I had just been through such a rough day at work, that all I really wanted to do was to stop by the beach on my way home and spend a few relaxing minutes trying to unwind.
When I got there, it seemed like I had made the perfect choice. The sun and the tide were both low, providing a perfect expanse of hard, moist sand that was out of the intense heat that had plagued most of the day. A cool, light breeze had begun to blow and the beach was quiet and pleasantly deserted.
I set a chair up on the sand and lowered my work-weary body down with a tired sigh, mustering up just enough energy to push off my shoes.
I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the clean, damp ocean air. And as I exhaled, my eyes slowly closing, all the cares and troubles of my day seemed to float out and get carried away into the sea.
I realized I was almost dozing when a sound to my left broke my reverie: the high-pitched sound of a sea gull. No, it was probably several. And then, mingled with the cries of the gulls, I heard the laughter of a small child.
I lazily opened my eyes and turned towards the sounds.
Down the beach, a man and a young child stood, laughing playfully as a dozen or so sea gulls hovered above them. They appeared to be feeding the birds something from a paper bag and all of them–the birds, the boy and the man—were enjoying it immensely. Man and boy would each thrust his hand deep into the bag, bring out their clinched fists, and fling the contents high into the air. And with each fistful, they would look at the birds, then at each other, and laugh with genuine delight as the birds swooped and called and rose again into the air, hovering there, anxiously waiting for the laughter to stop and the food to start flying again.
A father and child sharing some quality time, no doubt, I thought to myself sarcastically, and then felt a little depressed by my reaction. Such pleasant father/child scenes always made me a little sad, a little jealous I guess, for what I never had as a child. I closed my eyes again, tightly, and turned back towards the sea.
But it was too late. Bits and pieces of unhappy childhood memories were already pushing their way into my mind, forming into the mental motion picture that I knew all too well..my mind’s well worn saga of a dysfunctional childhood with what I remembered to be a distant, uninvolved father. No, ‘quality time’ was not something I had much of as a child.
I shook my head sharply and opened my eyes, trying to stop this melodrama in my mind. My breathing began to relax as I focused on the sights around me. There were the waves, still crashing. There was the sand, still damp beneath my feet. And down the beach, there was the boy and the man.
The boy was still looking skyward, though the bag was apparently empty now, hanging limply at his side. The sea gulls were breaking up, some flying towards the sea while others landed cautiously nearby. Just as the boy seemed to be losing his interest in the birds, the man began running and flapping his arms, chasing the few brave gulls that had landed on the beach. Squeals of laughter rang out as the boy excitedly followed–laughing and squawking and flapping after the birds.
I laughed to myself too, now, and almost unknowingly I let my eyes drift shut once more. The child’s laughter carried on the wind and drifted into my mind, echoing there, growing louder and louder until it seemed to fill my whole head. Such laughter! Such pure and simple joy. Slowly, a new image began to form in my mind: a young girl propped up in bed, her pixie haircut framing a face lit up with joy and laughter. The image began to gain clarity, as if being focused by a giant mental lens. I could see a familiar pink bedroom trimmed in lace, stuffed toys long ago forgotten, and a plump freckled face that I knew had to be me. The laughter echoed again, and the image drifted back to include a dark haired, handsome man, sitting at the foot of the bed, telling a wonderful made-up bedtime story of friendly creatures and a prince and princess that lived in a far-off and exciting kingdom. And as the story ended, the child realized that she was the princess, and threw her arms around the man’s neck and squealed “And you were my prince, right daddy?”
My eyes sprang open!! Where had this memory come from? My father telling me stories? Laughing with me? Filling me with happy thoughts of love and adventure as I drifted off into sleep? And although it seemed alien only moments before, the memory was vibrantly clear now, as if it was only yesterday that it occurred.
Other memories came flooding back to me now, as the man and the boy on the beach continued to run, continued to laugh, chasing crabs and waves and then each other. It was as if the boy’s laughter was pushing into the farthest reaches of my mind, discovering memories that had long since been buried.
I remember the pride in my father’s eyes as he taught me to drive. And though I stalled and stripped and tortured his car, he never got mad at me. He never yelled or got impatient. He just had that same loving smile that I saw now on the face of the father on the beach. A smile that beamed with love and joy and fatherly pride.
What great memories!! But where had they been hiding? Why had I carried only the negative memories for all these years?
The tide was coming in now, but I sat motionless as I saw it catch my shoes and inch them up the sand. I couldn’t move–I felt weak–drained, from the intensity of the emotions I was feeling.
He was a good father once. I could remember that now.
But he died when I was only 19, long before I was old enough to know what shaped him into the man that he became. How could I know the challenges he faced, or the fears he must have felt when he lost his job with a family still to support. I couldn’t have known. I was too young to know, because he had died many years ago when I was still too young to understand his pain and frailties.
On the beach, the man and the boy were nearing me now, their feet splish-splashing in the waves as the setting sun cast their shadows out upon the sea. They were quiet now–holding hands, gently swinging their arms, dragging their feet through ankle deep water. The fading sunlight seemed to outline them against the sea and I thought I could almost read their minds–the cluttered, tense, worried adult thoughts of the man and the playful, carefree innocence of the child. And just then, as they passed in front of me, I heard the child’s quiet voice as he said “I love you daddy.”
I smiled a tranquil smile as a feeling of warmth and peace began to grow inside of me–a peace I hadn’t felt for many years.
And as I closed my eyes once more, it was my father and me I saw walking hand in hand away down the beach–holding hands, swinging our arms, splashing through waves.
“I love you daddy,” I whispered aloud, and somewhere, carried on the wind and only slightly muffled by the sound of the surf, I’m sure I heard his reply.
(Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: All In the Family, c2009)