As I stand here today, 41 years old and watching the sun lift itself out of the deep blue sea, I find myself thinking of childhood summers spent on the beach. Those years were mind blowing for me. Though I was surrounded by bodyboarders and sun bathers, I felt solitude and peace whenever I paddled out. The waves were powerful in ways beyond their physical strength. They pulled at me and spurred an internal drive that was impossible to match or even explain. “Only a surfer knows the feeling” comes to mind, and it’s that same primal ambition that encourages us to seek friendships with people who can relate to this obsession.
This explains why I gravitated to Keith Dalton – a gangly kid with blond hair, blue eyes, and an easy-going personality – and Josh Price – a tall, skinny, red head who loved to talk about his Viking heritage. They were my best friends. We were inseparable for years and that’s just how it was.
In the summer of 1992, my parents and I packed our bags, locked up our house in Tampa, and began the three-hour pilgrimage to our summer home in St. Augustine, Florida. As quickly as I could unpack, Keith and Josh were on my doorstep with their boards, ready to take the short walk to our favorite surf spot on F Street. Keith liked to paddle out on his bright yellow longboard that was perfect for Florida’s fickle surf, while Josh loved to pick up a barrel or two on his bodyboard. I always preferred the maneuverability of my thruster. That first session was perfect, regardless of the conditions. My parents knew not to expect me home for dinner that night, as Josh, Keith, and I had made plans to stay out well after sunset.
The session was over in a flash, much like the rest of that summer, as I recall. We’d committed ourselves to spending every waking hour in the water that summer. Soon enough, August arrived and we knew our annual adventure was coming to a close. I dreaded the thought of packing my bags and heading back to Tampa for another school year with a completely different set of friends. The final days of summer always hung over me like a dark cloud, but I did my best to cage the inevitable monster of time with every wave I caught.
My determination to prolong the dog days of summer was at the front of my mind on the morning of August 10th. The surf report promised big, clean conditions and Keith, Josh, and I had planned to head out early to catch the swell. Our day, unfortunately, did not turn out the way we had hoped. A morning that was supposed to be legendary and hold me over until the following summer quickly became a nightmare that will haunt me for the rest of my life. August 10th marked the last day of my childhood.
That morning, Keith and I were supposed to meet at our regular spot before swinging by to pick up Josh. Keith never showed up. I assumed he had overslept, so I walked to his house and knocked, but got no answer. I decided to walk to Josh’s house, thinking that maybe Keith had already headed on over. When I arrived at Josh’s house, though, I was bummed to learn that he hadn’t heard from Keith either. Sure, something felt weird but we weren’t all that worried. Maybe he was in trouble? Maybe he’d just been pulled away for a family errand. We decided to go surf without Keith that day.
After a few hours of surfing, we reached out to Keith again but still got no answer. And this was the point we began to worry. I remember feeling unsettled as if something dark was at play. We eventually returned to Keith’s house, only to find the door locked tight. All the family cars were idle in the driveway, the lights inside were dim, and the normally vibrant home was silent, cold, and felt empty.
I waited for my best friend to turn up over the following days and I couldn’t help but feel that secrets were being kept from me. Shortly before we were to return home to Tampa, my mother was contacted by a detective, asking us to come by the station for a few questions. Cautiously walking into the police headquarters, I felt both hopeful and anxious. I still remember the space clearly: white walls, a small table, four chairs, and a large mirror that ran the width of the room. I only remember the starkness of the walls because of how they clashed against the red Coke can that the detective offered me. The light of the halogen bulbs cast a shadow on everything in the room and even seemed to deepen the cracks in that detective’s face.
The detective’s questions were all simple enough; who was I and how long had I known Keith. He asked about Keith’s habits, places he liked to go, and things he liked to do. I felt like someone was finally actually giving a shit about my missing friend. The interview went along and my mood began to improve. I was confident that I would soon be hanging out with Keith again. Soon, the detective smiled, offered his hand and thanked me for my help. I nearly jumped out of my chair, free and determined to get back out and find my friend.
