"Her name was Amber, and she loved the sun."
My grandfather loved to tell stories of his youth. Every time I stayed over, he would regale me with adventures, misadventures, anecdotes small and large from the myriad jobs he'd held over the decades of his life. It seemed like he had enough material that he would never have to repeat himself, but inevitably, each visit, he would tell me of the love of his life.
"She was sun-kissed, herself, red-hair aflame in the morning light, and all over freckles, with just the faintest suggestion of a burn to the skin."
He told me that it was okay to speak fondly of a woman who wasn't my grandmother, you see, because Grandmother had died many years ago, in childbirth. They had said it was a miracle that my mother survived. Grandfather assured me that he had done his mourning for his wife -- my grandmother -- and that he would never forget her, but he would not be moved on the subject of the love of his life. He was concerned that I would not recognize the love of my life when I saw it, and agonize over it the same way he did.
"Loving the sun isn't strong enough. She adored it. She worshipped it. In fact, the day I met her, she said, 'The sun told me about you,' and that was that. After that, we were as thick as thieves. Every day a new adventure, every night spent in the same bed. We spent so little time apart, and it felt so natural, like she was just an extension of me, or I was an extension of her. I did love her, I knew it. But I was always unsure about how she felt about me. I mean, yes, it is obvious to say that we were exclusive, but there was always another that came first.
"No matter what had happened the night before, no matter how late we'd stayed up, she would be up an hour before the sun. It was the damnedest thing. She didn't need an alarm clock. She didn't need anything to remind her. She would, an hour before sunrise, get up, untangle herself from the bed, gather her things, and go outside. She would park herself on a blanket -- always the same pale-pink floral-print blanket, which was arranged just so. She would kneel on the blanket and bow her head in what the yoga people call 'Child's Pose.' She would sit there like that for, oh, as long as it took, I suppose. Then, some internal timer, probably the same one that told her it was time to wake up, would chime in her head, and she would lift up her upper body and raise her arms. At the same time, the first sliver of the sun would peak up over the edge of the water. Eventually, she would stand, and she would hold her arms up over her head until the sun was fully clear of the horizon, standing on its own in the sky. Every single day.
"I talked to her about it one time, you know. I was feeling an urge to move on. I didn't want to go alone, but I knew if I made her choose she would have chosen her ritual over me. I told her my feelings, and she smiled. She said that it was better that I go if that was what I truly wanted. She set me free, you know."
I refuse to believe that Grandfather regretted his decision. Or at least that he fully regretted it. The adventures he regaled me with every time I came by were marvellous, the jobs peril-frought or glory-laden. If he'd stayed behind for a girl, I have no doubt he would missed the greatest part of his life, not the least of which was the raising of my mother, and the hand he played in my upbringing.
When my grandfather died last summer, I took a trip to the land of his greatest love, to the sea. The air was ripe with possibility as I decided which route I would take. The more uncertain I felt in any given direction, the more likely I was to choose it. And when I found the sea, I found her.
Her name was Amber, and she greeted the sun.
Like my grandfather's true love, she was sun-kissed.
"The Sun told me of you," she said when I approached, and it was not a long time before I loved her.
Days we had, and nights, too. And, just as it was with my grandfather, she left me each morning to greet the sun. Most mornings, at first, I would rise shortly after she left and watch her, the Child's Pose, the arms raised, the perfect timing. It was a marvel, a morning's entertainment. Then it was my own sort of worship -- of Amber.
Unlike my grandfather, I felt no jealousy, I did not feel second-fiddle to the light in the sky. I understood that she had a purpose, she had a calling. I had my own calling. It came to me months? Maybe years after I met Amber, and it called me away.
"I knew you must go," Amber said to me. "So few come, so few stay for any length of time. You are the first in a long while." Her voice was old as she spoke.
"I loved a man once," she said after some silence had passed. I was putting off leaving, knowing there was no more to say, and wanting to be gone, but not wanting to leave.
"He stayed as long as you have. He said he was called away, just as you were. I could not ask him to stay."
My heart fell. She was talking about Grandfather. But just as he knew, I knew. She had her calling.
"I should have asked him to stay." The look she turned on me gave me an involuntary physical reaction. I shuddered under the longing in that stare. But it was not for me. It was my grandfather. My heart sank as I realized that I could never be for her what he had been. Somehow, claustrophobia gripped me in the wide-open space of that beach. There was not enough space. She was too close. I had to leave.
I never heard her say, "I should have asked you to stay."