Commentary: Reflecting on life, grief and enduring love

It's a wild morning, pouring rain. At high tide the southwest swell is rolling under the Newport Pier and washing through the dory market, carving out big chunks of beach with each wave.

Someone suggests moving the paddle-out to the bay. We confer — there's no time. The memorial service starts at 11. Storm or not, we're going. Six of us are former Newport lifeguards. If the side current washes us all the way to the river jetties, as looks entirely possible, maybe some of the 100 or so friends watching from shore can ferry us back.

The biblical story of Job — the classic study of unexplainable suffering — has a happy ending. After Job endures losing his wealth, his children and his health without losing his faith, God gives him twice as much as he had before.

Not all stories end that way.

Years ago, a good man in our church lost his beloved wife to cancer. He endured his grief, and was eventually blessed to marry his best friend — one of those authentic, outgoing, love-everybody people who always seemed to have a smile.

They'd surf almost every summer Friday at San Onofre and loved Disneyland. They led a young, single adult congregation at church and had beautiful, accomplished children — the full, life-is-good package. She came down with the flu early this year, was hospitalized and died in February, much too young.

It's as if Job, after the enemy lost his bet, were dealt back in for another hand. Double or nothing.

Others in our group are closer friends of the family. But for reasons I still don't quite comprehend, this passing weighs on me. The last time I felt this way was after another death eight years back — a relative's child, also sudden. Is it my own faith feeling less ironclad, more "faintly trust the larger hope"? Maybe.

"Show up and shut up," they say when you don't know what to say to another's grief. So here we are.

We paddle out, each picking our own lines through the break. Some respectable beatings are taken on the way, but the current isn't as strong outside as it looked from the beach. We gather into something like a circle and grasp hands. The chop and the current keep twisting us into a shape like a kidney bean; more poetic observers on the pier later say it looks like a heart. The rain slackens.

Each of us offers memories and tributes to the great lady. Her warmth and lively spirit shine through. The phrase "second mom" keeps being repeated — from her daughter's water polo teammates, from people in the young adult congregation whom she helped through loneliness, loss, divorce and confusion.

A set wave looms and nearly cleans everyone up. Those of us on the outside are looking 10 feet or so down on the others' heads. The circle bends and warps some more, but doesn't quite break. Lisa's husband and daughter speak of the warmth of her love, still felt around them.

And then there's a moment that no self-respecting Hollywood writer would dare put in a script, it's so faultless. The clouds split as Jeff offers a prayer, and a rainbow drops down over the 28th Street jetty.

A rainbow, of course, is simple physics. Warm, moist air from the tropics, drawn north by low pressure in the Gulf of Alaska, condenses into rain and falls in squalls increasingly interspersed with sunlight as the cold front passes. Raindrops alternately refract and reflect light into its constituent colors over a 42-degree arc. Physics.

Of course. And Bach's Mass in B-minor is air vibrating sympathetically with horsehair, gut, fiber and brass, rattling some membranes and funny-shaped bones in our heads. As we paddle back in, the rain starts bucketing down again.

The Christian hymn 'Abide With Me' comes to mind:

I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;

Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;

Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still, if thou abide with me.

THOMAS EASTMOND practices law in Irvine and lives in Newport Beach.

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