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The Story of the Starfish

At the waters edge a small child was throwing beached Starfish into the churning surf, one right after the another. There must have been thousands laying upon this pristine beach. Each starfish was briefly examined by her small set of hands and then flung back in to the ocean from which it involuntarily came from.A tourist watched with curiosity as his leisurely steps brought him closer and closer to the littlle girl.

"What are you doing?", the older gentleman asked.

"Saving Starfish!" the little child responded, all the while continuing the task at hand.

With bemusement but kindness the man said, "It's a noble attempt but I doubt if all your effort will really make much of a difference." The child paused for only a moment and then continued hurling yet another starfish to safety.

"Your right", as she looked in his direction with a big smile,  "but It will make a difference to THAT ONE!"

A Sandpiper To Bring You Joy

By Robert Peterson

She was six years old when I first met her on the beach near where I live. I drive to this beach, a distance of three or four miles, whenever the world begins to close in on me. She was building a sand castle or something and looked up, her eyes as blue as the sea.

"Hello," she said. I answered with a nod, not really in the mood to bother with a
small child. "I'm building," she said.

"I see that. What is it?" I asked, not caring.

"Oh, I don't know, I just like the feel of sand."

That sounds good, I thought, and slipped off my shoes. A sandpiper glided by.

"That's a joy," the child said.

"It's a what?"

"It's a joy. My mama says sandpipers come to bring us joy." The bird went gliding down the beach.

"Good-bye joy," I muttered to myself, "hello pain," and turned to walk on. I was
depressed; my life seemed completely out of balance.

"What's your name?" She wouldn't give up.

"Ruth," I answered. "I'm Ruth Peterson."

"Mine's Wendy... I'm six."

"Hi, Wendy."

She giggled. "You're funny," she said.

In spite of my gloom I laughed too and walked on. Her musical giggle followed me.

"Come again, Mrs. P," she called. "We'll have another happy day."

The days and weeks that followed belong to others: a group of unruly Boy Scouts, PTA meetings, and ailing mother. The sun was shining one morning as I took my hands out of the dishwater. "I need a sandpiper," I said to myself, gathering up my coat. The ever-changing balm of the seashore awaited me. The breeze was chilly, but I strode along, trying to recapture the serenity I needed. I had forgotten the child and was startled when she appeared.

"Hello, Mrs. P," she said. "Do you want to play?"

"What did you have in mind?" I asked, with a twinge of annoyance.

"I don't know, you say."

"How about charades?" I asked sarcastically.

The tinkling laughter burst forth again. "I don't know what that is."

"Then let's just walk." Looking at her, I noticed the delicate fairness of her face.
"Where do you live?" I asked.

"Over there." She pointed toward a row of summer cottages.

Strange, I thought, in winter. "Where do you go to school?"

"I don't go to school. Mommy says we're on vacation." She chattered little girl talk as we strolled up the beach, but my mind was on other things. When I left for home, Wendy said it had been a happy day. Feeling surprisingly better, I smiled at her and agreed.

Three weeks later, I rushed to my beach in a state of near panic. I was in no mood to even greet Wendy. I thought I saw her mother on the porch and felt like demanding she keep her child at home. "Look, if you don't mind," I said crossly when Wendy caught up with me, "I'd rather be alone today."

She seemed unusually pale and out of breath.
"Why?" she asked.

I turned to her and shouted, "Because my mother died!" and thought, my God, why was I saying this to a little child?

"Oh," she said quietly, "then this is a bad day."

"Yes," I said, "and yesterday and the day before and-oh, go away!"

"Did it hurt? " she inquired.

"Did what hurt?" I was exasperated with her, with myself.

"When she died?"

"Of course it hurt!!!!" I snapped, misunderstanding, wrapped up in myself. I
strode off.

A month or so after that, when I next went to the beach, she wasn't there.
Feeling guilty, ashamed and admitting to myself I missed her, I went up to the
cottage after my walk and knocked at the door. A drawn looking young woman with honey-colored hair opened the door. "Hello," I said. "I'm Ruth Peterson. I missed your little girl today and wondered where she was."

"Oh yes, Mrs. Peterson, please come in. Wendy spoke of you so much. I'm afraid I allowed her to bother you. If she was a nuisance, please, accept my apologies."

"Not at all-she's a delightful child," I said, suddenly realizing that I meant it. "Where is she?"

"Wendy died last week, Mrs. Peterson. She had leukemia. Maybe she didn't tell you."

Struck dumb, I groped for a chair. My breath caught.

"She loved this beach; so when she asked to come, we couldn't say no. She seemed so much better here and had a lot of what she called happy days. But the last few weeks, she declined rapidly..." her voice faltered. "She left something for you ... if only I can find it. Could you wait a moment while I look?"

