Growing up in North Carolina, my family spent our summers at Fripp Island, a little slice of heaven off the coast of South Carolina.
Imagine: palm trees, wild deer, sunrises over the Atlantic, and sunsets over the marshland. A private and protected wildlife preserve, it was the type of place where you never had to lock your doors.
While the serenity of the island was unique, its magic really lay in the memories we formed there. It was the ‘happy place’ for our family: no work, no fighting. At Fripp, we left the drama behind. We dismissed the pressures of normal life. Instead, we slipped on bathing suits and drowned it all out in the Atlantic, floating on our backs and watching the pelicans fly by. We spent our days collecting seashells and our nights watching the stars blanket the sky.
One day when I was 8, I walked on the beach with my father and sister. He held each of our small hands gently in one of his and we flanked his sides; at 6‘2”, he was a giant to us. As my sister and I chattered on about one thing or another, he suddenly looked down, told us to be quiet and asked us to listen:
“Girls, I won’t always be here. One day, I’ll be gone. But you will still be here, and I want you to remember this moment, so you’ll always have it,” he told us in a soft steady voice. “So take it in, feel your breath; see the ocean and the shore. Smell the salt and feel the wind on your face. Remember my voice and remember this moment. The three of us together.”
We never forgot that moment. Over time it became a running joke that we would tease him about or reminisce about as we got older. Almost every time I returned to Fripp I thought about that moment on the beach: the stillness, the quiet, and the vivid sense of a moment frozen in time, an internal collective memory etched into our minds.Artwork by Chezi Gerin.
Three months after I got married, we returned to Fripp and my sister and I asked my Dad to make “the moment” again with my husband so he too, would have it to remember forever. I remember the day clearly. It was bright and hot: we wore sunglasses and tank tops, and we pedaled through the marshes and by the marina, looking for alligators sunbathing. My sister led us to a lookout spot tucked into the woods which looked out onto the marshes.
Jon, my husband, did not know what was happening but my Dad knew right away. And so we stood there, in a circle, holding hands, and we named the moment. We took in the view together, at first our bodies energized with endorphins, and then slowly, our eyes took in the stillness of the horizon and our breath quieted with the soft hum of the marsh. We brought our attention to our breath, and the sights and the sounds, and we held it for just long enough that we would always remember it together. Afterwards, we walked back to our bikes, laughing at this little family tradition, and pedaled home.
One month later, my dad, a 57-year-old orthopedic spine surgeon and the epitome of health, died of a pulmonary embolism. One of the first things I thought about when he passed was how grateful I was that we had those precious days at Fripp together. I also couldn’t stop thinking about those two moments – on the beach as a little girl, and on the edge of the marsh as a newlywed. What inspired my dad to remind us that he wouldn’t always be here? How did he get to a place in himself where acknowledging his own mortality came with such steadiness? What about a simple awareness meditation carved an eternal memory into my heart?
I don’t know if I can ever know the answers to these questions, but I do know that I am grateful to my father for having the wisdom, humility, and insight to share a deep truth with us as children: that nothing stays the same, and life is full of unfathomable mystery. What I find even more profound is that when telling us this truth, he also taught us his response: be still, breathe, listen, observe, and acknowledge the moments you do have wholly.
His final lesson to us then was actually quite simple: Don’t wait for a wedding, a birthday, a child naming, or a graduation to be grateful enough to transform a fleeting moment into something eternal. Right here, right now, is just the right time.
Faith is Director of Strategic Development for Base Hillel, a new Jewish engagement initiative for young adults in New York City. She is also an experiential educator in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she lives with her husband Jon.
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