Ryan always said that, "Expectations are planned disappointments" and I felt as though since I didn't have any expectations, I was pleasantly surprised at how good I felt spreading Ryan's ashes and releasing him into the ocean to fulfill his final wishes.
I had planned to meet Ryan's two closest friends Pete and Nathan at the airport at 4:30 a.m. in the security check out line.
The line was huge and I was worried about missing the flight. I asked the woman guarding the elevator if I could go ahead because I had my dead husband's ashes and had a big day ahead of me, not wanting to stress, etc. She let me go in the elevator and skip a good portion of the line.
I could just hear Ryan in my head... "Playing the Cancer card again?" he would ask, a wry smile on his face. "Well, it's probably the last time I'll be allowed to do it," I'd respond. I chuckled to myself.
I saw Nathan in the other security line, which allowed me to jump ahead a bit further too, and I asked the people around me if it was okay and no one said anything otherwise.
Pete later met up with us as well, But we all had to rush in order to get on the plane and get seats.
I couldn't believe the day had arrived already.
As I settled into my seat, I thought about how I'd anticipated this day for years and years and years. It'd been five and a half years in the making. I thought back to the other family members we'd spread ashes for - I never thought 11 years after another widow spread her dead husband's (Ryan's uncle's) ashes, that I would be the next widow at that beach. My heart ached for her that day and I remember feeling really sad for her when I curled up with Ryan that night before falling asleep.
I never thought I'd be in the same boat only a few years later.
I never thought I'd be flying on an airplane with Pete and Nathan, with Ryan's ashes tucked at my feet in the underseat space in order to take them to a place where he asked to be released.
The three of us spent the day chatting about old times and good memories. It was such a healing space. Of course, just like two brothers who were missing the middle child (Ryan), I had to sit inbetween them and be the referee. But I knew the jokes and banter between the two of them were all in fun, just like old times. It cut the tension of the mission we had to do that day and the humor allowed for some good endorphines and smiles and belly aches from laughing so hard.
But the day was bittersweet because I knew it would be the last time I would ever be able to do that again.
Ryan wasn't around anymore to do hobby stuff with just these two guys, and they had their families to be with anyway. They would never be all hanging out in my garage with my husband, talking shop or guy talk while doing fun guy things together.
It would forever be different now and I knew that door would remain closed forever.
It's not socially or emotionally acceptable for married men to hang out with an unmarried woman, but for that specific day for that purpose, they provided the protection and security this young widow needed in order to be able to handle releasing Ryan for the very last time of my life.
When we got to the beach in style (the rental car agency gave me a ragtop 2017 Camaro SS with a 6.2 liter LT1, V8 engine with 455 horsepower), I thought that it was fitting Ryan's cocoon got to take his final ride in such a sweet slate grey car. He would have LOVED it. (But perhaps he wouldn't have loved how fast it went. Of course I mean how theoretically fast it went, of course.)
We prayed in the car before going onto the beach, and a figure walked towards us in a bright blue shirt.
I saw Ryan walking towards me as an older man, with his same exact gait. I never thought I would miss how Ryan walked toward me, but in that moment, I felt a tug on my heart.
"That isn't Ryan," I had to remind myself. But my brain wouldn't be so easily convinced. So I had to repeat myself over and over again. "That is probably his brother Dustin. That could be Dustin although it really looks like Ryan and he's definitely walking exactly the same way as Ryan did." Then more urgently as my brain screamed at me, I repeated incessantly...
"He's not Ryan, he's not Ryan, he's not Ryan, he's not Ryan, he's not Ryan..."
Then, the super-imposed vision went away, and the man walked close enough for my eyes to adjust from the glare of the bright sand during the unusually sunny San Francisco day in the middle of June.
"It's Dustin," my brain finally caught up to me and I felt a flood of relief.
He walked towards me and finally we were able to hug. It was a good hug, one from a brother to a dead brother's wife. It was a hug of friendship and comfort. It reminded me why I was there.
