Weaving my arm through the shoulder strap of my camera bag, I hugged it close, protecting it from the spray of saltwater that swept over the boat. The ferry was a small boat captained by a jovial local, his skin tanned to a rich copper. We skimmed across the waves to Shackleford Banks, the southern most barrier island of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. I turned my face to the wind and welcomed the salty froth that swept over the bow of the boat and onto my arms and face. Drops of cold ocean water mixed with the tears sliding from the corners of my eye.
I started the morning with the vice grip of a migraine behind my right eye. My spirits plummeted; it was the first day of our vacation in the Outer Banks. The anniversary of our son’s death was two weeks away and the thought of being held captive inside with both a migraine and my memories sent my heart racing.
“Lets get in the car and drive to the lighthouse like we planned. All I need is my camera bag, I will medicate the migraine and sleep in the car” I said to my husband, Doug.
I am a planner; I live to organize. Orchestrating the smallest detail brings a sense of calm and control to my life. I can also become obsessive and rigid, bearing layers of guilt if something should go amiss. I sought perfection and planning as a way of life for myself, deriving self-worth from a schedule that ticked with a watchmaker’s precision touch. Exacting attention to detail kept loved ones safe and life predictable.
I drifted off to sleep in the car watching the sky and marshes that stretched on forever; two hours later I woke up to the same scenery.
“How’s the head?” Doug asked.
“Better, thank you, where are we, aren’t we there yet?” I replied.
I checked navigation, another ninety minutes! What if we miss the ferry to the lighthouse, what if we can’t find lunch, why didn’t I pack food, I should have packed the coffee thermos, the voice inside my head chattered away. I could feel myself tensing up, berating myself for not being better organized. What if the day was wasted?
“Doug, we are in the middle of nowhere.”
He looked over with a small smile and said, “Sometimes you have to go nowhere to get somewhere.”
We arrived at Harker’s Island with less than 30 minutes to find food and board the ferry. We bolted into a small restaurant that beckoned to us off the sandy road, fifteen minutes later we ran out the door carrying a bag of cheeseburgers hot off the grill. With seven minutes to spare, we found the ferry office and purchased our tickets, but not for the lighthouse. Staring at a poster of wild horses galloping across the sands of Shackleford Banks, a tiny island across from the lighthouse, I changed my mind.
“Lets go see the wild horses instead.” I said to Doug.
All anxiety about time schedules and planning slid from me as we skimmed the waves. There was no dock at Shackleford. The captain maneuvered the boat as close as he could to shore and we clambered off the bow into shallow water, gripping our camera gear and the bag of cheeseburgers. “I’ll see you around 5:30,” called our captain as he coaxed the boat back out to open water.
We splashed to shore and stood on the beach in wonderment. The island was primitive, just miles of beach sprinkled with shells and hoof prints. Dunes covered in sea oats and marsh grass invited us ashore.
The quest for wild horses was enticing, but so was the aroma of cheeseburgers. We sat in the sand feeling the warmth of the sun melt into our bodies, and for a moment I breathed in a sense of being embraced by the earth. Juice from the hamburgers ran down our arms and having only two thin napkins to share between us, we cast manners aside and licked every drop off our fingers and washed our hands off in the ocean.
Kneeling in the warm sand, we fished out our cameras and hiked inland. The air shimmered with expectancy. The wind blew over the island and played tricks with our eyes as the tall oats swayed‒was that a shadow in the oats? I held my breath as two wild horses came towards us, their long manes flowing over their necks. Their proud and free spirits electrified the air and my own soul felt charged with their energy. I let out my breath and tried to capture their nobility with my camera.
I continued to wander inland and sliding down a dune a glint of burnished hide caught my eye. Standing in tall sea grass was a chestnut mare and her tiny foal. Tears tracked down my face as I gazed at her baby, a little filly with a cream colored mane and lustrous brown eyes. The mare looked over at me and I could sense her delight in her baby, she and her little one bent their chestnut necks to graze. Visions of my own dark eyed baby swam in my tear-filled eyes.
My handsome son with tousled dark curls that all my planning and organizing couldn’t save, death happens even in the most well-ordered lives. A car accident, no preparation, no warning, it wasn’t on the calendar. I looked around me, drinking in the beauty of the pristine sanctuary trying to reconcile the incomparable artistry of the island with the irreparable pain of child loss. How can joy and sorrow co-exist?
Leaving the mare and her foal, I climbed the neighboring sand dune and turned my face to the wind. A cleansing wind full of briny ocean scents, it set the sea oats to swaying and rustling. The wind continued to push white fluffy clouds across the azure sky as I turned truths over in my brain. I couldn’t have planned this perfect day. This day of wild horses came from letting go, not intricate planning. It came from seeing a poster of wild horses and following my heart, not the carefully outlined plan. The wind curled around me stronger, I realized in that moment that I could not have prevented Justin’s car accident either, there was nothing I could have done. I didn’t fail him.
Standing on Shackleford, I opened my hands that were clenched around plans and guilt, and let the wind blow through my fingers. “Let go,” the wind seemed to whisper, “Let life unfold with mystery. Remember that the wild horses came to you.” Could it be done I wondered? Could I relinquish my anxious grip on achieving perfection and embrace serendipity as a welcome guest once my feet left the shore of this magical island? Could I let go of my guilt for living and experiencing beauty while my child lay dead? With a lingering last look at the island, we boarded our small ferry and headed back over the sound in the evening light.
To think of living and planning a lifetime without Justin is too big, I can only live a moment at a time. The uncertainty of life is both the agony and the joy, sorrow and joy can co-exist. Letting go of preconceived ideas and plans of what my life should look like makes me feel very vulnerable and unprotected, but it opens the door to the wild horses in my life.
“The uncertainty of life is both the agony and the joy, sorrow and joy can co-exist.”
When anxiety and worry threaten to consume me, I close my eyes and go back to Shackleford. I open my hands and remember the lesson, the wild horses came to me. I let go and invite life to surprise me.