We almost didn't make it here. Not because of car trouble, not because of kid trouble, not because of weather trouble. No, we almost didn't make it because after 22 hours of straight traveling in a car with three kids, after over 1300 miles of road behind us, after countless hours of "Are we at Florida yet?", and "I wanna snack!", and "Can we watch another movie?", within ten miles of reaching our destination I almost turned us back around and took us right back home.
In those few moments I couldn't imagine what had made me think that I could be here, and be okay. What had made me think that this would be in any way manageable. There was not a doubt in my mind that I had made a huge mistake, and I needed to reconcile it immediately.
But those few moments of suffocating irrationality ran their course, and we drove the last ten miles. The last ten miles to the one place on earth that will always and forever be, "my Dad's".
Not that he owns the place where we are staying, not that this little island paradise in any way, shape, or form belongs to him, but it might as well. No amount of money or paperwork could ever change the fact that in my eyes, and the eyes of my family, this tiny little oceanfront resort in this tiny little Florida community is as much my Dad's as if he had singlehandedly discovered it and staked it as his own. If I am being honest, I see him more here than I even do back in Holland.
We've been coming here for decades. It started out as heading down for a week over Thanksgiving, and quickly turned into two weeks over Christmas. I missed a couple years in college and when I met Jason, but other than that I have been here approximately 25 times in the last 32 years. Twenty-five trips to this one point on the map. And never has there been one day that I have been here without my Dad. If I add up how much time I have spent here over the course of my life it would add up to just short of a year. One whole year.
This may not seem like alot in comparison with all the many years I spent with my Dad in Michigan, but our time here was so different, it had so much more quality to it, so much more meaning. Back home we would go about our daily activities with him heading off to work and me off to school, living our lives side by side but not face to face. We would chit-chat with each other, he would father me and I would torment him, he would keep tabs on me and make sure I was okay, and check in every now and again to still make sure he knew what kind of child he was raising.
But every year that changed once we piled into the car and started our annual Florida vacation. The images in my head change as I think back over the years... there was my years as a young girl, where my time with him was spent playing in the pool, trying to catch lizards, and looking for seashells. Then in my teenage years it was him and I walking down the beach together, playing tennis together, and doing our crossword puzzles next to each other. In my late high school and early college years I see him and I laying out at the pool together, going to see the manatees together, and at the close of the day playing cards together. After I had become the proper age we would enjoy a glass of wine together while we played, and he could always be counted on to affectionately tease my Mom about her card playing skills and how her glass of wine would somehow disappear before we had even started ours.
It was here that we would play together, and explore together, and get to know each other better. For two weeks out of the year my Dad was all ours, and he was glad to be so.
He loved it here. This was his haven, his rest, his reward for all of his hard work. Whenever he had any extra vacation this would be the first place he would make it a point to come to. It was here that he felt truly able to relax and enjoy the blessings that God had given to him.
It's hard for me to think about the last two times I was here with my Dad. The first one was two years ago, and a special trip that he invited me on to spend ten days with just him, my Mom, and my two little girls. We had such a wonderful, wonderful time together. I felt spoiled by all the attention I got from him, as I was used to sharing him with a few other siblings and countless grandchildren. We walked together and talked together, we hung out at the pool together and shared life together. I got to know him more on this trip than I had in all the years prior.
It was also on the way home from this vacation that he mentioned to my Mom that he had a pain in his side that wouldn't go away, and he thought he should have it checked out. We know how that turned out.
And then the last time I was here with him was the year after that, just one year ago. It was a completely different man that made the trek down here this time. He was old, he was weak, he was in so much pain. The man who used to spend his days running, and walking, and golfing three times a day could now barely make it around the course once, and only on a good day. The man who never wore a shirt if he didn't have to never took off his shirt even once, probably in order to hide his emaciated frame and the scar that wrapped around his chest where his lung used to be. The man who would walk miles and miles down the beach on a daily basis now would just walk over the steps to the bottom of the bridge, where he could still see the ocean, still hear it's power, still breathe in it's salty air.
