I wrote this several years ago, but I’ve decided to share it here on this Thanksgiving.
It is the day after Thanksgiving and we have gathered on a wooden pier at the Indian River near Palm Bay Florida in the hopes of seeing a manatee. We are family and strangers, children and grown-ups, Southern drawls and New York City accents. Little Rose gets down on her belly, dips her hands, and gently splashes. She is wearing pink as usual and has no idea what a manatee is, but she is fully caught up in the excitement of finding out. Sunlight paints the muddy water, every bubble and shimmer draws our rapt attention, and it feels as though we are on a small raft together – a raft of fools, perhaps, but cheerful ones. In a Walmart three miles away shoppers are clambering for merchandise in the avaricious frenzy of holiday shopping officially uncorked this very morning and I feel a bond with those who have the sense to be here instead.
The day is an island of green and blue, heartbreaking in its loveliness. Strange ungainly creatures, the manatees are migratory aquatic mammals that find their way to the warm shallow waters of slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas. They are gentle half-ton herbivores constantly grazing for food along the bottoms and surfaces of the water, hence their nickname: sea cows. Manatees have no natural enemies and can live for sixty years if they avoid encounters with boat propellers or other human-caused dangers. Sailors of long ago mistook them for mermaids, but these men had been at sea too long – it is hard to imagine a homelier animal.
We have come to this place like pilgrims hoping for a glimpse, and our patience is rewarded. First, bubbles appear, and a glimmering mirage just beneath the surface of the water. Next a curious pair of nostrils makes a shy appearance, and when finally a wrinkled whiskered snout emerges, we all gasp in wonderment. Silent and trusting, the manatees draw nearer to us, even accepting the touch of our hands. I am inexplicably happy to reach beyond my human-ness and defer to the dignity of this elephantine emissary from the natural world. It is comforting to know that there are manatees.
Comfort comes when you least expect it. It would be an understatement to say I had been worried about this Florida trip. More accurately, I was terrified. For one thing, it would be my first trip back since the death of my sister. I dreaded the sight of the familiar house where she no longer waited. I didn’t want to stand in her kitchen trying to remember the sound of her voice. And then there was the whole prospect of meeting up with family. Family: the ones who know you too well, the ones who know you least. Since our current lives don’t overlap, we tend to dwell on the history we’ve shared, and my family’s history just isn’t any fun. I knew of course we would try to be cheery. Then all the old pain would press upon our hearts, and all the old angers would spark and collide; regressive dynamics would kick into place, and I would be crazy again. But I have sailed across three thousand miles of sky to take my place among this ragtag assemblage. I guess this is what people do.
There is an oak tree by her grave with Spanish moss and wind chimes in its branches. Her name on a stone stuns me for a second but the sense of loss is neither deepened nor dulled. My sadness is a cold, familiar wind through a broken pane – and this too is what it feels like to be human. I am one who learns almost everything a little bit too late, but for now I let myself close my eyes and think about forgiveness. I hear a sparkling sound like jewels in the air and try to fill myself with light. I cast away regrets and imagine them flickering like aspen leaves, like shiny coins that jingle like the wind chimes in the tree.
And I am absorbed into the dominion of the present, where miracles are unfolding all around me. Every day could be a hymn of gratitude. The water sparkles in the sunlight, the air is rich with river, and good-hearted people take time out for inter-species communion. Now the Dixie Chicks are singing on the radio, the menu at Dot’s includes salsa and grits, and Rose is drawing pictures at the table. Nobody cares what you did twenty years ago. We are all flawed and short-lived; we may as well stand still for a moment. Trust me on this. I am a woman who has seen a manatee.