I got a call in mid-October that I had been dreading. My uncle, the man who taught me to love the sunrise, drink coffee, taught me the ‘secret knock’ and squirt Easy Cheese directly into my mouth was gone. He always had a roll of peppermint Lifesavers in his pocket and if he had one so did I. I had known the last time I saw him would likely be the last visit. I’m not sure if that made it better or worse. He always wanted to move to the beach, but he waited too long. That’s what we talked about the last time I saw him.
He smoked King Edward cigars. Everyone else hated the smell, but not me, I loved it. I loved that smell because was him. I would sit in the front seat between him and my dad on trips and listen to them talk. My uncle wasn’t good at reading maps, so my dad taught me to read the map so I always got to sit upfront.
My mother didn’t want to go to his funeral. Don’t ask me why. Stupidly I agreed. Don’t ask me why about that either. I can only say that I was just so incredibly sad and I had said goodbye to him while he was alive. I could not have anticipated the overwhelming regret that would take hold the second that it was too late to go. Grief, sadness, and regret are a terrible combination.
This was the man who had done his best to help fill the hole left by my grandpa’s death. My grandpa had been my best friend and partner in crime. The man who fed me chocolate ice cream, gave me quarters, and taught me how to play Dominos. I’ll never forget how his eyes lit up when he saw me or how he would drive the tractor to the house to get me when he saw our car. His death left a universe swallowing black hole in my heart.
My aunt and uncle drove me back to my grandmother’s house after my grandpa’s funeral. I was sitting in the front seat between them, so confused and sad. I looked at my uncle and said, “Please don’t smoke anymore. I don’t want you to die too.”
A decade later, he did stop smoking. My aunt called me one evening, my uncle didn’t talk on the phone, “Your uncle wants you to know that he has stopped smoking and that every time he has lit a cigar since your grandpa’s funeral he has seen your face and heard you ask him to stop. So he finally has.”
A few years later I was living in Charlotte, NC with three small children and my phone rang one morning. It was my aunt, “Your uncle wants you to know that there is snow on the beach and he wants you to come now.”
I laughed. “Please tell my uncle that the snow will be gone before I could load the kids in the car and get there. Take pictures and throw a snowball for me.”
Two hours later the phone rang. “Your uncle wants you to know that you were right. The snow is gone.” We both laughed. I did finally get to see snow on the beach years later and I wished he was there with me to see it too.
As Thanksgiving approached, I could not stomach the thought of going home. Of course, now my mother wanted me to make the long trip through the mountains that she had discouraged six weeks earlier.
A few days before the holiday, I realized I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to the beach. Not just any beach, the one where we had spent so many family vacations. The one where I learned to walk the beach at sunrise and get the best shells. Where I learned the magic of the sunrise. The place where the ‘secret knock’ gained access to coffee, powdered doughnuts, and my morning walk buddy.
As I packed the car and set the GPS, I smiled for the first time in weeks. The trip took around eight hours and I couldn’t wait to get there. I played all my favorite songs and sang along. This was the medicine that my heart and soul needed. As I crossed the bridge onto the island, my heart was so full.
I hadn’t been there in over twenty years. Nothing looked familiar. I couldn’t find the hotel where we used to stay. To make it even worse, most of the shops and restaurants were closed for the season. It was cold and rainy. I had convinced myself that I would feel his presence here. I didn’t.
The days of my visit dragged on. The endless walks on the beach in the cold wind and rain didn’t help. The sunrise was never visible through the endless clouds and rain. If possible I was even more sad and regretful than before. The only place open for dinner was a restaurant- bar near the bridge. It was more bar than restaurant and not at all the atmosphere I needed. More meals than I care to admit were Easy Cheese, Slim Jims, and powdered doughnuts.
The last night, I decided to walk to a store nearby to find dinner. I wasn’t up to enduring the bar. The street was deserted. It was raining and cold. I wanted to hurry and get back before it got any darker. Then I smelled cigar smoke. I stopped and looked around. I was standing in front of a vacant lot and the wind was blowing in off the ocean. I don’t know how long I stood there in the rain looking for the source of the cigar smoke, I never found it. I did find a quarter on the sidewalk in that spot. In that moment, I was a five-year-old hanging out with my two best friends.
As I finished the walk to the store, my heart was lighter and there was a smile on my face. My two best friends and biggest fans were together, watching out for me and cheering me on.
The next morning, the clouds broke just enough to see the sunrise over the ocean. In the years since that trip, I have inexplicably smelled cigar smoke many times. Usually in times of confusion or pain and it always brings me comfort. Wherever he is, cigars can’t hurt him anymore.