When I close my eyes and concentrate, I can feel myself slipping back to that hot summer day. I can feel the coarse sand between my toes and I can smell the salty waves of Virginia Beach’s coastline. I remember only being a little over 3 feet tall and ridiculously skinny, so tiny I would literally blow away if the wind's gusts were too strong. I remember the sun being so bright that I could barely look up at all without my eyes stinging and tears streaming down my face...
It took me a very long time to find my “happy place"; so long in fact, that for a while I thought it was impossible for me to be happy in any space, real or imaginary. And while most people define a happy place as their favorite physical place to be, somewhere they can very easily visit whenever they need to escape; my happy place exists in a memory.
The sky was so beautiful that it was worth the burning pain it took to gaze at it. It was that perfect shade of blue speckled with those clouds everyone mistook for cotton candy as children (or maybe that was just me). I even remember the noisy seagulls swirling above my head, stealing food from other people on the beach. I was always secretly afraid of seagulls. The way they stalked across the sand, swarming around people trying to enjoy beach picnics and terrorizing little kids (including myself). I mean honestly, have you ever really truly stared a seagull in the face? They're absolutely terrifying. I always tried to eat as fast as I could while at the beach out of fear that I’d be attacked if I didn’t. I remember millions of little things about that day at the beach. But, mostly? Mostly, I remember my father.
I remember him making me sit on our beach blanket until he had covered my entire body with sunscreen before I could go play in the water. I sat there wiggling my toes in the sand and twisting my barrettes around between my fingers until he finally pulled me to my feet and started walking me to the shoreline. I was used to playing at the point where the waves break on the shore, but this time he scooped me up into his arms and took us out further. We had to have been some yards away from the shore and I probably should have been terrified, but I remember feeling as safe as I always felt with my father.
We stayed out there for a long time, just floating and staring up at the fluffy clouds. When it was time to go back to shore and pack up, I remember him telling me he wanted me to try to swim back on my own. Now this did have me significantly more afraid, but I remember him saying to me “I’m right here with you, I’ll always be right here” and I believed him. I always trusted him more than anyone else in the world, because he was my world; He was my very best friend. Hearing him tell me he would be there if I needed him gave me the confidence to swim back to the sand entirely on my own. When my feet touched the ground again, I was so proud of myself. He was proud too. I remember the way he smiled at me and spun me around in the air. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier than I was in that moment on the beach…
My father always kept his promise too. No matter what, he was always there for me in exactly the way I needed him to be at that moment. I was very shy as a child and it was always hard for me to make and keep friends. I spent a lot of time in my room playing all by myself and sometimes I got very lonely. My father always made sure that if he wasn’t working, he was spending time with me. He’d sit in my room with me for hours playing with Barbie dolls and watching movies that I know he had absolutely no interest in, just because it made me happy. I even remember one Christmas he filled the space under our tree with just about every board game ever created, because I had told him I was bored and wanted to play something new. And, as expected, he sat there and played every single game with me too. My dad was just about anything and everything you could ask for in a father.
March 7th, 2006. Well, I guess technically it begins on March 6th, 2006. My dad came into my room to tuck me in, like any other night, but something about him was... different. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but something was off. I remember him kneeling down by my bed as he tucked me into my pink African-American Barbie sheets and kissed me on my forehead, as he always did. Except, on this particular night, he stumbled. He just fell backwards onto the mass of stuffed bears and bunnies perched on the floor beside my bed. I started to panic and ask him if he was okay, desperate to know what was wrong. “What could I do to help?” Could I do anything at all?
All he said was, "I'm fine. I'm just tired". Yeah, tired.
I wasn't sure if “fine” was really fine, but he managed to convince me enough to doze off. I remember glancing at my clock before falling asleep. 10:06pm. I remember that clock vividly, because when I woke up again hours later, the clock was the first thing I saw.
5:28am. You know that feeling you get whenever something isn't right? You just know somehow, like it's something floating through the air. I knew. Somehow, I knew. Before I even turned my head, I knew something was wrong...and I was right. He was still there. Still laying on the floor, next to my bed, staring up at the ceiling, smiling. That doesn't sound too bad at first, but... his eyes weren't blinking. They were glassy and still. His nose was bleeding, even his smile wasn't quite right, and I knew. I knew he was gone immediately. I got off my bed and sat on the floor next to him. I just sat there, numb, emotionless, for hours. At least it felt like hours.
Eventually, I got up and called the ambulance, the way he'd always taught me. “Just dial these three numbers. 9-1-1. Tell them your address. Stay on the phone and wait there for them. You'll be okay. Everything will be okay.”
I remember sitting on the couch with two police officers maybe an hour later, going through my father’s phone with them and waiting for my uncle to come pick me up after they’d contacted him. At one point, I told the officers I needed to use the bathroom as an excuse just to peek at him one more time. I remember the officer saying to me “Don’t look at that. You shouldn’t see him like that,” once I’d been caught staring. But, he didn’t understand. I needed to look, to see, to know, that he was truly gone, that this was actually happening. The rest of that day is just... a blur. Nothing mattered. No one said a word to me that I truly heard. All I could see, all I could feel, all I could hear was my father. Him telling me that I was special. That he loved me. That he'd always be there for me when I needed him to be...
The best people always seem to be the first to be taken away from us, and with the good memories come the bad too. The memory of my father's last night is one that will haunt me forever. It is the most vivid and crystal-clear memory that exists in my mind, something I will never manage to forget. You see, my happy place is most important to me, because it acts as a balance. It’s a memory I can pull up whenever I need to, whenever I want to open up that wound again, whenever I choose to. But... the memory of my father's death is much different. That memory I don't get to control. It creeps in whenever IT wants to. One second, I'm working, or sitting in a classroom, or doing something simple like folding laundry, and suddenly I'm not in that place anymore. Physically, I'm still doing whatever I was doing before the memory crept in, but it's like I'm on autopilot. The outside world falls away, just fades from my vision. And my body is still there, but my mind is well... stuck in the past, in that day.
But, even now that he’s been gone for nearly 13 years, I still feel him with me every day, pushing me to be the best version of myself I can manage. My "happy place" is a memory I force myself to remember to balance the pain of my other memories. I need it. I carry both of those memories around with me every day, as I will continue to do. Indefinitely. The memory of my father's death is one that will be stuck with me forever. But... the memory of our day at the beach is one I choose to keep, for the days that I start to lose myself. And, I admit I've lost myself quite a lot throughout the years. But, it's always him that brings me back to myself. In my lowest moments, I can still hear his voice telling me “I’ll always be right here.” I still believe him.