At times, life unfolds like a movie; the events so cliche they don’t feel real. The sight of the Coast Guard helicopter solidified the situation I was about to encounter; everything was about to change and I was about to welcome back the horrifying truth that I would yet again suffer through grieving the lost life of someone I loved.
Forty minutes before I saw that helicopter my phone rang. It was Sunday and I rarely answered my phone on Sunday afternoons. Sunday afternoon was my time to handle my things; the rest of the day was for other people but the afternoon was mine. As I loaded my laundry into the washer the sound of the ringing cut into me. I knew I needed to answer but I didn’t know why. What I expected to hear was friends hassling me on the other end about not being in the water that day. This was a common thing among them. They harassed me for "getting old" and never wanting to have fun. Having surfed for a large portion of my teen years, it was seen as unfaithful to them to give up on the bond the ocean can create among brothers. The ironic part is the guys in the water that day were not part of that area of my life but they all understood the importance of the ocean in my life and longed to be included in that. The voice on the other end did not sound familiar but I knew who I was talking to. It was unfamiliar because the tone and cadence were unfamiliar. Panic, distress, tears, coughing, broken pieces of words and sentences… “we can’t find him”… “we lost him”… “he is gone.” Those were the words I finally heard. The only words that matter were lost and gone. They hung in the air marrying the questions “why” and how” and finally the selfish thought of “don’t this to me again” creating a horrific relationship of fear and anger.
The drive is the only part I don’t remember vividly. I know I drove forty minutes down highway 61; I could make that drive to Folly Beach in my sleep. I know that I made exactly two phone calls. I couldn’t tell you what the drive looked like, what I passed or even what traffic was like. I do know I didn’t cry; I was void of all feeling. In the car, there was no fear or sadness, there was only driving a familiar route. I shut myself down so I could have forty more minutes of life as I remembered it before the phone call. I pretended this was a dream or a ruse, albeit a terrible one. I would get to the beach and they would all be laughing because they had succeeded in getting me to the beach on a Sunday, a feat worth bragging about, and we would spend the rest of the day in the water.
I parked the car and I ran. It wasn’t hard to figure out where I was running to. Even in the daylight, the lights of the emergency vehicles felt like blinding lighthouses guiding my steps. They were everywhere, filling every vacant space on the road that they could squeeze into, the whup-whup-whup of the helicopter consumed the air. From the time my feet hit the pavement, I knew it was over. There would be no joyous reunion or a story of survival we would all share for years. Death permeated the air. As I ran, every breath filled me more and more with the truth that the words I heard through the phone were true; lost and gone. That was what he was to us now, lost and gone.
I was disoriented by the environment around me. The lights, the deliberate crashing of waves, people everywhere and friends who were there with him, who in that moment, I did not consider friends. In my heart, I knew it was not their fault but in my head, they did this; they were irresponsible and it cost us. It is pretty fucked to write that I blamed them but, even if it is only for a second, it is what we all do when an accident happens. We want immediate justice for our feelings of fear and we want/ need to project that on a person(s). Past a few moments during the initial gathering of facts and settling into the situation I never blamed any of the other guys who were there for what happened. More than anything I wanted to comfort them in those first few moments. To assure them that this was not their fault; that is what my heart wanted to do so bad. Instead, I ran past them. Regardless how this event changed my life, I will never be able to fathom the effect it had on those friends.
We spent the next week looking for him, holding on to hope that our movie would be even more cliche and we would get our happy reunion. I don’t know that any of us ever believed that we would get it but some times the most helpful thing is hope. Believing for a few moments your reality can and will change despite the universe proving to you that it won’t.
The ocean was always where I went to figure out my life. There is something about paddling out into the water and sitting on a board looking at the moon and stars that make the weight of life more bearable. I cried into the ocean more times than I can remember, being drowned out by the crash of the waves, the saltiness of those tears being an insignificant contribution to the waters. The cool salt air slapping me in my face, staring straight ahead and never seeing an end to the dark seemingly boundless ocean always reminded me that though I wanted to control my life, to insulate myself from the painful parts, I was incapable of handling my request. An insulation from pain would never make me a better person, it would make me half a person. Having to be at the beach for a week under these circumstances slowly robbed me of the oceans purpose in my life.
On the third day, I sat on the beach at the spot that they last saw him. The wind throwing sand in my face. The salty air that once was the thing that reminded me that life was beautiful and worth it no longer smelled the same. It wasn’t life giving for me, it had betrayed me; it took a life. I sat face to face with the crashing waves that I once paddle past to sit in the vast ocean to figure out life; to fight through the hardest parts of life. I would spend hours in the water yelling at God to make it easier. To some how convince me the pain was worth it. Floating on a piece of fiberglass listening to the power and vastness of the water I sat on always reminded me that the world was worth paddling back to. So what do you do when your place of solace betrays you? When the place that always reminded you of the beauty of living life rips a life away from you and swallows it whole? Where the hell are you supposed to go?
