She twirled her pencil thoughtfully, brought it closer to hover over the paper then, in a furious spurt, began scrawling letters in her Daddy’s slap-dash handwriting across the lines I’d drawn for her graphic organization chart. We’ve been working on descriptive writing, and this section focused on describing a place. She’d listed several and I wondered which one made the final cut.
I peered over her shoulder and caught my breath.
Orange Beach, Alabama.
Around the edge of the page, she’d written possible titles, introductions, and concluding sentences. I felt tears in my throat as I skimmed the words.
“My first trip to Orange Beach was fun!”
“I had a really good time there.”
“I have tons of amazing memories.”
What she didn’t write were the words bleeding from the jagged cracks in my heart:
“It was the last vacation we took before Daddy died.”
We both thought it, though. That vacation has been on our mind this week, because it was exactly one year ago that we were at the condo in Orange Beach, and my little Bear saw the ocean for the first time. Everything about the beach, the sand, the water, the waves…she was in sensory heaven. I will never forget watching her, Kevin breathing heavily at my side, the trek down the boardwalk taxing his dwindling strength, as she stood at the ocean’s edge. Just stood there, arms stretched wide, frozen in wonder and delight. Soon, her hands fluttered wildly to the beat of the pounding surf and she couldn’t resist. One foot slid in the water, followed by the other and soon she was knee-deep in the white-capped waves that pushed to the shore, abandoning herself to pure, childlike joy.
I watched her dance in the surf for a moment, then turned and smiled at Kev. He grinned and said wryly, “I think she likes it.” He squeezed my hand and turned back to watch her, but the smile fell from his eyes, replaced by a shuttered look.
I thought he was tired from the day’s long drive, so I pecked his cheek and said, “Let me go grab her and we’ll head back upstairs for a while.” I thought he’d just wait on the boardwalk while I crossed the sand and fished our mermaid out of the ocean.
And he did wait for us. But while I was pulling her from the water’s edge, he snapped a photo on his phone. A photo he never told me about and I didn’t find until six weeks after he died.
I wonder what he was thinking as he stood there, alone on the weather-beaten boardwalk in the fading light. Did he feel like he was fading from this life? Did he feel beaten down by cancer and the chemo and the aching tiredness of fighting? Did he see his two girls standing together, alone at the edge of the ocean, and know that soon it would be just his two girls standing together, alone at the edge of his grave?
I don’t know.
My girl isn’t wrong. That week at the beach? We do have so many amazing memories. She built sand castles and played games dancing and darting around in the surf. I buried her legs in the sand and fashioned the mound into a mermaid’s tail. We sculpted a sea turtle on the beach and she trudged back and forth to fetch water in her bucket to make the sand wet enough to mold. We spent a stormy afternoon at a massive tourist trap of a gift shop, Kev hanging out in a beach chair, carefully guarding each “treasure” she wanted to purchase with her souvenir money, but holding firm (although laughing) when she begged for a hermit crab. When the sun went down and the ocean air cooled, we fixed supper in the cozy condo and watched the lights twinkle across the bay. We played card games and sorted sea shells and it was just the three of us in a place where no one knew our name, but it didn’t matter because we were together. And the three of us together – that was always enough.
We didn’t know that was our last vacation together. Exactly one month after we returned home, Kevin died.
The weeks that followed were a blur and I cried myself to sleep each night and woke up each morning, hand stretching across the empty bed, hoping to brush against his broad back just one more time. Shattered, I longed for one more message from him, one more “I love you, Baby Doll” brushing from his lips against my ear.
And then one day, there it was. The photo. The stark loneliness of the image haunted me at first, but the more I stared at it, the more I saw love in it. Of all the wondrous things he could’ve captured in a photo that second– the fading stormy sunset, the crashing waves, the swaying beachgrass – he chose us. His girls. At a distance, out of reach – but not beyond his eyes. Not beyond his heart.
The melody of a hymn wove its way into my thoughts.
When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
That photo was the one more “I love you, Baby Doll” I’d wanted from Kevin. I believe he watched us that day, sensing what was going to happen soon, and took the photo, knowing I’d find it, to show me he’s still watching us. Still looking at his two girls. Still loving us. We are always in his heart – no matter how far apart we are.
I smiled as she kept scrawling. Memory after memory of that Orange Beach vacation filled the lines of her chart, taking the shape of a story about that trip. It will always be bittersweet for me to remember that week, but she’s right. It was a great week, and we’ll always have amazing memories of that magical time.
It is well with my soul.