Thursday, May 22, 2014

Don't Let Life Get in the Way of Living

The last time I went to Nags Head, N.C., I had just ended a disastrous marriage and was in the process of changing from a short-term clerical job with regular hours back to my chosen career of journalism.

I loaded my two children and two dogs into the five-speed Nissan 240 SX that the children's father had bought for our soon-to-be-15-year-old and, without the aid of GPS or Mapquest, drove about six hours to the Outer Banks of North Carolina because I remembered liking the beach there when I went once at about 15.

Ethan was 9 at the time, a little, blond-haired slip of a boy with no hint of the big baby he had been at birth or the hulking young man he would grow into. He and his sister slept most of trip there just to spend a couple of days at the beach.

We stayed in a beachfront motel by the Nags Head Fishing Pier. My Jack Russell, Lucy, was terrified of the beach. My daughter's cocker spaniel, Eddie, loved it. Even in August, the water was chilly, but the children and Eddie frolicked. Lucy, who was always well mannered, sat with me on my towel and watched the waves.

We ate pizza from a place up the street, watched kites on the sand dunes, bought souvenir jewelry and clothing, including a too large Hawaiian shirt Ethan fell in love with.

The next morning I was up before dawn, slipping out the door of our room to cross the dunes with Lucy who chased ghost crabs on the beach and overcame her fear of the ocean before we watched the sun come up. We played in the waves all day before heading home, chased by a storm that blew in off the ocean and heavy rain that pelted us through much of the drive.

It was a magical time carved out of lives that were never as easy as I would have liked them to be, never as peaceful as they may have looked from the outside. For years, through other beach trips and life changes, those two sun-drenched days in an old motel with two kids and two dogs have stood out in my mind as a time when our lives were in balance and as close to perfect as they ever managed to be.

After Ethan died in December, his sister broached the subject of a return trip sometime in the spring. The trip was a glistening memory in her mind as well. We both tried to reach the old motel where we had stayed with no success and she found other older beachfront accommodations. It turned to be just north of the smaller Nags Head pier, on the same street as our earlier stay.

Sunday morning, after we all managed to get our respective ducks in a row, we made a return visit to Nags Head, this time in two vehicles, with husbands, no dogs, but instead two preschoolers who didn't really remember seeing the ocean before we crossed over the dunes when we arrived, and a toddler who had never been.

We stayed three nights and four glorious days, taking in as much sun, sand and seafood as we could stomach. We visited the aquarium and the Bodie Island lighthouse. We bought souvenirs, collect seashells, touched stingrays, built sandcastles, and I personally walked barefoot until I removed a layer from the bottom of my feet. We slept together in a two-bedroom apartment with a foldout sofa bed, no AC in the bedrooms and trash trucks passing in the middle of the night.

Before dawn each day I slipped from my bed, past sleeping children and out the door to wander the beach and watch the sun rise, missing the company of my Lucy (who died suddenly a year after our earlier trip) and the presence of my son. Many times I stood and looked out over the waves and cried, mostly when I was alone, at the hole in my heart and the fate that took that little boy from me. Even surrounded by my family, sometimes I imagined how it might have been to have made a return trip with two sets of grandchildren. I pictured the little people scattered all over the beach building sandcastles and darting in and out of the waves like sandpipers, calling me Ma and demanding my help in their adventures. I would feel the tears well up and know that for a while my face was out of focus until I pushed the what might have beens away and pulled my thoughts back to what was.

Today, even though the sun is hot and the pool is warmer than the ocean ever thought of being, I'm inside, returning to reality with a new vacation jewel added to my memories.

It saddens me to know that if we hadn't lost Ethan, none of us would have taken the time to extricate ourselves from our lives for the trip. We'd have let jobs and dogs and homes and everyday responsibilities, the fact that we practically live in one another's pocket sometimes with the shared care of the children, keep us from taking time off together. Sitting on the beach one afternoon I realized that the trip was a gift from Ethan, who in dying and leaving us reminded us that we cannot take the people in our lives for granted because no day comes with a guarantee of tomorrow.

