When I was growing up, my family vacationed in Gulf Shores, Alabama every September. One year, my dad took my brother and I on an oceanside stroll after dinner. Mom stayed back in the condo to relax. We were probably 7 and 8 years old. As we were walking along, I remember the sun being almost completely set, my brother scampering around, his skinny limbs flailing as he ran up and down the ridge of sand on the shore where the tide had come in the night before. I remember talking loudly to my dad, asking lots of questions and hamming it up like I usually did, when my brother started to run in the opposite direction. I didn’t think anything of it, because he was kind of running erratically to begin with. But moments later, the tide came crashing in, right over my 6’4 dad’s head and my scrawny 3rd-grade body.
I reached out to my dad as the water poured hard and heavy over our heads. He grabbed my wrist tightly and I remember looking down and seeing my heels digging into the sand, my lightweight frame being beckoned right into the ocean. It seems like the water poured on our heads for the longest time, but realistically, it had to have been less than a minute. My dad let go of my wrist when the water receded and we both looked back at my brother, dry as can be, running back toward us.
My brother saw a wave coming in bigger than he’d ever seen before and he took cover. My Dad and I were too busy talking to notice the wave. And we got clobbered. It very well could have pulled us right under.
This memory resurfaced this morning as I learned about the unexpected passing of a dear friend’s mother. I’ve been thinking about the loss of my friend Christie a lot lately as well. So this story about the late-night walk on the beach with my dad and brother has taken on some new meaning for me.
I think tragedy is like the tide in the ocean. Sometimes we see it coming and we can prepare ourselves. The tide comes in every single day. We know this as a meteorological fact. But most of the time, tragedy arrives abruptly and rudely. It interrupts our peaceful stroll through life. It blindsides us, and pours heavy and hard over our heads. We can’t see clearly, only through blurry strands of raging water. We dig our heels in, determined to get through it. But we still wonder if there’s a chance we might not make it, while the sand slides away beneath our feet.
And when the ocean recedes, when things quiet down, and we realize we’ve made it to through, we still can’t forget what it felt like to be in the middle of the wave, hanging on for dear life. I sometimes wonder what part of tragedy has the worst effect on a person: the event itself or the subsequent grief journey.
So when I look back on the tragedy of losing my dear friend, when I think about the sudden loss of my friend’s mother this morning, when I think about the tide nearly taking my Dad and I out that day in 1993, I think about what made it possible for me to survive.
With gallons of ocean water pouring hard over our heads, my dad reached out through the angry waters and gripped my wrist with a determination and strength that I knew would sustain me until the wave passed. Even though I looked down and saw my heels slipping away beneath me, I knew no matter what, my Dad wasn’t letting me go.
When tragedy comes (and it always will, just like the ocean tide) I hope and pray that we all have an anchor that won’t let us go. I pray that God shows up in the people that surround you with love and food and strength and prayers and loved ones who grip your wrist in a way that helps you believe you’re going to make it, no matter how hard you’re sucked under. Because if you’re going, they’re going. Into the darkest places and back out to the light again.