A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘Olden times and ancient rhymes, of love and dreams to share’

Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Garret K. Woodward photo

At 7:12 a.m. Friday, the sun broke the horizon atop the Atlantic Ocean, its undulating waves crashing upon Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

My girlfriend, Sarah, and I on the small balcony of our hotel, the warm rays of the new day sun washing over us. 

Soon, we’d have to pack our bags and bolt up Interstate 40 towards Goldsboro, Sarah’s hometown and the place we’d have to find ourselves that afternoon for her father’s wake. Earlier in the week, after a tumultuous year-and-a-half bout with terminal brain cancer, he passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was 69 and had only been retired a couple years when initially diagnosed.

This whirlwind of travel and rollercoaster of emotions was sparked Monday evening while sitting in an airplane awaiting the gate to open so we could exit the craft. After a few days together in Las Vegas, Sarah and I took a direct flight back to Southern Appalachia via Knoxville — a less expensive flight, an easy drive home and we could visit some dear friends while in Knox.

While in Vegas, Sarah received an early morning phone call that her father’s condition had deteriorated drastically. He was holding steady and she said we’d be rushing down to Goldsboro as quick as we got home.

Skip ahead to Knoxville. The plane lands after a cross-country flight. Sarah turns on her phone. It dings with new messages. Her eyes immediately began to water. She looked at me and whispered with a quivering voice, “He’s gone.” Tears quickly rolled down her cheeks. Well, now what? Where to from here?

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It’s already Monday night. Let’s head to our friend’s house in Knoxville. Grab a quick bite to eat. Do a quick load of laundry seeing as most of our clothes are dirty from several days in Nevada and lords knows how long we’ll be down in Goldsboro. Get a few hours of sleep and be ready to hit I-40 for about a seven to eight-hour trek east following breakfast.

The entire way down to Goldsboro, Sarah kept weaving between disbelief that her father was gone, how she was still grieving her mother who passed away just last year (her beloved grandmother the year before that), rehashing fond memories of her youth and adolescence, what the family dynamic might look like going forward and, in essence, what her life itself may look like beyond today.

Endless miles and gas/rest stops. Waynesville. Asheville. Hickory. Statesville. Greensboro. Raleigh. By late Tuesday evening, my truck pulled down the dirt driveway of her father’s log cabin way out in the rural countryside of Wayne County, in the unincorporated community of Grantham on the outskirts of Goldsboro.

The endless tobacco fields surrounding the cabin, now dormant following the fall harvest, were silent and covered by the black blanket of night. The only light being that of the dining room of the cabin, this beacon shining out into the darkness. We could see the rest of her family gathered ‘round the dinner table. Cross the threshold of the household and accept this new reality.

The next morning, Sarah and I sat in the hotel room in Goldsboro. We had to checkout soon, but didn’t really know what the next move was. The wake wouldn’t be for two more days. So, we decided to head for Wrightsville Beach, a location held closely by Sarah — the sand, water and sunshine all attached to childhood memories with her late parents.

Cruising into the seaside community, it was quiet compared to the throngs of faces and vehicles during the warmer months. The week of Christmas, the place is somewhat deserted. Quiet streets with no traffic. Restaurants with no wait to get a table, same goes for drinks at The Palm Room within a stone’s throw of the Johnny Mercer Fishing Pier and the crashing waves of the mighty Atlantic.

Checking in at the Shell Island Resort, it was an oddly surreal feeling to be one of the only guests in the massive hotel. The onsite restaurant and bars were closed, but the indoor pool and outdoor hot tub were still operational. A cold breeze would waft into the lobby whenever the automatic doors would open. The incessant sound of Christmas music echoing down the empty hallways as if some eerie Carolina version of the film “The Shining.”

Dropping our bags in the fifth-floor suite, I opened the door onto the balcony. The fading early winter sun was ducking behind the homes on the mainland nearby. Pink, purple and orange skies high above the frigid waters below. There was just enough sunlight to go for a quick run. Lacing up my shoes and tightening my winter running jacket, I trotted down the beach and into a realm of pure solitude.

As with any jog enjoyed in your own time and pace, the mind drifts into a million different directions, but majority of which usually in line with whatever you’re thinking, feeling or experiencing within vicinity of the activity itself — wander and ponder, the sounds of your shoes atop the hardened sand and subtle rhythmic breathing.

Thoughts of Sarah and what she’s going through with the passing of her father, the future of her family uncertain, at best, at this juncture. I thought of her dad, too, how I’m grateful for having met him several times throughout this past year, how I enjoyed our conversation early on — before he became bedridden and unable to speak much — about how he first learned to play guitar, his late father teaching him “three chords and the truth.”

Reaching the Johnny Mercer Fishing Pier, I turned around and circled back to the resort via Lumina Avenue seeing as the beach was now pitch black. I noticed how every streetlight had some festive holiday light pattern — mermaid, starfish, dolphin, etc.

I smiled in appreciation for the small token of Christmas spirit provided by the town. I thought of similar lights strewn about in my hometown way up on the Canadian Border, this sense of seasonal cheer and collective togetherness in a frozen landscape. I wondered how my parents and little sister were enjoying their holiday season. I wondered how often my 81-year-old father would be going back and forth from the wood pile outside the farmhouse to keep the two fireplaces chugging along to keep my mom warm.

With the resort soon in sight, I knew Sarah would want to soon head to The Palm Room once I returned, perhaps a tequila drink or some cold suds to hold off the restless sentiments, if but for a moment. The next few days will surely be one of deep emotion, sadness and reflection.

But, no matter, for we’re in this thing called life together. We’ll figure it out, just like everyone else tries to do to the best of their ability, especially during this time of year. Onward.

To be continued (next week). Happy holidays, y’all.

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