Today as I've uploaded 200 photos for processing, converting my memories from what is in my mind to what I can share, accepting that I'm not perfect, but at least I'm in the picture (which I never was 15 years ago), as I've celebrated the journey and adventures we shared, I've also let myself mourn for what wasn't and what will never be. I've pulled out the memories and photos of that long ago beach trip, and that blue Hawaiian shirt, which now hangs in my closet, and I've once again felt my heart break for the little boy I lost and my total inability to understand why.

Simultaneously, I've accepted that the tragedy of losing my son made this trip (and perhaps many more as we are already debating changes in sleeping arrangements and whether or not it would be worth the difference to have two rooms) happen. I'm not yet thankful for what it took, to change me, but I'm thankful for the change and hope that God can accept that as meeting Him halfway in accepting His plan.

I challenge you to do it, make the hard trip to make new memories and honor what you've lost. Carry their memory with you on a journey and recognize that it may be because of loss that you're taking it and that every smile and laugh along the way honors them. If you've not lost someone, take a minute and recognize that no matter how hard it is, no matter if it's only for a day or even a few hours, take the time to escape everyday life with the people you love. Find moments to treasure if it's in a hike up a nearby mountain, a road trip to a restaurant you've wanted to try, or a six-hour car ride to the beach. Do it now before it's too late to make that memory.

If you already do that, if your life has been blessed with those getaways and big memories without having a loss to drive them, then I envy you. Never stop.

Never let life get in the way, because one day death surely will.


  1. "I'm not yet thankful for what it took, to change me, but I'm thankful for the change and hope that God can accept that as meeting Him halfway in accepting His plan."

    I so get that sentiment. My life today is more purposeful than ever, but the price that I paid for that gift of purpose was the life of my wife.

    Thank you for such an amazing post Angela, may God continue to bless you and yours :-)

  2. Thank you, Glenn. It's a terrible price we pay to become who we are meant to be. I don't think everyone lets loss transform them, as it surely should. Instead I've seen people consumed by loss, and I understand how easy that would be as well. I want to be consumed by living a more meaningful life, and I know by your posts you are as well. My hope is that in sharing my journey, perhaps I can help others do the same.

  3. This was so moving. Loss can definitely transform us, but you're right, some folks do get consumed by it. The thing is, we can't do anything to bring the person back, so why not live a more meaningful life in their memory? Thank you for this.

  4. I'm sorry for your loss, and agree with you 100%: don't let life get in the way.

  5. "I'm not yet thankful for what it took, to change me, but I'm thankful for the change and hope that God can accept that as meeting Him halfway in accepting His plan."

    Angela, I believe that God cried with you during every single rough patch with Ethan, and that He felt a piece of his heart rip loose on the day this son died. I also believe that He celebrated and danced on the beach with you and Ethan and your daughter those fifteen years ago and that He, too, clapped with excitement when Lucy overcame her fear of the waters. (BTW, I know that pier is one my hubby's and children's favorite fishing spots in Nags Head...)

    Though I see great beauty in your passage "I'm not yet thankful for what it took, to change me..." I find the greatest value in the title "Don't let life get in the way of living."

    You see, it is not just tragedy that changes us, for we are altered each and every time we choose to reflect on the good in our lives, too.

    But too often we allow struggles and nuisances and pet peeves to get in the way of our living, simply because we give them a great deal of our time and attention...

    Life is like a dance, albeit one that seems to move to an ever-changing beat. I see that movement between joy and heartache in your writing, Angela, and I feel your emotions deep in my heart, in that little scar that bears the mark of my own son's death and in the moments that are the celebrations of his life...

    Thank you for sharing your dance with us...

    Yours in heartache, happiness, and healing,

    1. Anna that bit in your book is bookmarked. Where the counselor said that God didn't often intervene, but did weep and celebrate with us as well when the occasion arose. That brought me another little bit of piece. Thank you for sharing as well.

  6. Amazing, isn't it, how our global connections via the web can help us find whatever we need from people we've never met? Hugs!