I nodded stupidly, my mind racing for something, anything, to say to this lovely
young woman. She handed me a smeared envelope, with MRS. P printed in bold,
childish letters. Inside was a drawing in bright crayon hues-a yellow beach, a blue sea, and a brown bird. Underneath was carefully printed: A SANDPIPER TO BRING YOU JOY Tears welled up in my eyes, and a heart that had almost forgotten to love opened wide. I took Wendy's mother in my arms. "I'm so sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," I muttered over and over, and we wept together.

The precious little picture is framed now and hangs in my study. Six words - one for each year of her life - that speak to me of harmony, courage, undemanding love. A gift from a child with sea-blue eyes and hair the color of sand -- who taught me the gift of love.

Maggie’s Beach Party

July 10, 2004 the radio station promised one of the summer’s ten best days as we drove east on the LIE. The NYC skyline was crystal clear, not a cloud in the warm sky. We were on our way to Huntington Hospital to visit my sister Maggie. She was there for yet another one of her many visits over the last 2 years to 1-North, the oncology unit. This time her metastatic Breast Cancer was causing severe bone and chest pain and she was having a difficult time with her brain radiation treatments. Although her weight and energy had recently diminished, her death still seemed in the far distance in all our minds. If you saw the way she had her nails done and all her accessories in place you too would agree. She looked great and had that zestful spark in her voice as well as her usual bite when things did not go as planned. It had been a long family-balancing act of trying to allow Maggie to maintain her strong independence yet feel comfortable that she was safe when she began to wobble and forget recently. Any talk of help or Hospice seemed premature in her mind as she adamantly let us know.

That beautiful Saturday morning Maggie greeted us cheerfully an announced she was finally not in pain, she was comfortable. We all relaxed with relief. Perhaps another day and she would return home. Her thoughts were very clear and she insisted we stay for the evening beach party at 7PM. We nodded not knowing what it was about but trusting she knew. After all she did live on the beach. After chatting it up with some friends and her husband Kenny, Maggie said “lets go for a stroll”-this from a girl who hadn’t lifted her head out of pain in several days. My daughter Kirsten and I, held on to her as she wobbled down the hall chatting of everyday things. As usual she wanted the gossip and update on everyone in the family and asked many questions-obviously very much in the moment. We reach the door to the outside terrace and she motioned “lets go sit out in the sun”. We pulled up a few rocking chairs and spent awhile enjoying the beautiful day. The flowers and umbrellas on the terrace made for a cozy place. Maggie kept saying “I feel like I’m on my porch in my rocker looking out at the bay”-her most favorite view at home. Again she mentioned the beach party that evening and she was happy we would be staying for it. Within an hour of chatting and laughing Maggie was tired and we walked back so she could nap. But first she had some business to attend to. She asked the nurse to sign her health care proxy and a do not resuscitate request, just in case some medication or side effect should create a problem. Maggie fully believed she would be home soon but didn’t want any loose ends hanging on. She was very matter of fact about the whole thing.
She crawled into bed, shut her eyes and her journey began to change dramatically. Her color changed to blue, her breathing became shallow and eradicate, and her right side started to shake. It was hard not to believe the worst had suddenly begun so quickly. There was an initial sense of panic and urgency to do something until we realized there was nothing that needed doing, this was part of the journey and we had to go with it. After a short nap Maggie opened her eyes with the sweetest softest smile on her face and looked ahead at something we couldn’t see. She was slightly puzzled by what she saw and did not answer our calls of “Maggie where are you”? She just stared off looking very peaceful with a sense of wonder on her face. Touching her chin, the 3rd call of “Maggie where are you” got her to turn her head look me straight in the eye and plant a sweet kiss on my cheek. “That’s where I am darling” she responded in her fake southern accent. “Let’s take another walk honey” and bolted out of bed. Her lips blue and her breathing winded now she struggled to get down the hall asking to stop and sit in a pink (her favorite color) chair in the hallway. She was breathing hard and with difficulty and said “just let me catch my breath”. As she sat, she again exclaimed, “I’m so glad you’re here for the beach party; it’s going to be great”. It’s tonight.” She looked up a tad perplexed and said “I’m a little confused what its for but I know that’s why you’re here, right” Yes, we all agreed we all love a beach party. Catching her breath Maggie discovered the big pink chair was actually on wheels and summoned us to push her out on the terrace so she could enjoy the day some more. As we passed through the sitting room she reached over for a copy of her favorite trashy magazine and said “you know I got to keep up with my gossip”.

