“When you get scared, just close your eyes and pretend we’re at the beach.” I gave this advice to my daughter recently, and as I neared the end of the sentence, it was hard for me to avoid the giant lump in my throat.
I’ve been pretending to be at the beach since I was five years old.
We were in a movie theater at Vista Ridge Mall. He’d pretended I was sick so he could get the day off and spend one more day with me before I had to fly home and not see him until Christmas. I had been there for about five weeks at this point, but that wasn’t long enough for either of us. I started to wriggle in my seat.
I wasn’t afraid of the movie.
I wasn’t afraid to fly alone.
I was afraid of a lot of things at that point in my life, but I think going back to normal was definitely one of them.
My normal as a kid didn’t look like my friends’.
“If you get scared, just close your eyes and pretend we’re at the beach.”
My legs would shake and my tummy always found its way to aching. And to make matters worse, I had to leave my Daddy for another six months.
We were waiting for Austin Powers to start and I could hardly sit through the previews. The anxiety was coming on fast as the time grew closer to my departure. But he has a heart just like mine, and he knew what was coming. He put one hand on my wobbling leg and whispered into my ear, “If you start to worry, just pretend we are at the beach.” I didn’t really understand what that would do. He told me to close my eyes. “Do you see the waves coming? Do you hear the seagulls? Pretend you are picking up a handful of wet sand and letting it drop into a pile on the ground. Pretend we are making sandcastles.”
I can remember a crazy amount of things, but the image of us on the beach the last time before I moved away is something I will never, ever forget. It was our special place, but somehow we both knew we’d never visit it the same way again. The sun and waves would turn greyer from then on. The wet sand wouldn’t drop into piles in quite the same way.
Still, it was a place we could always go back to in our minds.
“If you feel your tummy start to hurt, just close your eyes and pretend we’re at our beach.”
Heartaches and tummy aches and three birthdays full of labor pains, more than twenty years of hurts and worries, I still go back to the beach when I need to still my mind.
Just last week I took my own family to the beach, envisioning sand castles and wave jumping, and piles of wet sand. But as most things go, I didn’t feel like I thought I would. I was hesitant. To dip my toes in. To get my feet wet. Somehow stepping onto the burning sand didn’t instantly heal the hurts in my heart. Somehow trepidation was still there.
I was afraid because it wasn’t what I thought it would be.
The ocean is one of those things I’ve built up in my mind as the place that makes everything better. And I was terrified that maybe all of that wasn’t real. As many heartaches as the ocean has gotten me through, it’s also the place of the hardest day I can remember having as a kid. It was the place where we had to say goodbye.
One afternoon on our trip, the baby was sleeping and our oldest was dying for more sun and surf. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a “yes mom” and I had about a thousand reasons ready to spew about why we were done for the day and why we weren’t going back until tomorrow, but somehow I knew that’d be a move I’d regret. This time had to be a yes.
So she and I climbed into the rental car and stopped for treats at the convenience store. We don’t get to do much just her and me, and when I have the time to stop and think, I definitely feel badly about that. We parked after circling like sharks for a spot in the beach lot, and walked to set up our towels at the water’s edge. Since I’d resigned myself to coming, I figured I could at least lie down in the sun and enjoy some peace and quiet. But as kids do, she begged to play, and again, I knew that I’d regret saying no at this place.
I begrudgingly followed her to the water and waited on the wet sand, making piles, hoping to avoid having to actually get salty water on my skin. Again, she wanted more from me and I fought the urge to say no. “You’ll get used to it, Mama! It’s not that cold, I promise! You love the beach, remember? I promise it’s not that cold, Mama.” I waded in shivering dramatically and told her just a few waves.
Jump after jump after jump. Laughter that still echoes in my heart a week later. A smile on her face bigger than I’ve ever seen. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done with you, Mama! More! More!”
And I was completely swept away.
“If you need to remember us, just close your eyes and pretend we’re at the ocean.”
I have spent my life closing my eyes and wishing I could be at the beach. I have spent decades mourning the goodbyes we said and the time that we missed and the memories we didn’t get to make. I have waited my entire life to feel healed.
And in that very ocean, with salty skin and an awful mom swimsuit, the waves did what I always thought they’d do.
Nothing is erased. The scars are still there. But in that moment I realized that it’s my turn now to ease the fears. Now I’m the one to calm tummy aches and shaking knees and endless worries. I am the one to give them the beach.
They will get hurt and they will be heartbroken, but they will have me. And we’ll go to the beach whenever we feel afraid.