There were no more long talks at night, no more card games, no more of his daily walks to the jetty for exercise. What I remember most about this trip is the morning recaps of how he had slept (or not slept) the night before, the waiting for his cellphone to ring with the latest instructions from the Pain Clinic on how to cease his chronic, excruciating pain, the constant worrying about him, and the continuous mourning of the man he had been just one year before.
Needless to say, it's hard to be here now. Everytime we leave the condo to go to the pool, or the ocean, or even around the corner to the condo where my Mom is staying I see him. I see him on every path. Every place my foot falls I know that his has fallen there countless times before, and I can picture it. The Dad from my childhood, the Dad from my adolescence, the Dad from my adult years, he is here. And it overwhelms me that, really, he is not. And I will never see him here again.
And so it is in this place more than anywhere else on earth that I find myself thinking that none of this makes sense. It is here that every picture I have of him, up until last year, portrays him as the picture of strength, the epitome of power, the embodiment of good, clean healthy living. I can still see the muscle definition in his stomach, his calves, his arms, and his tanned, fit body running towards me on the pathway just two short years ago. How did cancer destroy him so easily? He seemed to me a tower incapable of falling, impossible to take down.
Today as I was looking out over the golf course where I had literally seen him play hundreds of times, I felt an unexpected sense of peace come over me. In my heart I knew that he would be happy we had returned here. He would be happy we had decided to come back to this place that he loved so much, he would want us to continue to enjoy this sanctuary he had led us to over and over again.
But the peace soon faded once again into sadness, and a longing to see him in his red golf short and khaki shorts waving to me from the course, smiling his big, happy, vacation smile. And the magic this place always held for me faded a little bit, and turned into just another part of my life that lost some of it's meaning when I lost my father.
I pray that someday in the future the magic returns, that the magnetism this place always had for me draws me back in as it has every other year. I pray that we can make new memories here with our own family, and be able to look back at the years spent here with my father with joy and happiness. But this place will still always be his place. He will always be here. Every time I drive in the gates I will do so honoring him, and honoring the legacy and tradition he started when he brought us here the very first time. I will remember fondly the years and years we spent here together as a family, and most likely shed a tear for the years and years that our family will be spending here without him.
But we will keep coming back, knowing that the time will come when we will be longing to be in a place where we can remember him as we used to, and knowing that his beautiful presence can always be found here.
We miss you, Dad, so very, very much. Thank you for the memories you made it possible for our family to make together here. They are carried with us everyday, everywhere, and are held in our hearts where we keep our most treasured ones.
Dear Lord in heaven,
I pray this day once again confused as to how my Dad left us so easily. I know this is all in Your master plan, I trust there is a reason behind it, but it just makes no sense to me. How could this happen? And happen so quickly? The only answer is You, Lord. You are the only one who could have taken him. And in an odd way that comforts me. It comforts me to know that he was always under Your control, in Your care, even in the worst moments of his life.
I find myself often feeling as if I am in the worst moments of mine right now, Lord, and I ask that You be with me too. We miss him so much. Everyday, all day, he is still so much a part of our lives, still a huge hole incapable of being healed. We're struggling down here without him. Show us Your mercy, Lord. Show us Your peace. Especially during this holy time of year help us to keep our eyes on You, and know that this Christmas our husband and father gets to sit at the feet of the newborn King, and hear the story of Your birth firsthand.
Today, Lord, help us focus on where he is, instead of where he isn't. Help us remember Who he is spending these sacred days alongside. Help us to focus on Who is with, instead of who is without him.
I can't even imagine the Christmas he will be celebrating this year. Spending Christmas with the Christ-child, talking one-on-one with the Reason for the season, hearing the Story from the perspective of Mary, and Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wisemen. Finding out how it felt to follow a star and have it lead you not to a Prince in a palace, but a baby in a barn. It makes me joyful, picturing him there. Help me, Lord, to cling to that joy when I feel the weight of his loss threatening to consume me. He is with You, Lord. He is not here with us, and that saddens me to no end, but He is with You. And he is happy, and about to enjoy the most merry Christmas he has ever known.
Tell him we said Merry Christmas, that we miss him and love him, but we are celebrating You down here, too, just as he is. It fills my heart to know we still have something in common.
Happy Birthday to You, my beloved, precious Jesus.
In Your Holy Name I pray,