or unhappiness. I had merely caught a glimpse of what the world was capable of. I realized, in much the same way the magnificent ocean waves had the ability to lull you into a drifting peaceful slumber as you succumb to their hypnotic ebb and flow, they could also be the very same waves that forcefully and indifferently pull you under… and drown you if you don’t play your cards right.
As it was, my mother was a single mom and needed extra work over the summer, so she had signed up to teach summer school. We were to be watched by her friend – this woman etched in bright morning light, whom I wasn’t even remotely sure of yet. My mom was running late, so she had dropped us off quickly without much of an introduction, and rushed back to her Honda hatchback that she had left running.
The woman came out of her apartment and turned to lock the door behind her. The front step was dim but my eyes adjusted quickly and took her in – Gail, she said her name was, standing before me and my brother. She didn’t look scary, but who could tell? She was tall and tan – the quintessential California surfer girl. She had shoulder length blonde hair that did that feathery thing on either side of her part. She was smiling and whispering about seeing something, and it seemed that if we didn’t hurry we’d miss it.
She stepped onto the walkway lined with star jasmine and river rocks and gestured for us to follow. I pulled my brother close and began walking behind her, at a safe distance. It was still rather early in the morning, but warm nonetheless. She had on red shorts and flip flops. My brother and I followed her muscular tan legs around the perimeter of the apartment buildings. Other adults were rushing out of doors with coffee mugs and briefcases, starting engines and muttering polite good mornings.
We kept following her until we reached the very back outer edge of the complex, behind the covered parking structure and the dumpsters. There was nobody else to be seen. My breath quickened and I tightened my grip on my little brother, who didn’t seem to be concerned in the least. I couldn’t imagine what she wanted to show us here. I was pitched to run for it. I was ready to scream.
Gail kept walking though, farther and farther away from safety. She reached a hip high wall, on the other side of which seemed to be nothing but a steep drop off. Far below I could hear the industrious sound of multiple construction tractors cutting into the hillside.
“Come here, you guys.” She said, waving us over with her hands. “This is the very best place to see them.”
Despite my gripping fear, I did as she said, and began slowly walking toward her with my little brother in tow. By this time she had perched herself on the wall and was peering at something I couldn’t see. If she sensed my fear, she didn’t let on. She just kept smiling, and looking intently down below while dangling her long tanned legs over the edge. I’ll admit, I was curious.
Finally, I was close enough to see what she was looking at. It was a nest. A large and intricate nest made of twisty branches and twigs, built into the high craggy cliff side. Nestled deep inside the safety of the branches were two baby birds.
“Baby hawks,” Gail told us. “When there aren’t any trees to build in, the mother will choose a high cliff.”
We could hear the faint cooing of the little birds, and as we watched the mother bird circled high above us, then landed in the nest to feed her babies.
I softened. I opened. Gail had my heart after that. And it wasn’t just that morning on the hillside. She took us swimming in her apartment pool every single summer day. She let me crawl into her bed when I was sun dried and exhausted and watch Three’s Company with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I learned the words to every single Neil Diamond song from the records she owned, and I sang each of them at the top of my lungs. She had a case of rare and old dolls she had collected, arranged and cared for since she was a child. If we promised to be careful, we got to take each of them out and play with them.
That summer I learned that though the ocean can be terrifying, it can also be surprisingly gentle and easy. And sometimes it’s okay to trust… to float peacefully on your back while watching the clouds above.