How is it that I find myself at 3:30 in the morning on my back porch with an old box of matches? I ask this aloud to Spike. He does not answer. Instead, paw on my leg, tennis ball in his mouth, his brown eyes look up at me, hopeful. The print is faded, but I can make out “Subic Bay Christian Serviceman’s Center” and on some dare to the full moon, I slip out one match, strike it, and marvel at the spark and fire, the sharp, pungent smell of thirty-three-year-old sulfur. Spike is not impressed with this magic. Still, my spontaneous grin ignites a full body wag and thumping tail and I cannot help but throw a high curveball into the moonlight and watch as he ducks under the fence and chases across the pasture.
Surely, it is no accident that on this particular night I woke up to rummage through a drawer for warm socks and came up with a memory so potent that time slips away in decades. I am so entranced with my memories that when my captive audience of one returns triumphant – ball in mouth – I cannot help but tell him the story.
In 1976 I lived in Coronado, California with my parents in a high-rise condominium overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I attended college and worked as lead vocal in Whitefeather, a top-forty, all-girl band. We played military base clubs and private parties four nights a week and I was rarely home before 3:00 AM. It began in October that year, each morning at dawn – with only two hours of sleep – I woke to a crude, slightly entertaining mantra emanating from a group of men dressed in blue and gold t-shirts, tight tan shorts and combat boots. They ran in formation down the beach, chanting their cadence, replete with original and rudimentary rhyme that echoed up six floors and into my head. Most of the time I was intrigued, but after one particular week of very little sleep and finals looming, I leaned my head out of my open window and issued a stream of oaths. Without breaking stride, every single man waved at me in unison, mocking my sunrise angst. Thus became our morning ritual.
A neighbor educated me about these supercilious behemoths. All were trainees or instructors at BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition School), a brutal training course for specialized commandos known as U.S. Navy SEALs. It was several weeks before I had my first close-encounter.
During a private gig, and mid-way through my rendition of Moondance, the most ridiculously handsome, arrogant man I will ever meet, walked right up onto my stage and asked me to dance. We spent the next year in heated debates disguised as dates. During one such date he dared me to marry him. I accepted the dare.
Years later, when he arrived from a mission just moments before I gave birth to our daughter, I yelled at him about his lousy timing and party-crashing habits. He laughed, kissed me square on my panting lips and said, “I didn’t crash your party, I simply showed up to the rest of my life.” The sweetness of that moment may have been lost to labor pain, but I digress…
In October 1978, Steve and I were married at 10:00 o’clock at night at the Christian Serviceman’s Center in Subic Bay, Olongapoe, Philippines during a monsoon. Picture this: me in red Candie high heels, (I had them in every color) climbing alone into the back of an open Jeepney(a Filipino taxi) in rain and wind that sliced the sky open. When I arrived, the electricity was out but Steve was there, along with Sixteen Navy SEALs (slightly intoxicated), and a Navy Chaplain who stood wearily between my travelling companion and Steve’s best friend. I stood at the entrance, charmed by the glow of the votive candles they held. In unison, they began their own off key version of the wedding march. The room smelled of matchstick sulfur, wet clothes and grain alcohol, but I was delighted by their goofy smiles and I think I laughed aloud as I sloshed my way down the aisle with mud spattered up to my knees and rain dripping from the hem of my cotton dress. Steve smiled that cocky, edgy smile, leaned in close and whispered, “See, all you had to do was show up.”
Exactly six hours later Steve and his platoon left for a three-week excursion. Middle of the night exits and unannounced returns became the rhythm of our existence. During our first year of marriage, we spent exactly 98 days together, no more than 15 consecutive days at a time. I found it fascinating to drill him on details about his trips and quickly learned that even my best methods of persuasion only worked for short clipped versions of his days (so to speak) at the office. Eventually, we found other things to talk about. Every two to three years from 1978 on we moved across the street, the country or the world. We lived in seven different states and four different countries.
Independence, while slightly force-fed, taught me how to run our family on my own for months on end. And it never failed that just about the time the kids and I learned a new language or adapted to a new culture, Steve would show up on the doorstep and we would begin again the next adventure.
This is no sad story, I tell Spike. He lifts his head, having long since curled himself around my bare feet, and looks at the small box in the palm of my hand. It is not a treat or ball and his obvious disappointment makes me laugh through my tears. Death is nothing at all. Even now – so many months after Steve’s passing from this earth – he is urging me on to show up to life without him. This, I announce aloud, is beyond measure, a legacy much larger than our little universe of dog and broken woman in the wee hours of dawn. This ancient little box of matches is a gift full of brilliant love and serendipitous moments.
Steve was right. Life is not complicated. Rather, it is a sequence of surprises, both excruciatingly painful and full of glorious adventure mixed and stirred up in moments. We mere mortals too often obscure the steps and miss the moments, when all we really need to do is just show up.