A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere’

Wrightsville Beach. Garret K. Woodward photo Wrightsville Beach. Garret K. Woodward photo

It was at 7:27 a.m. Monday when the red ball of fire broke the horizon line at Wrightsville Beach.

I was handed a cup of coffee from my girlfriend as we sat on the balcony of our hotel room. Sip the warm liquid and watch the sun illuminate the ocean and earth. 

Sitting there, gazing out into the great, watery abyss of physical vastness and spiritual mystery, I had a hard time trying to remember the last time I purposely got up to see the sunrise. Sure, sunsets are something we all see often. But, in terms of the start of the actual day, I don’t really find myself getting up at this hour if I don’t have to.

In the hour leading up to sunrise, I awoke to the sounds of the crashing waves on the beach below the balcony. The hotel room was dark and it took me a moment to realize where I was — that dreamlike state before the realization of who you are and where you are comes into focus.

Leaving the balcony door open, the undulating waves were cacophonous in their natural rhythm nurtured by the moon and cascading winds. Waking up to that sound is something that lies at the core of each of us, this eternal, radiating chime of water and sand coming together at the deepest levels of our conscious and subconscious selves.

A few sips into the sunrise coffee, Sarah and I both commented how nice it was to be at the beach. It’s something we each yearn for, but somehow only turn into a reality a couple times a year. Even though we didn’t have to check out and head for home for several hours, plans were already made for another rendezvous soon with water and sand. 

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Wrightsville Beach was a last-minute jaunt. It was decided in the late afternoon while Sarah and I were leaving her father’s house in the rural depths of Grantham, North Carolina. He’s currently in hospice care for an unrelenting battle with terminal brain cancer. After a few unsuccessful surgeries over the past year or so, the focus now remains on quality of life.

He’s too weak for another go-round with chemotherapy, so it’s a lot of rest in the hospital bed situated in the living room of the cabin he shares with Sarah’s stepmother. A quaint, cozy structure surrounded by cornfields and meandering country roads to somewhere, anywhere.

Sarah was mostly raised by her grandparents and grew up just down the road from the cabin in a farmhouse. With her father’s declining health and the farmhouse now on the market, Sarah and I have made several trips to Grantham in recent months — to visit her family and check on her dad, to see if there’s any movement on the farmhouse.

A place you never thought about or were aware of is now placed squarely in your field of vision and collective memory. Never heard of Grantham before I met Sarah, much less wander down to this part of the state, a seemingly empty space east of Interstate 95, west of the Atlantic Ocean — cotton fields, abandoned buildings, heat, humidity, forgotten and swallowed up by the sands of time and progress elsewhere.

Beyond her father’s demise, Sarah is still grieving the loss of her mother and grandmother last year. It’s a lot to take in and absorb, even from my position on the sidelines. But, I try to be there the best I can, even if it just means holding the steering wheel steady on the long drive from Waynesville to Wayne County.

Walking into the cabin, her father was laying in the hospital bed. There was a delicious looking sandwich in front of him. My mind immediately drifted to a famous saying by the late Warren Zevon who, nearing the end of his life, had this to say about death: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

Standing next to him, Sarah and I made small talk and helped him with his lunch. His hair has grown back significantly since stopping chemo. So, too, had the growth on the side of his head. His spirits remain high amid such dire health. All at once, the scene before us was inspiring and sorrowful, terrifying and surreal in its nature of appreciation for what life actual is — this internal ticking clock with whatever is left of what you were given at birth.

With a tear in her eye, Sarah said goodbye for now to her dad. Hug her stepmom goodbye, too. Hop into the pickup truck, put the vehicle in drive and head down the gravel driveway, back out onto the country roads to somewhere, anywhere. Back to Haywood County, eventually.

At the juncture for I-40 West/East, I yanked the steering wheel east. I don’t have to be in office until Tuesday when we put out the newspaper. Screw it, let’s go to Wrightsville Beach for the night. Decompress from life, if but for a moment. Cruise in underneath a bright yellow moon sprinkling diamonds into the black ocean from the universe above.

Find a hotel room on the beach. Change into more comfortable shoes and sandals. Wander down to the beach, only to saunter along it until we reached The Palm Room, a storied dive bar nearby. Pop in for some cold suds and shuffleboard. Pet the local dogs roaming the establishment. Small talk with the bartender. Look around and be appreciative of the moment at-hand with your lady.

Shoes in-hand on the walk back down the beach to the hotel. Darkness and solitude. Two souls vibrating in the beauty of the moon and crashing waves of water and sand. Stories swapped about respective childhood memories of ocean trips and beach vacations — Sarah down here in Wrightsville, myself way up the Maine Coast in New Harbor.

Open the balcony door and listen to the waves. A peaceful sleep amid restless times. Awaken into a new day of purpose and possibility. Pour the coffee from the small Keurig in the hotel room and happily await the sunrise. Silhouettes of human beings up and down the beach in the early morning haze. Remember to yourself to not forget this moment and to also chase after the sunrise more often moving forward.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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