We travel to Hilton Head, SC, every spring for an end-of-school vacation. It is a tradition that started several years ago, one our family treasures. We plan months ahead when we arrange lodging. Then, as the date draws closer, we have to restrain ourselves from jumping up and down at odd, inappropriate times. The beach calls to us in an inexplicable way.
We live in a beautiful county, surrounded by mountains and lakes. It is, in itself, a worthy destination, perfect for biking, hiking, fishing, and kayaking. But when May rolls around, our eyes turn to the east, and we long for the sand and sea. It is one of the special gifts of South Carolina, that highland forests and crashing surf are half a day's car ride apart.
The morning we leave, the car is packed, the snacks tucked away, and we drive through the local Chick-fil-A for drinks. Then my dear wife immerses herself in a novel, her iPod tuned to her music collection (eclectic as when we first met, running the gamut from Prince to Loreena McKinnett, from Aaron Copeland to VeggieTales). The children slip off their shoes and drift into games or books and music of their own before boredom takes them to sleep.
I am left enjoying the singular pleasure of driving across the state of South Carolina, listening to what I please on that most antiquated of devices, the radio. It is easy to navigate, South Carolina. The car can practically drive itself. It is not distracted by boiled peanut stands or fireworks stores. It knows, however, to stop in Columbia, midway to the ocean, so that we can plunder a bookstore in search of beach reading.
The book store assault is part and parcel of our beach trip, and has achieved many wonderful ends, not limited to expanding our children's minds and diminishing our savings account. So, bellies full from some high-fat lunch, eyes bright with new titles to devour, we return to the highway, and follow I-26 on down the road.
The mountains of South Carolina are, of course, not truly mountains. But we see them that way, and by comparison with the flat expanse of the lower parts of the state, they positively tower over everything. Sadly for native West Virginians like us, they vanish rapidly as we drive from Columbia on, and the flat Piedmont lies before us, shimmering in the sun.
Before we know it, swamps appear, filled with turtles and alligators, snakes and hogs. Their murky waters edge right to the side of the highway as we roll along. Soon, we see the Gullah ladies selling sweet-grass baskets at rest stops. And then it happens. We turn onto Route 278, and cross the bridge onto Hilton Head Island. Shouts of joy erupt from the car as we see the rigging of shrimp boats and the expanse of the ocean beyond the inlets, stretching away to Africa far beyond the roll of the horizon.
We find our way to the condominium we have rented, and because it is usually evening, I leave the family, and go out to forage. I am, after all, the hunter-gatherer. Usually, I hunt down pizza, or as is the case this year, gather up boxes of Chinese food for general consumption, after going to the grocery store for chips, soda, and laundry detergent. It is a task I anticipate with pleasure, year after year.
Admittedly, the first time is dicey. I return to the condo after nearly being lost in side streets of plantations whose street names are a hazy, retirement community blur. Did I turn at Shipyard or at Ship's Mast? Is the house at Shelter Cove or Pirate's Cove? Ocean Breeze Street or Ocean View Landing?
Ultimately, I find my way home, and open the door, laden with food, greeted by hungry teens and children happy to see Papa “home” again, which is what my daughter calls our temporary lodging after a five-minute dissertation on how she knows it isn't really home, but it's home for now, “so is it OK if I call it home for now?”
The next day is for The Rental of the Bikes. Hilton Head is as flat as the pancakes at IHOP so biking around the island is a common pastime for visitors. Our bikes include two tandems for Jan and I to ride with Elysa and her little girlfriend, who (when the bikes arrive) both shriek with happiness. All seven of us glide among the Palmetto trees on shady bike paths, as the older boys attempt to injure themselves by riding like maniacs.
We spend our days divided between the beach, the pool, the condo, and assorted restaurants. We read, I write, we nap, we laugh. This year, our trip was a respite from school. But it was also more. It was a grand celebration of the fact that Jan, wife and mother, survived not only chemotherapy and radiation for her pharyngeal cancer but also bilateral pulmonary emboli with a saddle embolus.
This year, every grain of sand, every breeze, every seagull, or dolphin in the wake was a blessing of normality. This year, every meal together was a kind of quiet feast as the stress flowed out of us, slowly, awkwardly, but surely.
The air was cooler than normal, and the water was sometimes like ice. But as we looked with warmth on one another, as we sat quietly by the ocean, digging in the smooth sand, we all realized once again how very important it is to escape, to regroup, to recover the blessings of routine joys, so powerful and so necessary to our collective sanity as a family.
Into the chaos and stress of all our lives, professional and personal, it is imperative that we introduce escape, calm, order, and even simple traditions. They do not heal all of our hurts, and they cannot repair all of the damage we sometimes sustain as we move from year to year, challenge to challenge. But they go far toward healing and restoration.
We may not be able to control the patient volume of the emergency department; we may not be able to predict compensation from quarter to quarter or how the patient satisfaction scores will go. We certainly cannot anticipate or stop all of the perilous events we will face as families. But we can retreat and regroup. We can spend some time away, without the constant reminder of the stresses we endure every day. We tell the sick to rest. A vacation is a kind of rest for the heart.
And few things allow me to do that as effectively as a trip to the beach, by way of the bookstore, with my wife and children.
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