Life’s Lessons

By Cathleen Korpela

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I heard the siren. But it wasn’t until I’d flung the soapy dishwater into the bush and hung the dishtowel on the camper door that I thought, “Something must be wrong, he’s been gone too long.” He’d left the table abruptly, saying he didn’t feel right, and now he’d been gone more than half an hour.

I started down the roadway towards the Jiffy Johns, my pace quickening as I walked. I could see the flashing lights of a police car and ambulance in the distance. “Someone must have drowned,” I thought, “and he’s stayed to watch.” I reached the Jiffy Johns; he wasn’t there. I walked faster, feeling more urgent with each step. I turned the corner to the beach, my heart pounding. Then I stopped. I knew it was him. I could see his shoes – sticking out from under the sheet in the middle of the sandy path.

“I think I know that person,” I said to the policeman. He held a driver’s license in his hand. “What’s his name?” My answer came in a whisper, “Joe Kraupner?” He nodded in acknowledgment.

“Can’t you ask them to leave?” I said, looking at the people lining each side of his body. “No, it’s a field incident, we have to take photos and question the people who found him. We’ll need to ask you a few questions, too.” He was young, concerned, gentle. He took me to the ambulance, and I waited forever in the company of the ambulance attendant. She asked where we were camped, where we were from, and if I was alone? And then, she was on her cell phone to a social worker. “I have a lady here who needs some help and a place to stay tonight. Can you come right away?”

Joe and I had been camped on the Oregon Coast since Wednesday, walking the wide sandy beaches barefoot, running like kids from the roaring surf, feeling the wind and the sun. Today, we’d spent a full day exploring – the town of Tillimuk, Cape Meare’s lighthouse, more parks and beaches – and then stopped for the fresh crab he just had to have for dinner.

The film in my camera recorded our last day; amongst the photographs a sandcastle, one turret washed into the sea by the rolling, roaring surf. It was a symbol of the transitory state of life – soon it too would be gone, as he was, only to be a memory.

The policeman was back with Joe’s wallet, and he emptied it before me: a medic alert card; his daughter Heidi’s business card and photographs: a family picture, Joe and his wife at Heidi’s wedding; his grandson, his son Marty, and “there’s you?” he said, with a question in his voice.

My mind went back to last April when I’d heard Joe’s voice on my answering machine, a voice I hadn’t heard for years. It’s funny how voices never change. I was only 17 when we first met. He was an “older man” of 20 who’d come to work at the bank in our small town. I thought he looked like Elvis. We dated for a year, and then he moved away. I knew he’d become a travel agent, married and had a family.

That night, back in April, when I returned his call, he was waiting anxiously by the phone. He had one of those joyful voices that said “You are just the person I wanted to hear from!” His wife had died from cancer. We were both alone now and so agreed to meet.

The man who came to my door holding a big bouquet of flowers in front of his wide girth had a donut bald spot on his head, a bushy beard, and wore glasses; he walked with a limp and carried Nitro spray in his pocket. But at 59, he was ready to start life over. We were both nervous, familiar and yet strangers. It was a summer of getting reacquainted, going for walks, bike rides, concerts, swimming and barbecues.

Joe had a passion for life that I’d never learned. Only that morning at the campground in Oregon, I had grumbled unkindly at his early morning adjectives. “What a fabulous, marvelous, glorious day!” “Don’t you know any ‘middle’ words?” I said. He’d looked at me befuddled, “Oh, you mean like okay or good?”

How quickly that flame of joy had been extinguished.

Officer Andrus said, “Don’t worry, everything will be taken care of, I have a friend in Vancouver who’ll talk to his children. You can’t stay here tonight; we’ll move the camper to a compound.” A social worker named Cheryl delivered me to the home of Donna, who listened with sympathy, made me tea, put me to bed.

In the morning I went to Waud’s Funeral Home to say good-bye. I couldn’t leave with that mental image of Joe’s body covered in a white sheet on that sandy path. He lay dressed as I had last seen him, in his Mexican cotton shirt and shorts – silent now and still. How strange is death that leaves only a cold empty shell, the life force we take for granted gone like a warm flickering candle blown out by the wind.

That afternoon, I wandered the Portland airport, alone, waiting for a plane to take me home. I stopped to buy a new diary; the one I’d taken with me had an ominous black cover. The words on a journal caught my eye; “Live with intention…walk to the edge…listen hard…laugh…continue to learn…play with abandon…appreciate your friends…choose with no regret…live as if this is all there is.” The message was meant for me. I bought it and started to write.

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