He had to return to his car in the parking lot and we walked in opposite directions.
It was a picture of my life versus his. He was still going in the same direction as he'd been going for the past few years with his new wife and new son.
But me, I had to change course and go a different way now.
I walked onto the sand and got down to where the waves gently lapped on the beach.
It was a very low tide.
As I walked towards where Ryan's family was all gathered, with his friends Pete and Nathan accompanying me, I saw the family throwing sports equipment, as usual, talking and mingling well with one another. There were snacks, and towels and beach chairs and sandy feet.
I began to say hello to people within proximity to me. I made sure they said hi to Ryan's remains too - because it was technically the last time they could, in a way.
I wound my way through the small crowd, and they gathered with me there on that sunny beach.
It seemed like an ideal beach day. The weather couldn't have been more perfect.
After greeting the others, I settled into small talk. It'd been six months since I'd seen some of the family members present and we had a bit to catch up on. But really, words were sparse. Everyone wanted to make sure I was doing okay.
The time came shortly after Pete, Nathan and I arrived that we should pray and scatter.
We huddled in a small, tight circle, as though we were discussing plays for a sports team. But instead we were speaking to the Creator of the Universe about the last time we'd see Ryan's earthly remains.
After the prayer ended, we discussed logistics about video taping and the next steps.
I knew I wanted to involve his immediate family extensively, and I asked each of them if they wanted a picture with his remains before they went away. Two thirds agreed.
After the photos were taken, Ryan's Mom asked for one last touch of her son.
As she scooped her hand into the ash, I saw her running her hands through her son's remains as though she were loosening the roots of one of her beloved plants, readying it for the planting in a new place. It brought tears to all of us, as I thought about how her body gave birth to him, and her body was the last to touch what remained of him on earth.
Then, I handed off my phone and stepped into the waters of change. I prayed as I entered, asking the Lord to direct my steps and timing. It seemed a fitting and familiar prayer given my circumstances and wasn't the first time I'd prayed it that week.
As the water retreated, I released his remains. About halfway through, the bag fell out of the container and dumped into the ocean and disappeared.
"Come back to me!" I thought to myself. I didn't want to leave things undone. I didn't want to litter. I didn't want to let go just yet.
Then the scripture about David's dead son popped into my brain. After David had fasted and prayed for the life of his child to be spared after sinning with Bathsheba, the servants didn't want to tell the king his son had died.
"Is the child dead?" he asked.
"Yes, the child has died," they responded. Then David arose, put off his mourning attitude and rejoined the living.
"But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” the Bible says in 2 Samuel 12:23.
"The bag is to your left, Anna!!!" Ryan's family started to tell me. And sure enough, the rest of the remains were simply right next to me, hidden from view by the incoming tide.
I picked up the soaking wet bag and remains and slid the rest of them into the ocean.
"He's gone," I thought to myself. And that was it.
It was as though a weight had been lifted off me instantly.
I felt much lighter in that moment.
I asked Ryan's sister if she wanted to clean out the exterior container, which had some residual residue. She said yes, and her remaining brother took documentation.
Then I asked her brother if he could do a "Water's job" on the bag, which held residual residue as well. He perked up as Renee documented her younger brother having one last bit of bathroom humor with his older brother and laughing.
We all left the surf smiling.
Renee and I stood at the water's edge, arms around shoulders and smaller waists than before, trying to make some sense out of all of it.
Then, in the midst of the grief that enshrouded us with tear-lined eyes, I saw a lone seagull perched atop a large boulder in the middle of the roughest part of the sea.
I mustered up my best cartoon character voice and said, "MINE!" from the Disney movie "Finding Nemo."
My sister laughed with a soul-deep belly laugh that I felt through our joined limbs.
"You know, Ryan would always take a sacred moment like this and just bring it to a whole new low. I didn't want to let go of his tradition, since we're here to celebrate him," I told her.
Then she laughed and cried at the same time, amazingly without an explosion.
