The first time I visited the sea I wore a tiny yellow sundress and pigtails. Riding along with my grandparents who were towing a yellow and white trailer, we drove two days south from Kansas, crossing a ferry to Padre Island. Dad carved a massive birthday card for Mom in the sand and built towering castles with me while I laughed in glee. We returned when I was a lanky teenager—that time tossing crackers at my startled big brother quickly brought a churning white and black swarm of noisy flapping gulls.
In between Padre was a magical trip out west with the people I loved. Tucked in a sheltered cove, we spread out our colorful towels onto golden sand, the Pacific Coast Highway weaving high above. Barking sea lions serenaded us while my brother and I ran with abandon in and out of the dark-blue cold waves.
In the summer of 2004, nine months after marriage and a cross-country move, I hiked along a ridge of Lake Michigan’s dunes with my dad and brother on the first of what should have been many trips together to this beach. Declaring, “I’ve had enough hiking up,” I ran quickly down a steep grainy hill and flung off my boots, letting Michigan’s chilly, bright waves wash over my feet. On the climb back up, carrying my boots, I remember sinking into Dad’s sandy footprints, with no idea it would never be again.
Less than a year later, my father was carried off to a cold gray prison he should have entered thirty-one years before, tossing the rest of us end over end. A few months later, while we awaited my father’s trial, my husband and I visited my Navy brother in Connecticut. I determined I needed to touch the Atlantic at least once in my life. Leaning over a precarious rock in Groton bay, I slipped and fell, briefly meeting east coast water and stone. In pain, aching to my ends in ways I didn’t yet understand, I decided I didn’t want much else to do with a beach that day, if ever again.
After Connecticut, my father was sentenced to 175 years in prison and I shut down. Between that year when my family was broken into a million pieces and the year my son turned two, we avoided the Great Lakes. For eight years my husband and I lived right in the middle of them without actually remembering they were still there. I had stuck my toes into those sandy waves next to my dad, and then he was gone, and it was as if all the waves and sand had left me too.
Then somehow, as if only by hope—or maybe it was faith—my husband and I, with our two littles in tow, went back to the same wind brushed dunes along Lake Michigan where so much had been lost. The boy, two, and the girl, five, carefully climbed a myriad of steep wooden stairs, looked out in awe at the brilliant blue sky, and asked if they could run down the drifting hills, oh please, oh please? As I watched them fly hand in hand with their dad, right into the breaking shore—I realized this life wasn’t just about loss, we also, had so much to gain.
We spent the next six years wandering up and down the ever-changing edges of the great ladies, the four of us covered head to toe in water and sand. Michigan, Huron, Erie, Superior: wave by wave, grain by grain, they slowly began to piece us back together. We doubted we’d ever leave.
Then this summer, amidst a heap of still unspoken fresh heartache and clinging tight to our last strand of hope, we leaped for a chance at starting over—oh please, let’s try, try again. A three-day drive with two kids, two cats, and two cars landed us onto the other peninsula state jutting out into the waters. Over the past few months in Florida, we’ve found steady warmth, endless saltwater coasts, and a brimming over of new life.
We spent a long weekend this fall out on St. Pete with the kids’ grandparents, their paternal grandpa now standing in as a surrogate father to me. We explored a nineteenth-century fort, where my son pretended to shoot cannons at pirate invaders, visited a pier speckled with fishermen where a cheeky dolphin blew spray at my daughter, and collected an abundance of empty shells that had washed up on the shore. We introduced the kids again to the sea—the taste of salt, the crashing waves, the coast teaming with life and motion if you only let yourself become still and look. Just look.
Though living can often mean upheaval—barely breathing, clinging to last threads, slips and falls, unexpected changes, taking leaps of chance—I pray in the next fifty years, life never takes us far from being able to stick our feet in the sand.
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