My mother has a lot of sayings but there is one that keeps running through my mind: “Time heals all wounds. Remember that, honey, and although it’s really hard and may seem impossible, your pain will ease.”
I was sitting on the beach, my bare feet dug deep in the warm sand. I looked up and stared at the setting sun. Its reflection in the water was a spectacular sight, a sight that used to make me feel hope and happiness. Now it just brought painful memories and made me wish I could turn back time.
It was eight months ago when he told me the news.
I was struggling with a math problem when my dad knocked quietly on my open door. I looked up and smiled.
“Hi, Daddy,” I greeted him.
“Hi,” he said and put all his weight on one foot, then the other. My dad always did that when something was on his mind. I studied him, trying to read his eyes to see what was troubling him, but he kept his head down.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?”
He smiled, “You’re so perceptive. I could never lie to you.” His smile faded and he walked to my bed, sitting on the corner, and studied me for a moment, wondering if I could handle what he was about to say.
“I received a letter,” he said, taking a deep breath. “You remember I was in the Army when you were really young, right?”
Of course, I remembered. I was six when my father joined the Army. My mother always told me how much she missed him when he was away and I had missed him just as much. He was never home, and it hurt to see my friends with their dads. One of my happiest moments was when he told me he was retiring and would be home all the time.
“Yes,” I said slowly, dreading what I would hear next.
“They say I have to go back.” He saw my expression and quickly added, “But only for a little while. If I stay six more months in Iraq, I can retire for good.”
My head was bowed, looking at my hands clamped together tightly in my lap. I looked up and saw his face and knew I couldn’t be mad at him. It wasn’t his fault. He looked pained as he waited for my reaction. I hugged him. He held me for a long moment and then studied my face.
“You’re very grown up now, I can tell. Thanks for being so mature and taking this so well. It makes it easier for me, too.”
He left my room and soon, after the most painful good-bye of my life, he was gone.
Four months later, my mother received a letter, a letter that changed my life forever. She read it over and over, not believing what it said. When she told me, I didn’t believe it either. That night, I cried until my chest ached. My father had been stationed in Iraq when a bomb went off in a nearby car. He and three others had been killed.
I kept thinking that this never would have happened if he hadn’t been called back, but my mother later explained that there was a clause in his contract that said they could call him back if it were necessary. I had seen the news and heard about retired soldiers being called back into action. Some were really upset by the news, others were confused, but my father had taken the news without complaint and gone to Iraq.
The tide continued rising and the first wave hit my feet. I barely noticed the freezing cold water. I kept thinking that he had had only two months left over there and then he would have been home with us. It wasn’t fair. I looked down at a seashell that brought back a lot of memories, memories of him and me at this very spot.
“Close your eyes and say what’s troubling you,” he told me. I did as he said, then threw the shell as far into the ocean as I could. I counted the ripples as they formed.
“There, now that trouble will be gone for good.”
I did feel better. I had had a bad day in second grade. A kid in my class had made fun of me, saying I was short. Whenever something bad happened, my father and I would make our way to the beach and perform our ritual, and you know what, it worked every time.
“My grandfather told my father this secret and my father passed it down to me. Now you can pass it to your children. Whenever you want to forget something, a memory that is just too painful, throw a seashell and your memory will be lost in the ocean.”
Remembering this, I sprang up, grabbed the seashell, and pulled my arm back to throw it - then stopped. I couldn’t throw away memories of my dad. I wouldn’t trade those for anything. I just wanted the pain to stop. Then it hit me, as the sun was setting, as the tide was coming up, as my feet were beginning to grow numb - this place didn’t bring back bad memories, only good ones. I closed my eyes and thought about the times my dad and I had come here.
I opened my eyes and looked around. The ocean was in front of me, the sun barely visible over the horizon. I looked to my left and then my right and realized I was the only one on the beach. I smelled the salty air, and smiled. It was the first smile since that horrible day. I smiled for the good memories of my dad. That smile stayed glued to my face as I made my way home.
I decided then that whenever I felt lonely or depressed, I would trek the three blocks to the beach, but instead of throwing seashells, I would collect them. I would collect the memories and store them in my mind so they would never be lost.
With the shell still clutched in my hand, I made my way home. When my mother saw me, I was still smiling, still remembering. The next day, she came down to the beach with me to collect seashells as the sun set. As we made our way back, she put her arm around me to give me a quick hug.
This is my favorite place, on the beach, with the setting sun, with the people I love, and a bucketful of memories.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.