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We awoke that day with no plan, no direction. It was November 2022, and we had travelled a painful journey to arrive at this destination. Grief, we had learned over the past 12 months, is unpredictable.
A windmill house on the river, a dutch landscape with a rowing boat and multiple other windmills in the background.

We awoke that day with no plan, no direction. 

It was November 2022, and we had travelled a painful journey to arrive at this destination. Grief, we had learned over the past 12 months, is unpredictable. It lives with you, carried inside your chest, crushing your heart. It stabs you in the dark. And the path you walk with grief hits detours and setbacks.

So, the four of us arrived at this place uncertain of how the day would unfold. Derrick—my ex-husband, the father of my adult daughters, Danica and Sierra, and Sandra’s partner for the past two decades—died on this day a year earlier, one month after a cancer diagnosis. On that morning, less than 24 hours before his 65th birthday, he took his last breath as Sandra held him and Sierra sang the lyrics from her song “Forest Floor.” It was his favourite.

Let me down easy, baby / Lay me down on the forest floor

Derrick’s and my path had parted 20 years earlier, and I was happily remarried. But we were friends, and he was the keeper of many of our memories. And so I met grief. But however sad it was for me, watching my daughters traverse this terrible new world made it doubly heartbreaking. There is no road map for grief, and at times both girls seemed lost. It struck me that making sense of death is an ironic part of life. The death of someone you love is an unendurable tragedy, yet it is something that most of us will experience. Grief is universal, but that doesn’t make it any easier to navigate.

We saw eagles everywhere after Derrick’s death. I locked eyes with one on a roadside post. Another circled above Derrick and Sandra’s lake-front home. My husband Bruce and I stepped from a forest trail onto a beach and suddenly found ourselves amid a soaring, flapping, diving aerie of eagles. Derrick always said he wanted to come back as an eagle.

And there were other birds too—the osprey that whistled through the air above us during Danica’s wedding at the lake front. And the tiny bird that alighted on a wall behind Sierra’s shoulder as she and her partner sang “Forest Floor” at an outdoor music festival in Switzerland. The bird stayed for the entire song, they were told, and seemed to be singing along.

I loved the thought of Derrick’s spirit dipping and diving, singing and catching the thermals. I envisioned him freed from the demons that sometimes ensnared him in life and filled instead with light and levity.

So, now, one year later, Sandra, Danica and I landed in Amsterdam to meet up with Sierra, who had a rare day off during a European tour. Sandra and I—our gentle camaraderie of the past two decades now a firm friendship—flew from our homes in BC; Danica came in from New York.

And we awoke that day with no plan.

The weather in Amsterdam was unusually mild, the sun a beacon of gentle warmth, cascading its light on the cyclists and pedestrians who crisscrossed the arched bridges and narrow roadways along the edge of the canals. The chime of bike bells stirred a random rhythm amid the low hum of the city, and the cheerful reds, yellows and blues of the buildings were mirrored in the canals—the vision reminiscent of Derrick’s photography. He loved capturing reflections.

At breakfast, a vague plan emerged as we peered at a map and decided to rent bikes and cycle 14 kilometres to the neighbouring town of Zaandam. Sandra would bring a bag of Derrick’s ashes for scattering if the opportunity arose. In life, Derrick wasn’t much of a traveller, overwhelmed by anxiety around flying. But he and Sandra owned a second home in Mexico, and she and the girls spread some of his ashes there. And for the past year, Sandra had slowly released small handfuls of ash in other places she travelled, like London and Paris, but also in all corners of our island home, mostly by the water—spots that he cherished.

“Water is truth,” he used to say.

It was a glorious, glorious day as we set off on the bikes. The wind tousled our hair under our helmets, the air smelled sweet and fresh, and the sun sat on our shoulders as we flew along the bike paths. It had been years since I’d ridden a bike, and it felt like I had wings. Exhilarated, we glided and giggled. Sunshine and laughter broke out on a day we thought destined to be cloudy and sad.

In Zaandam, we discovered nearby Zaanse Schans—a collection of historic windmills and wooden houses—and we turned our bikes in that direction, whisking through backroads and pathways, and eventually arriving at a small peninsula, where three historic windmills slowly spun above us.

Leaving our bikes, we gathered below one of these windmills. It had a thick brown tower and splashes of bright green, red and white paint. Each blade flashed yellow as it turned and caught the sun. A matching brown, green and white wooden boat sat directly beneath it, and the entire visage was reflected in the water between the windmill and the small strip of sand, where we stood at the water’s edge. A picture-perfect reflection.

Sandra brought out Derrick’s ashes and we dipped our fingers into the bag, collecting the ash which fluttered up as we released it, before settling on the glassy water. The sun, just starting to set, cast beams of light that wrapped us in a golden hug.

As we stood in silent reverie, a pair of ducks swam towards us, and we took note because the male was unusual in its all-black colouring. It broke away from the other bird and paddled in close. And we had to smile because black was, of course, Derrick’s trademark colour. He rarely wore anything else. Then the black duck turned, caught up with his mate and they swam away to join a distant flock.

In that moment we found peace with our grief; we understood it was possible to live and even be happy alongside heartbreak. And so we soared.

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