My family and I have always looked forward to summers on the Carolina beaches. My sisters, my mother, my father, and I would all pile into our giant minivan for the trek from Ohio to North Carolina every year. Coming from a landlocked place, the ocean was not something we ever took for granted. To top it off, we got to share a beach house with my aunt, uncle, and our two older cousins who felt more like brothers to us.
This tradition continued into adulthood and returning to the Carolina Coast every year felt more like coming home than actually coming home. I still remember our last beach trip together like it was yesterday. I was twenty-six and had just landed my first real job at The Ohio State University. After bouncing around from country to country and place to place in my early twenties, for the first time in my adult life, I had just begun to feel grounded. Everything was coming together and I was excited for some time off to enjoy the water and spend time with my family.
Our days spent laying on the sand and swimming in the salt water flew by. And one night, while we were all walking down the beach, I found myself in stride with my cousin, Carter, who was a year older. We had a heart to heart as we meandered by the water. He started telling me about all of the things he wanted to do and accomplish, like move to San Francisco and go back to school. Then he looked me straight in the eye. “I didn’t mean to let so much time pass and have nothing to show for it.” The expression on his face and the sincerity of his words in that moment remain forever marked in my memory.
The next day we woke up and made pancakes for breakfast. Every morning I walked to the intercoastal waterway near our house on my own. But that day, my sisters and Carter decided to join me. Once we got to the end of the beach, I swam while my sisters and Carter sat on the shore. Watching them as I played in the waves, I could tell they were bored. So I went in and told them if they wanted to walk back to the house I’d meet up with them later. After making my way back out to sea, I couldn’t help but smile as the sun reflected off of the water and the current rocked me back and forth. I was completely content. And then, for a reason I didn’t understand at the time, I stared intently at Carter and both of my sisters sitting on the sand, taking a mental snapshot that I can still see in my mind. After they left, I only swam a little longer. And despite that every day since we had arrived I spent hours on the other side of the intercoastal waterway, something in my gut suddenly told me to go back. I started to panic as I began to walk briskly in the direction of where we were staying.
Not long after I turned around, I saw my sister jogging towards me. “Can you run?” she asked. I nodded, and we both started sprinting. By the time we had made it back, Carter had been pronounced dead. He drowned in front of our beach house after he went in for a swim to cool off. The water wasn’t rough and he was pulled out right away. But he was already gone. I can still remember standing by the side of the road near the ambulance, right after my other cousin had told me the news. I couldn’t breathe, think, or begin to process what had just happened. I didn’t realize then that it would be months before I felt human again and even longer until life would seem right again.
After that day, I spent a lot of time thinking about our childhood vacations at the beach. I longed for those carefree times when Carter was still alive and we had nothing to worry about but riding bikes, playing in the waves, and catching crabs. It also got me to think about what I really wanted out of life. Suddenly, my time on earth was finite, every choice had a bit more urgency, and each hour in the day had more value. I started writing, running, and trying to figure out what made me tick. I thought daily about that last conversation with Carter and started saying no to the things I thought I had to do and giving more attention to the things I wanted to do.
I wish I could say from that moment on I began to live – like, really truly live in every single solitary moment. My heart was broken, though. As much as I wanted to find the silver lining, I was also confused, angry, and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure the world was so good. I lost faith for a while in just about everything and spent a lot of time by myself. I didn’t want to go out with my friends or talk about what had happened. Surviving every day was hard and nothing felt certain or safe.
But as time passed, I found myself plagued less by sadness and using the time I had more wisely. I moved twelve hours away to Connecticut and fell in love with New England. I went to the Yale Writers’ Conference, learned to surf in South Africa, and once a month I took the six-hour round trip to Manhattan to attend writing class with an author I admired and loved. Eventually, I found myself drawn to the beaches of Rhode Island, making the two-hour drive regularly to spend mornings surfing and afternoons napping on the sand. Something about being back on the beach made me feel like I was home again. I smiled every time I was there, thinking Carter would be happy that I had found my way back to the ocean.
I loved being by the water so much that I started looking for jobs closer to the coast, eventually finding myself living just two blocks from the beach. Some people had told me living by the ocean would lose its novelty, but more than a year later I still haven’t seen proof of that. I’ve surfed more than I ever imagined would be possible. And when a flat spell hit New England, I joined an open water swimming group. Somehow, I spend part of nearly every day by the water. I took a long, zigzagged path to get here, but now I can’t imagine ever moving away from the ocean. There’s something deep in my core that is fulfilled only by salt water, whether it be paddling out into the waves or swimming with my team. And if I’m honest, living by the beach isn’t as good as I thought it would be. It’s infinitely better.
They say life is like a box of chocolates, which may be true. But life is also very much like the ocean. It’s scary, beautiful, unpredictable, and can change entirely in the blink of an eye. It’s not something that you can ever really understand or try to control. But when the waves come you can learn to surf, and when the water’s flat you can learn to swim. You can love it or hate it, but that’s not going to change the wind, the waves, or the tides. The ocean broke my heart, but it also put it back together.