We stood there for a long time arm in arm, me doing a lot of talking and internal praying. The time seemed to be flying by quickly and I knew it was limited because I had a plane home to catch and an hour drive to get back to the airport in difficult traffic.
We returned to the sea, linked with each other - and then gave flower petals and an added surprise, a shockingly bright orange sunflower head. We fired up the video cameras again, and the four of us, Ryan's Mom, sister, brother and I tossed five flowers into the ocean, an extra one for Ryan in the hand that used to sparkle with a very beautiful wedding ring.
His sister told me she picked them because they were a symbol of all the sunset photos Ryan took after he became terminally ill. He never took another sunset for granted after he was handed his death sentence. It was a small token of appreciation, watching him nightly tip his hat to the Creator who made every sunset as unique as the man whom I married.
After the non-manly flowers were spread (a thought Ryan would have explicitly stated) we walked back to base camp and returned to conversations and snacks.
Ryan's aunt who possesses a very special gift of true hospitality offered me some exquisite homemade banana bread and poured me a cup of coffee. She loved on me like a sister and we chatted softly, standing still near the ocean as the tide water ebbed and flowed like the conversation around us.
Then Ryan's other aunt, the one who has an uncanny ability for intentionally giving gifts, offered me some cheese, crackers and pickles.
"You know," I said as I looked at the snacks arranged in neat rows like a Tetris game, "After Ryan got on hospice, I would often come downstairs and find him, standing at the fridge in nothing but his skivvies, eating pickles, cheese and crackers."
We all laughed really hard, but I was brought to tears at how she just knew to give that gift of memory to me - being able to conjure up a sweet memory of the man I loved for so many years, but just had let go of a few feet and a few minutes away.
I flitted about the social circles of people like a butterfly without a flower to land on. I was really missing my co-conspiritor, confidante, and cuddle bug, but tried my best to be there for the others who were hurting about Ryan's loss just as much or more than me.
Eventually, we rallied the troops and everyone gathered their belongings as we thought to drive to In N Out burger for a lunch after the beach. But upon arrival, we found it jam packed and time had completely run out.
I said goodbyes, sometimes twice to the same person in five minutes. The fact that I only had two hours of sleep the previous night and had gotten up at 2 a.m. finally started to catch up to me.
I took the top down on the convertible and Pete, Nathan and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge without a roof, something in all the years I'd lived there and visited that I'd never done before.
It was a spectacular ride.
After getting back to the airport, we all ate a nice meal, compliments of Pete and reminisced about Ryan some more. We spent the remaining hours doing just that - talking about family, friends and fun we had while Ryan was alive.
"Pete, why do you think Ryan died so young?" I asked as we were rounding the corner for our final descent into Ontario airport, and I snapped a quick photo of a blazing orange sunset streaking across the sky, a small fraction of it visible in the tiny airplane window.
"His mission was completed," he told me. "He lived a very concentrated life, fitting everything in and was very focused. He didn't waste the time he was given," he told me.
"That's very true," I said thoughtfully.
"But he wasn't done in his mind," he continued. And that thought surprised me. "Here's the thing, Anna," Pete said. "Even though he died at 40 and had a bunch of plans and unfinished projects, even if he died at 80, it still wouldn't have been enough time to do all the things he'd set out to do."
I thought of Ryan's fighting spirit, his will to live on, and raise his family, love his wife better and better each day and do an excellent job in whatever assignments God gave him.
He had to go, I reminded myself as I laid my head down on my pillow that night.
He didn't want to go, but he was called home by God and was now in the presence of Jesus Himself.
Part of the conversation Pete, Nathan and I had before we disembarked the airplane involved speculation about what hobby items or robots Ryan was fixing or the conversations he was having with Jesus before we got to catch up with everyone, ourselves.
The day brought much healing and closure in ways I'd never, ever anticipated or expected, but God knew I needed. I was truly grateful for the gift of the day God gave all of us as we said goodbye to Ryan's cocoon and I closed the door forever on that part of my life.
"I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”