Moments before sunrise, the beach is a low-tide swathe of silvery sand, cold and firm underfoot. The water is flat and grey, skimmed by seagulls and ploughed, with minuscule splashes, by two stalwarts taking their morning exercise. I breathe deeply, enjoying the freedom of this place that has always restored and calmed me.
There are no man-made sounds; only the slap of small waves and the ring of fresh, salty air. In the sky a long vapour trail arcs to merge with a mass of low-lying cloud. Then there is a sudden infusion of colour as the earth tilts another fraction towards the sun. Saffron, salmon and gold pour over the horizon, bathing the clouds in a rich, dark glow. From where I stand at the water's edge, a new landscape is revealed. It's as if a cosmic spotlight has illuminated an entire realm beyond this earth. The vapour road from earth looks firm and real, weaving between the folds of a substantial heavenly hillside, then tapering from view.
It’s glorious and unexpected, this gap that's opened between two worlds, and it offers a brief window of opportunity. I think of my father, trapped in an aged, failing body. He loved this beach as much as I do. All through my childhood we'd watch for the first Southern Right whales to arrive in early spring. He'd tell me about the sharks and dolphins and the elusive black and white Orca, which we hoped, in vain, to see. In summer he loved to body surf and be buffeted by the waves. 'A little fresh, but so invigorating!' he'd say, stretching his arms out wide.
He'd love the beauty of this moment, and the artist in him would respond to the wild, awakened sky and want to paint it. But I want him here for a more urgent reason: I want him to see the possibility of a beyond, to witness the magical tableau on the horizon and take it into his soul.
The vapour road is wider now; a highway to the heavens, but only for a few more moments. In my mind’s eye I set him on that road and immediately the thought takes form: he’s 30, maybe 40 years younger, wearing baggy shorts, a cotton shirt and floppy sun hat, well-worn mountain boots and woolly socks pulled up over strong calves. I see him clearly, striding out, staff in hand. He looks back, smiling, and I can’t help myself: I wave – laughing and crying at the same time – and wish him well.
Death comes sooner than expected on a chilly day in July. Three hours after his passing, I am standing on the hillside overlooking the ocean. A Southern Right, ahead of schedule, sails in the bay. It holds its V-shaped fluke above the water until it has my full attention. And so I see the Orca burst from the rolling pewter sea, radiating energy and life. It breaches once, twice, three times, right behind the victorious V, before chasing away to the deep. In that instant, I know that my father's spirit is joyful and free.
Miracles may be dazzling wonders accompanied by fanfare, or tiny surprises, easily overlooked. Often they are dismissed as coincidence or projections of an over-active imagination. That's their nature; without skepticism the inexplicable would cease to be miraculous and become commonplace instead.
So what is a miracle to me? Just this: The awareness of and willingness to receive a personal gift of grace.