As we walked out of the interview room, the detective asked my mother to stay behind for a moment to discuss a few more issues. Minutes felt like hours as I waited in the car. When Mom was finally done I knew something was wrong. Her eyes were red and puffy and she deliberately avoided making eye contact with me. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to hear. I quickly turned away from her and refocused my thoughts on finding Keith. “Nate, Keith is not missing,” she said. “Nate, he has gone.” I didn’t understand at first. Where had he gone? We still had a couple days of summer left and at least three years until college. Through tears, she delivered the bone crushing reality and I learned the truth of what had happened to my friend. He had not gone to college or on some epic journey. Keith had died. I stood there raw and numb as tears streamed down my face. I don’t remember much after that, except for the deafening silence as we drove home.
Fast forward to today and the thought of giving my own son such devastating news is unimaginable. I’m sure a piece of my mother was forever changed that day when she was forced to destroy her child’s innocence and expose him to the harsh realities of life and death. The remaining days in that summer washed over me in waves of anger, grief, and uncertainty, as I struggled with the question of why my friend had to die. My own moments of sorrow were interrupted only by thoughts of Keith’s family. My heart ached for his parents, Robert and Andrea, his twin sister Melissa, and his little sister Lilly. My pain was severe, but their loss was infinite.
It was a surreal feeling facing Keith’s coffin on the day of his memorial. I felt completely alone standing in a room filled with people. When I looked down at my friend, what bothered me most was his lack of energy, his silence, and his stillness. The Keith I knew was no longer there. I could almost envision his spirit paddling out into some perfect wave far, far away. I had decided leading up to the viewing that I was going to leave something with Keith. I simply felt like I needed to give him some kind of parting gift. So as I laid a bar of surf wax next to him, I noticed all the other things that had been left by others. It was clear in that moment how many lives Keith had touched in his short time on Earth.
I often still think of my last summer with Keith and Josh, when the water is quiet and the gentle current pulls at old memories. After Keith’s death, I had a hard time adjusting to the silence I used to love while sitting in the ocean. Moments of quiet allow darkness and regret to enter my thoughts and I know Josh was doing his best to handle his own torment over losing Keith too. Now, 24 years later, I’ve finally reconnected with Josh and am learning how that last summer and Keith’s death affected him. He went on to suffer through years of depression and no longer surfs. He’s also been honest that my absence after Keith’s death compounded the agony he felt. To deal with his grief, Josh turned to writing and found comfort in new friends. I am deeply grateful to those who were there to support my buddy Josh, though I am sorry that I was not there to tread the murky waters with him. Until you experience a loss like the one we shared, you don’t realize the value of having someone solid to lean on.
I too spent more than a decade away from the ocean. I have recently started surfing again and even shaped a few surfboards. What was once a hobby has become therapy, helping me cope with the stress of everyday life. One thing I’ve learned is death can be destructive if one’s emotions are left unchecked. For Josh and I, it ended our childhood. For Keith, it cut short his immense potential and the limitless possibilities of his future. Nothing I can do for that now, though I have come to understand that I should have challenged the anger and bitterness I carried all those years. I know that Keith wouldn’t have wanted us to waste a single moment feeling distraught over his death. He would rather know everyone he loved heeded his death as a warning not to hold onto anything too tightly. I recognize now that we are only gifted with so many sunrises, so many opportunities to paddle into the deep blue, and so many nights to sit with friends and family and make memories around a warm camp fire. Those are the moments we should be pursuing.
So, I beg you to learn from my mistakes. Don’t look back at your life wishing you had done more. If you surf, then surf. If you fish, then fish. Stop waiting for the perfect conditions because they may never come. Just get the hell up and let go of fear, doubt, and any person or thing that impedes you from doing what you love. Don’t waste a day chasing the priorities of others. Make your own list and then get to checking things off it.
Keith’s life was short, too short, but he loved it and in the end, that’s really all we could have ever hoped for.