I was a kid. We were staying in my aunt’s upstairs bedroom in Atlanta, trying to make sense of our world after my father died. Daily life was getting tense because we lived in a household of many females.
It’s never a good idea to have several strong-minded women crammed into the same tiny house. It’s a recipe for an estrogen apocalypse.
My mother decided we needed a break from the family dramatics. We needed a break from grief. We needed to temporarily forget my father, the man who ended his life and dragged the memory of our family into the grave with him. What we needed was to feel normal.
Just for seven days.
So she rented a cottage at Tybee Island—about four hours southeast of Atlanta. The irony was, we were not beach people. I don’t know what kind of people we were, but we definitely weren’t the beachgoing type. I wasn’t the sort of kid you wanted to see clad in a bathing suit. I was chubby, pale, and built like the spokesperson for Pilsbury.
But when we arrived at Tybee, that all changed. We crossed the bridge arching into the little beach town, cruising at forty-five, and I felt my stomach tingle and my heart opened like a butterfly.
We stopped at a seafood shack for lunch and ordered grouper sandwiches. When the waitress placed the food onto the table before us, she had a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth and said, “This fish ain’t real grouper. The chef is a [cussword] liar. It’s tilapia.”
So we were off to a great start.
Our cottage was charming, and the city of Tybee Island was postcard pretty. We bought groceries at the IGA, we developed sunburns at the beach, we climbed the lighthouse tower, we ate ice cream until our pancreases begged for mercy.
One morning, I awoke to find my mother having coffee on our rental cottage porch, rifling through a stack of touristy flyers. She excitedly waved a brochure and announced that I was going parasailing.
“Me?” I said. “But I don’t wanna parasail.”
“You’ll love it.”
“But,” I pointed out, “I could die.”
“Yeah, but they have legal waivers for that.”
Until that moment, the most adventurous thing I had ever done was skip taking my Flinststone vitamins. Parasailing was above my pay grade. Nevertheless, my mother can be very persuasive about such things, so I donned my bathing suit and within a few hours, I was riding in a speed boat with the wind in my hair, wearing a life preserver that was designed to fit a Ken doll.
I’ve always been what you’d call a nervous guy. I don’t like taking unnecessary chances, so when the deckhand strapped me into the harness attached to 800 feet of rope connected to parachute, I began to hyperventilate.
“I really don’t wanna do this,” I announced to the people onboard.
“It’ll be fun,” the captain insisted.
“I could fall and die.”
“Nah,” he said in an assuring tone. “In all my years of doing this, that’s only happened once.”
It was too late to change my mind. When the deckhands began easing me skyward, I saw my two pasty legs dangling above a world of blue and I howled with terror.
My mother, hundreds of feet below, gave me the “okay” sign and took photos with a drugstore disposable camera.
But after a few minutes my screaming stopped and gave way to pure wonder. The view from high altitude was stunning. Below me was the whole world. Not just part of the world. The whole thing. I could almost swear, looking at the horizon, that I could see the curvature of the globe.
Something happened to me. I started smiling. And laughing. I began randomly making “wooooo!” sounds and swinging my feet.
So in short, I guess it worked. I truly did forget about my grief up there. I was a human being again, even if only for a moment.
No, the magic feelings didn’t last forever, of course. Magic feelings never do. Life doesn’t work that way. The rest of my life was painted with all the usual troubles and hang-ups that follow a traumatic childhood and the suicide of a parent. Still, I never forgot that wondrous week.
And as I write this, tapping on my keyboard, my wife is driving our vehicle over the old bridge into Tybee Island. And I look like I just discovered teeth.
This is the first time I’ve visited this city in roughly three decades. And I’m feeling those same happy stomach tingles I felt long ago. My mother was indeed right. Even after all these years, Tybee Island is a beautiful place to forget bad things.
Even if only for seven days.