Soft candlelight danced across the buttermilk walls and cast shadows in the folds of the violet drapes, releasing the aromas of chamomile and jasmine. At the sight of Astin leading Ethan and Abby downstairs to see her father, Ciara straightened in her seat beside the bed and reached down to smooth the creases from her sky dress. She seemed as pale as the moon itself as she smothered the cough that arose.
Abby sent her a sympathetic smile. "Hello, Ciara. Are you doing any better?"
She smothered another series of congested coughs before managing, "Better, thank you."
The mahogany casket was laid on the bed so that a person could peer in at the deceased. Ethan and Abby drew near and were met with the visage of a man who appeared to be asleep, were it not for his pallid complexion and scratches on his cheeks.
"We don't believe he suffered much," Astin admitted as he stared down at his father. Ethan reached an arm around his shoulders and gave him a squeeze.
"Maybe we should go back upstairs."
As they reached the top of the stairs, Gavin rose from the table with Lara, who he had been speaking words of consolation to. Étaoin met them each with chamomile tea, a cheddar triangle, a slice of chocolate swirled cheesecake, and the gentle assurance of "I made these."
"Thank you," the children each smiled back to her and accepted the appetizers.
"We would love to stay with you during the procession, if we can be of any comfort to you" Gavin met the eyes of each family member.
"We would appreciate that," Astin said.
Rain drifted to the ground in a delicate mist. The Montgomery and Jay children trailed behind the casket upheld by their cousin and a couple fishermen while Ciara was driven at some distance behind. Each was silent and listened to the drops splash upon the mahogany of the casket. A seabird shrieked and circled overhead. By the time they reached the chapel, rain showered down upon them. Astin was only slightly aware of the umbrella over his head and often allowed it to waver, resulting in his bright hair being plastered against his forehead with water.
As the casket was carried to the head of the church, Astin stopped to help Ciara out of the black car and raised the umbrella over her head. With her siblings on either side, she trailed her friends and family into the church. Heads swiveled around and Astin sensed all eyes on them while they made their way to the front pews.
"Welcome, family and friends," Reverend ó Mordha stepped across the church and moved behind the pulpit. "I appreciate how many of you came to celebrate the eternal life of Aaron Jay on such a rainy day. He would have loved to shake each of your hands in greeting."
Murmurs of agreement rippled across the church.
"Before anyone comes up here to share what they love about Aaron, I wish to share a portion of the poem 'A Story of the Sea-Shore' by George MacDonald. First, to the mourners, he says—
"Let your tears flow; let your sad sighs have scope;
Only take heed they fan, they water Hope.
"Although we may have the weight of mourning upon our hearts on such an occasion, do not neglect to remember that a death in this life is simply the birthday in Heaven. And they are enjoying their latest arrival as each of you treasured the birth of your child. George MacDonald continues—
"I sought the long clear twilights of my home,
Far in the pale-blue skies and salty seas,
What time the sunset dies not utterly,
But withered to a ghost-like stealthy gleam,
Round the horizon creeps the short-lived night,
And changes into sunrise in a swoon.
I found my home in homeliness unchanged:
The love that made it home, unchangeable,
Received me as a child, and all was well.
My ancient summer-heaven, borne on the hills,
Once more embraced me; and once more the vale,
So often sighed for in the far-off nights,
Rose on my bodily vision, and, behold,
In nothing had the fancy mocked the fact!
The hasting streams went garrulous as of old;
The resting flowers in silence uttered more;
The blue hills rose and dwelt alone in heaven;
Householding Nature from her treasures brought
Things old and new, the same yet not the same,
For all was holier, lovelier than before;
And best of all, once more I paced the fields
With him whose love had made me long for God
So good a father that, needs-must, I sought
A better still, Father of him and me.
"And now I ask his son Astin to come up and begin sharing what he loves about Aaron."
Astin rose and reached for the hand of his eldest sister. She allowed him to help her up and lead her behind the podium, where he said, "First, I'd love for my sister Ciara to explain a little about what happened out there on the ocean."
Ciara cleared her throat and clasped her trembling hands together. "I asked my father to take me out on the boat that morning. The sunrise was so beautiful, and I never imagined what winds could arise out of such a lovely start. He and I were alone on the water when the waves started rocking the boat. He never appeared upset, and he told me that storms were only a drop in the hand of God."
She sensed her hands were shaking violently, so she gripped the podium sides.
