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A Place on the Beach

By: Wayne Eggleston

Chris had reason to smile that day in 1983. It was his first time walking on a beach. The first time seeing the ocean. He was a bare-footed toddler in an endless sandbox, what could possibly be better? It was warm that day for February. The sun was blazing and there was hardly a breeze. Also, he was reunited with his parents. The twelve months of separation had been hard. Now that we were back together things were getting back to normal. Mom, dad, and son were moving back into the roles that each plays in the story of family.

Can you see the three of us, standing down there by the water? Just where the waves wash up on the sand. There is a certain place there, where we stood. For the three of us it was a special place. We didn't realize it back then, but some years later, Chris would know it, and show us too. For this moment though, it's just a place on the beach to let our feet get wet with the crash and roll of each wave.

That was our first day in Charleston. Angie and I had just returned from Alaska. Chris stayed with my parents in South Dakota for the year that we were away, assigned to separate, remote military bases where family members were not allowed to accompany us. That year was hard on us and on Chris too, but we were back together now and nothing would ever separate us again. Not ever.

Over the seven years we lived in Charleston we went to the beach a lot. We spent many hours on the stunning beaches of Sullivan's Island, Folly Island, and the Isle of Palms. We walked and we held hands, and our small son walked with us. When Chris wasn't holding one of our hands he was picking up shells or being fascinated with some “major find” in the sand.

If you'd taken the time to notice, you'd have seen, as we did, the three sets of footprints we left behind in the wet sand. Sand that sparkled like diamonds in the bright sun.

In 1990, the Air Force reassigned us to the Washington DC area. We didn't make it to the beach very often during that assignment. The really nice beaches that we were used to were just too far away.

After four years, we moved again to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Now this was more like it! A two and a half hour drive and we could be walking on the beach, which again became our favorite destination. We did just like everyone else who goes, we gathered seashells and built huge castles. We swam in the ocean and bodysurfed in the waves. We'd walk for hours along the shorelines. Angie and I would usually be holding hands as we walked. You would often see Chris latching on to one of us, but that was mostly when he was younger.

Chris was growing and maturing into a tall, blond, lanky teenager. He looked good in swim trunks, his body lean and just beginning to develop a young man's muscles. He kept his hair short, like mine and the blond had darkened a little, but it was still there.

Chris entered the ninth grade in 1996 at Westover Senior High. His freshman year was filled with soccer and all the other stuff that keeps a ninth grader busy. He even became an athletic trainer for the girls junior varsity basketball team.

As time went by, winter rolled into spring and Chris' ninth grade graduation was fast approaching.

Then things turned bad.

On Monday, June 2nd, 1997, the final week of school that year, Chris didn't come home when he was supposed to. We went looking for him at the school. He wasn't there. That night and for the next five days Angie and me, and hundreds of friends and volunteers searched for Chris. On Saturday his body was found in the woods behind the school.

He had been beaten and tied to a tree and strangled to death with a rope. His body was hidden in a creek and covered with mud and grass. The investigation revealed his murderers, several classmates, and the plot to have him killed.

I could tell you more about what happened, but I would be getting “off the track” as they say. We started the grieving process as parents do when their child dies. Every morning when we wake up, we remember that our only child is gone. We don't hear him anymore in the house, making his cereal, and doing his chores before school. When we fix supper, we only need two plates now, two sets of silverware and two glasses. I noticed just recently how much longer a loaf of bread lasts.

It took until the third year after Chris was gone for us to be able to set up our Christmas tree. And even then, it was done with much sadness. We kept a few of Chris' things to help remember him. If you opened Chris' closet, where his winter coat still hangs you'll get an idea of his scent. We've got pictures of him, of course. One especially good one is of Chris in his soccer uniform, number 7 on the front. In the photograph he's leaning on the goal post in the soccer field behind the school. That picture is bizarre, but only because if you look in the background behind Chris' smiling face, you can see almost exactly where Chris was taken and killed.

This isn't the end of the story though.

Do you remember how I told you earlier about the three of us finding something special at the beach? That last week of school for Chris was supposed to end with a beach vacation. Chris saved up a hundred and twenty dollars. He talked of riding go-carts and playing miniature golf. He could hardly wait to get out on the beach and play skeet-ball at the arcades along the boardwalk. The three of us had plans for big fun.

Instead, Angie and I spent the week searching for our son.

Soon after the memorial service for Chris, Angie and I went to the beach and stayed at the hotel where we'd planned to take Chris. This time though, instead of a vacation, we went to mourn our loss and spread his ashes in the ocean he so loved to play in and near.

Once, during those dark and mournful days out on the beach together, something special happened to us, which is really why I'm telling you this story. We were walking in an area that was nearly deserted, and stopped at one point to look out over the ocean. We were standing down by the water and something suddenly reminded me of that day on Folly Beach in 1983 when Chris was just a baby. Then, just as a wave came up on the sand and washed over my feet, I felt the joy of that memory. An undeniable feeling came and washed over me, a certainty that we were all three together, still. I looked at Angie standing beside me and she was smiling as I was. At that moment we looked down at our feet together and we both noticed something peculiar in the sand between us. There was something there, in the sand, as the wave ran back out.

Then as we slowly moved on down the beach, taking our own sweet time, we would pause every few steps to look at the sand behind us, at the footprints we left there. Angie and I would hold each other for a moment, just looking at the sand, then turn and walk on a ways. As we walked, yet another wave would rush up and back out as they forever do. There in the sand, slowly being erased by the waves, there appeared to be three sets of footprints!

I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. Now, a few years later, we still go to the beach. We stand in that special place, where the water washes up past our feet, and we remember our son and look back at our footprints in the sand. We smile and sometimes we laugh. Sometimes you can see us wipe something from our eyes with the back of our hand.

Another wave rolls in and slips back out, washing away footprints that only we take notice of. And the wet sand sparkles like diamonds in the bright sun.

To remember brings grief, therefore I grieve

About the Author

Wayne Eggleston is retired from the U. S. Air Force. He joined the military in 1979 and met Angie at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. Chris was born April 15th, 1981. Wayne has authored a book entitled “My Grieving Soul” which will be published in the summer of 2002 and has written similar articles for several newspapers and magazines.

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