My wedding anniversary fell on a Sunday this year. We should have been celebrating year twelve. Instead, after my husband’s death, we are forever trapped at year nine. Instead of cards and gifts and flowers, there are only memories, should haves, and could haves. There is heaviness where there should have been light.
This is the first year I told my two children that it was my anniversary. In the past, I didn’t tell them because the knowledge wouldn’t have affected their day—they had school or soccer games or birthday parties. This year, thanks to COVID, they had no activities or play dates planned. We had an entire day stretching out in front of us. The thought of spending a day at home, with nothing but my grief, felt exhausting and claustrophobic. I wanted light and air and space. I told my kids I wanted to go to the beach. When they asked why—we’ve never gone to the beach in late September—I told them it was my anniversary.
I didn’t think they would be upset when the day arrived. I didn’t think my anniversary would be a grief-ridden day for them. After all, they weren’t at my wedding. To them, my anniversary is not a reminder of lost days and could have beens. And yet, they felt my grief. And my grief was compounded by my guilt for inadvertently giving them this burden.
The kids were quiet when they woke up that morning. The energy in our home was vibrating on a lower frequency than usual. My son melted down too many times over too many little things. At the last minute, he resisted going to the beach because he always resists doing things that force him to confront his grief, and then he relented.
We went. I worried about a million different things from parking to beach badges and all the logistics that once upon a time had been taken care of by my husband. I wished I’d never mentioned my anniversary.
The day was imperfect in a lot of ways.
I parked in the wrong place. Somehow I missed the lot directly across from the beach and we ended up parking half a mile away on a side street. The kids rolled their eyes and good-naturedly marched down the street, because they’re used to those kinds of missteps from me by now.
We walked down to the water and set up our little area. Our space was so much smaller than the spaces other families took up. We looked around and couldn’t help but compare and wonder what might have been. While looking around, we noticed seagulls diving into trashcans, pulling out brown bags full of greasy fries. The kids doubled over with laughter watching the seagulls feast and then chased them before they could come for our food next.
At some point, it rained. I promised the kids it would stop. (I had no idea whether that was true, but my weather app told me it wasn’t raining so it felt like it could be true.) The rain did stop and the sun came out. A rainbow didn’t follow but the sand got perfectly warm, even almost hot. The kids made a tic-tac-toe board out of the now wet sand and played an uncountable number of games.
When one of the kids needed to use the bathroom, we all had to go because there was no other adult to supervise a child, or watch our things. We scoured the boardwalk looking for a bathroom, and came across a shockingly clean restroom area. On the way back, we bought milkshakes and drank them on the beach.
A wave snatched a beloved sand toy and took it out into the ocean. The three of us looked on helplessly, both kids’ faces scrunching up in that brokenhearted way that I feel in my core. I told them it was bad luck and sometimes things happen, but that I was sure we could find a replacement. I didn’t know if I could. They took a breath and nodded. They are well attuned to the idea that some times bad things happen. And then a swimmer caught sight of their faces and saw the toy floating out to sea. He understood and swam for the toy, reaching it easily. He returned it and we thanked him and talked about the kindness of helping a stranger.
At the end of the day, when we stored our towels and chairs in the trunk and cleaned off as much sand as we could, we climbed back into the car. I thought the kids would be miserable. Between the long walk and the rain, the near loss of that beloved sand toy and the heaviness of grief that had clung to our morning, I thought the day had been a failure. I vowed to never tell them about my anniversary date again, and make the day as normal as possible for them, so they didn’t have to feel my grief.
When we arrived back home, my son, the one who’d resisted the beach, who hated confronting his grief, hugged me. He’d loved spending the day as a family, just the three of us, and asked which beach we’d try next year for my anniversary. He wanted to make it a tradition: a perfectly imperfect beach day for an anniversary that will forever be out of reach.
The day had felt imperfect, but in truth, the sun peeked out often. The kids laughed frequently. There was light and air and space, and all the things I needed to get through the day.
It’s my favorite new tradition: born of grief, forged in laughter, helped along by a touch of kindness and a scoop of ice cream.
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