"I don't remember what happened after that until Ma dragged me up the rocks beneath the lighthouse. But I can't forget what faith in God he had while we were on that boat. And if anyone here wants to doubt God because of what happened, don't do it. My Da was rewarded for the faith he displayed by seeing God's face as we speak."
Lara rose to assist Ciara back to her seat as the entire church applauded. Astin beamed at her with pride as she sat back down. "That is exactly who our father was," he proclaimed to all the people. "He had that tattoo on his arm with an anchor that read 'Anchored in Christ,' and that was true. He was so anchored in Christ that he could reach out to someone else and help them become anchored, too. He established our family in the love of Christ, and I have seen that love grow each and every day of me life. We will always miss our father – but now is the time that we continue what he did."
Astin returned to his seat and received a squeeze on his shoulder from Ethan behind him. A man with a ringleted beard eased himself to the edge of a back pew but remained still until after the closest family and friends of Aaron Jay spoke. He then rose and made his way to the podium. Astin squinted at him, trying in vain to recall where he had seen the man before.
"Me name is Ryan McPherson, and I am also a fisherman. About four years ago, I was in a similar situation when my boat was capsized by a mighty storm. Three of me mates drowned, but Gerry Mahoney and I were cast onto the same rocks as young Miss Jay. While this lad here and his mate pulled me up over the rails of a lookout, Aaron Jay rescued Gerry. His family came down with towels and blankets to make certain we were dry and warm. When he drove us to our homes, he spoke to us about Jesus and the angels that must have looked out for us. We threw out these words for years, but last August, when me wee daughter was born, I knew he was right. I continue to pray for Gerry, that he might one day join us in that eternal abode. But I know that when I arrive, I will thank Aaron Jay for sharing the truth of such love with me."
As he returned to his pew, he stopped to shake the hand of each family member and Ethan. There was silence until he sat down.
By the time the procession exited the church, with each person receiving a single morning glory or daisy, the rain was only a drip, and the sun illuminated the sheet of gray sky. Peter was among those who lifted the casket and he met the eyes of his cousins with a sympathetic stare. Abby clasped Astin's hand and gave him a warm smile that was reflected on his own lips.
The procession picked up where it left off, with those bearing the casket in the lead and loved ones strolling in silence down to the end of the road, where the cemetery lay.
The casket was settled beside an open grave. Astin sensed the tears pricking the corners of his eyes. He stood with his umbrella over Ciara and while their father was lowered into the ground. When the time came to toss their morning glories onto the wood, tears streamed steadily down his cheeks. As each person left, he received them into an embrace and listened to their words of comfort.
"You call me if you need anything," Ethan ordered when he released his friend.
"We appreciate everything your family has been for us," Astin managed a smile. "But right now, we just need to go home and heal."
. . .
The sun sank slightly beneath the horizon, casting golden rays across the sea. The boat rocked soothingly in the waves, and a seabird drifted overhead with a shrill cry. Astin slapped the cork deeper into the nose of his bottle and rattled the message around inside. He returned the smiles of his mother and sisters and asked, "Are you all ready?"
"Ready," they answered and released their bottles into the docile waves with a series of splashes. They reached for each other's hands and bowed their heads as Astin prayed, "Lord, we know Your will is for the Gospel to reach every shore of the earth. We pray, God, that You will destine each of these bottles with the Good News to reach someone who needs to know Your love."
Lara gave his hand a squeeze. "And we pray that You will bless the recipients of these bottles, and ask for a special touch of You in their lives. So many are hungry for you, Lord, and we see it."
"God, we thank You for these people," Étaoin continued. "See them through Your will."
"And I praise You, God, that You spared me this time," Ciara managed through fresh tears. "Help me to make the most of the time You have given me here."
Lara gathered her strength to conclude. "We thank You that we have this opportunity. And we ask this in the name of our beautiful Lord Jesus. Amen."
The sky darkened some, but sunlight spilled across the water. A second stream of light flashed against the waves. Each looked to the lighthouse a beacon of hope and warning to those remaining in their boats at sea.
. . .
Funeral Procession I – [Play "The Man With Wooden Legs" by From Indian Lakes - 0 – 1:40]
Funeral Procession II – [Play "The Man With Wooden Legs" by From Indian Lakes - 2:49—3:23]
Bottled Messages – [Play "Open Water" by Thrice]