Out in the stunning day on the terrace Maggie chatted more slowly now taking more time to find her thoughts, which were still very clear. Her eyes closed as she drifted off and on in sleep. It was obvious to Kenny, Kirsten and I that time had come to say goodbye sooner than we had thought. We made calls to our large family to share the changes. Maggie is one of eight children and a loved aunt of many, remarkably we found everyone home. They would all come and be there for the beach party Maggie spoke of.  Maggie’s doctor also stopped in while we sat on the terrace. “Maggie you seem comfortable now I’d like to send you home. I will arrange hospice to keep you comfortable.” Maggie abruptly opened her eyes obviously caught off guard, peered at the doctor and said "Hospice, you really think I ‘m ready for hospice?" No one answered; we all sat quietly and tense. "Do you really think I’m ready for Hospice" she asked again expecting a.. no I’m sure? The doctor looked at Maggie uncertain of what to say. Kenny her husband, and I, looked at each other waiting for some sort of response, perhaps someone to say no I was only kidding it is all a mistake or to offer a last minute miracle. A third time Maggie repeated, "no really do you think I’m ready for hospice"? No one could say what was now obvious to all of us except Maggie. I reached for her hand, "yes Maggie, its time" I acknowledged. Her head snapped toward me "really, wow?!". There was a long pause as Maggie closed her eyes. When she looked at us again she looked stunned and said "I can’t believe it ends like this, are you sure, I just can’t believe this is how it ends. Wow, I can’t believe it." Her doctor left and Maggie sat totally silent her eyes closed, what was she thinking or praying?

15 minutes passed before Maggie leaned forward and gently began to cry. There was a sense of peace, contentment and knowing about her gentle cry. She hugged her husband Kenny and whispered some private words to him. She hugged me saying “Vivi”, as she liked to call me, I can’t believe it ends like this, it’s so strange.” I love you Vivi, thank you for being a great sister. Her last hug and surrender went to Kirsten her 15 yr old niece with words of how proud she was of her and who she had become. Her words were words of love, not regrets. Maggie closed her eyes and totally relaxed into a deep sleep under the gorgeous sun. She seemed at peace, a stark contrast to her ferocious fight over the last two years.

Throughout the afternoon Maggie’s mother Mary her sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews arrived to find her under the umbrella on the terrace where she wanted to be. Her nods and short words became fewer over the hours as we circled her, held her hand, chatted, rubbed her hands and feet with lavender cream and made her the center of our world. Those who arrived and were afraid were gently led to the circle and given a hand to hold, and helped to say their goodbyes. There was such strength and peace in our numbers. What would have been torturous and difficult to face alone was peaceful, spirited and ok, all together. In Maggie’s death we were united, comforted and loved.
As the sun made its way around we found the pink chair actually reclined into a bed and could easily be moved to the shade. Her favorite Caribbean motif blanket covered her torso with her recently painted pink nails and toenails left out, as she would want. Maggie will always be known for her tenacious determination in living her life in spite of some bad odds, and so it was with her death as well. Once resolved and known she would concede but always with flare and control. The day seemed perfectly orchestrated by her for such an event as her dying. The beautiful weather, a comfortable cozy terrace, her large family surrounding her, supporting each other and loving her. It was totally about Maggie-something she always loved. The atmosphere was filled with tears as well as many funny stories and memories. Of course pizza and soda were ordered. After all, she insisted there would be a beach party that evening. No longer able to respond to us verbally we merely sat in our close circle of 32 and loved her as the day turned to evening. Countless times over the past months Maggie had spoken of death and reminded us that every time we see a butterfly it would be her checking things out. Nearby her head two butterflies fluttered on the flowering bush. They did not go unrecognized. It was Maggie and her dad, come to take her home.

Like the day the sunset was promising to be spectacular. Shadows had begun to form and the temperature became cooler. Not knowing when death would occur we began to fear we would have to return to Maggie’s room as darkness fell. Dying on the terrace was somewhere between not dying in the hospital which Maggie didn’t want and not dying at home which she resisted. Thank God it was not against the hospital rules to die peacefully on the terrace. A family member near her head leaned in and said Maggie, it’s 8:15PM, we are all here now. The sun will be going down in 5 minutes. We’ll have to go inside then and we don’t want to do that. We know you loved it out here at the beach party. The buffet is closed though and it’s time to go. It’s ok to leave Maggie, we’ll be ok. We were all praying quietly in our own way as the big orange sun dipped down below the horizon creating a beautiful array of colors. Moments later Maggie took her last big breath and there was silence. Her face relaxed, she looked peaceful, she had gone. We all held hands and prayed out loud for her safe journey. The sense of peace and the gift of having been there as she moved on will forever be in our hearts.

A Psychic Medium had recently told Maggie that in her death she will give her family her greatest gift yet, and there it was a beach party made in heaven that only her closest loved ones were invited to. Few of us are given the opportunity our family had to say goodbye and be present for the incredible peaceful journey we found in Maggie’s death. It is that reason we share this story with you, so that you know whatever you believe in death is a very natural part of our journey and needs to be honored and loved not feared and turned from. In Maggie’s death we have found our own lives renewed and clarified. We will forever miss Maggie and love her spirit but thank her for the most incredible beach party any of us have ever been too.

At the recent citing of a butterfly while at my computer I am certain I heard Maggie’s voice in an anonymous email I received which said  "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, champagne in one hand, strawberries in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming Wahoo- What a Ride!"