I am sitting sideways on a lounge chair on the deck of the resort in Myrtle Beach. The ocean, no more than a hundred feet away, is calm with soft waves lapping at the sand. The fronds of the palm trees are swaying gently in the breeze and I can feel the tendrils of hair that escaped my hair clip brushing against my face. It’s only 10 o’clock in the morning but the sun is already strong and hot against my shoulders and back. I am not wearing enough sunscreen, so I know I will burn and that Julia will scold me for it. I spot her in the pool, playing happily with her daddy. She is experiencing a moment of pure joy as he tosses her in the air and she half splashes, half plops into the water.
I am doing my best to notice it all, to be present, to remember that I love the beach and the sea air and the sounds of waves and children’s laughter- especially mine. And I am succeeding. Sometimes. Because being here feels wrong, but also so right and necessary- wrong because of the cruel reality that Ara is dead and all of my future experiences will happen without her, but right and necessary because, well, I am alive.
We brought some of Ara’s ashes to scatter on the beach, but I don’t think we will be able to do it this trip. Neither Justin nor I can bring ourselves to open the red velvet bag. In the four days we have been here, my emotions have shifted a million times, in at least as many directions. The grief sneaks up on me when I least expect it. It crashes down on me like a wave I took my eyes off for a moment. I simply can’t seem to prepare for it.
Last night, we sat on the beach in the dark at high tide, one of my most favorite things to do. It was great, until suddenly it wasn’t. As I sat in a chair while Julia dug a twenty-foot log stream to the water’s edge, it occurred to me that I should be running toward the ocean after a toddler. I imagined her bending over to fill a bucket with sand, her diaper poking out the sides of her swimsuit above her (pre-cancer) chubby thighs. I wondered if Julia would want her to help or shoo her away like an annoyance, though I’d bet on the former. I tried to picture it, knowing it will never happen, that there will never be new memories of Ara. And just like that, the tears came and the wave crashed over me.
Shit like that keeps happening. I want to tell myself that eventually it won’t. But that is not a comforting thought. I don’t ever want to be in a state of mind where Ara’s absence feels okay. I want to have these moments of realization, of feeling like there is a missing piece, of seeing the gaping hole- the Ara-shaped space- where she should be. It is the only way I can truly notice it all, stay present, and remember what I love. Yes, I want these moments. I just wish I could be more prepared for them.
Right now, sitting sideways on this lounge chair, I know that I am anything but prepared. The sadness once again seeps in as I watch Julia and Justin try to skip a ball across the water. I can see the empty Ara-shaped space between them. She should be here. She should be in that pool. I should have to get up from this damn chair at least a dozen times to chase after her. I should hear her laugh as she flees. I should see her smile as I scoop her up, feel her (pre-cancer) chubby arms around my neck. Instead, I feel the tears once again, as the wave crashes over me.
I am giving myself five more minutes on this lounge chair, and then I am joining my family in the pool. I will let Julia beat me in a race. I will try to skip the ball across the water. I will feign surprise as Justin throws her in the air and shriek as she splashes me on her way back down. I will notice as much as I can. I will be present. I will remember what I love… what is here and what is gone. And maybe I can string together enough moments of joy to help me carry the grief a little further, until I can be more prepared for the crashing waves.