September 11, 2005 I lost one of my best friends. He died in a a place he and I both loved. I wasn’t there when he died because I made a choice earlier that day that sent him to the beach and sent me to my house to do laundry; to have time to myself. That morning he welcomed me with a giant full bear hug like he always did. That was his thing; he literally threw his entire body into you when he embraced you. Later that morning, he asked me to pay for his lunch and I said I couldn’t that day. He told me he loved me and I drove away watching him waive goodbye to me in the rearview mirror.
That was it. A hug, an I love you and a waive goodbye; that's how it ended for us. For the next week the thing that stood out to me about that morning wasn’t the hug, I love you or wave; it was that I didn’t pay for his lunch. I could have had the closest person I had to a little brother for at least one more day if I would have bought him a $12.99 lunch. I sat on that beach on the third day and yelled at God about why he thought his life was only worth $12.99 and why did I get that wrong. Why didn’t I just buy the damn meal? A small part of me wanted Greg to some how tell me it was going to be ok. I didn't want to hear from God, I wanted to hear from Greg. I wanted him to tell me I was being stupid for being so angry over something I had no control over. Though he was younger than me, he was always optimistic about my life circumstances and always reminded me that, in time, everything would be fine. Years before when I was in the midst of another tough loss, he would always offer up the reminder that I needed. He was an ocean; peaceful and assuring.
The sun set, allowing the air to chill to an uncomfortable temperature as I sat waiting for an answer. Waiting for the ocean to make everything ok again. To remind me one more time that life was beautiful and everything would be alright. Except for this time, nothing felt right. The water was ravaged by an impending storm. The wind was cold and dank. Everything felt wrong; there was no peace. I stood up and looked back at a house of people who were hurting and looking to me to be someone stronger than what I was. I had to smile and I had to deliver peace. How do you give something you don’t actually possess?
One week later I sat in a room full of people trying to deliver peace. We celebrated, we sang and listened to people tell stories of a life cut short but a life that was lived fully. Sometimes the optimism about death in Christian culture pisses me off but I smile anyway because it makes them feel better to extend half assed nonsensical platitudes. Then it happened, one last time he made sure I knew that life was beautiful and worth living. It wasn’t in the ocean but sitting in a room celebrating death. A paper was read, written by him weeks prior, about me and a group of his closest friends and what our lives meant to him. It was as if he wanted to make sure that the chicken wings didn’t matter because it was one lunch missed out of hundreds we had over the last 5 years. The sacrifice of time that I made over the years to meet him where he was at and help him get to where he wanted to be was not for nothing. It mattered. It made a difference. Except all I could think about was how much he changed my life not how much I may have affected his.
Greg’s life was a challenging life but one that displayed joy constantly. As an epileptic, he should have lived a life of caution but he was the first to say he could do anything as long as he was smart about it. He understood his limitations and lived every ounce of life he could within them. His condition caused some embarrassment but I never met a person who could bounce back with out any shame like him. As the product of a divorced household, he understood the importance of making sure people felt loved and cared for. Petty differences or arguments weren’t enough to make him give up on someone; He was the glue between all of his friends. You could run but you would never be forgotten or marginalized; he wouldn’t allow it. You were his family and his family would not be split up.
It took me months before I really started the grieving process of losing Greg. It took that long to realize what I had lost and what lay ahead for me. I missed him but more than that I worried about whether or not I had it in me to give of my own life like that again. To get close enough to make a difference with the understanding that they could be gone tomorrow. Could I be the glue that kept people together? Could I ever put myself back through the possibility of loss again? Wouldn’t it be easier to keep people at arms length and not make the investment so that I never had to mourn again? Is my happiness worth more than a life?
The truth is I haven’t done well answering those questions over the last 12 years. Most days I don’t know that I can invest in people around me. I feel like a fraud because I don’t think I am the person that paper was written about. I mourn not being able to run to the ocean and find peace. I grieve not having someone in my life who made me want to do more and love people harder. Since his death I have had an internal toil to sort out the beauty in all of this. The beauty in life as well as in death.
Now my phone is never off and my wallet is never closed. I’ll always pay for the lunch and I will pick up the phone. Those things are life and death to me now. Whether I ever accept or believe it makes a difference to the other person, those things make a difference to me. It is how I remind myself that sometimes that is all it takes to get another person to another day and on days when life is crushing me and I miss my little bro, it is what gets me to the next day.
I have been back to that spot twice in the 12 years since Greg died. I made the decision to give up surfing that day. It didn’t feel right anymore. I decided my answers were no longer in the ocean. I am sure I’ll return to it one day; when I am no longer searching. When I don’t need it to solve something for me but only when I need it to remind me of the joyous life it took and how it was not wasted.
WHAT I AM LISTENING TO: