How one Lowcountry woman discovered that sometimes the waves can bring us more than we were seeking

By Cassandra King
December 12, 2018
Author Cassandra King and her late husband, Pat Conroy, in South Carolina

My life had just undergone a major sea change, and the next thing I knew, it was Christmas. After years of urban dwelling, I had moved to a South Carolina barrier island to be with a new husband, where we'd start our new life with a blended family. Although I'd fully embraced the change, everything suddenly felt strange and unfamiliar. The holidays had always been about tradition, not starting from scratch smack-dab in the midst of midlife. How did anyone even do such a thing? Standing on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean on Christmas Eve, alone and bewildered, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I'd tried hard to get into the spirit of a Lowcountry holiday. I'd decorated my new house with seashells, seagrass wreaths, and palmetto fronds instead of holly and magnolia. Our special family dinner would be the local Lowcountry boil, a dish I didn't especially like. And although Christmas on the beach felt all wrong (it wasn't even cold!), I planned a cozy walk at sunset, hand in hand with my brand-new husband. It would be a special ending to a special day, I told myself. To make a new life, we had to start new traditions.

Except New Husband wasn't having it. Engrossed in a football game on TV, he cheerfully waved me off. "But you'll miss the sunset!" I wailed. He answered with a shrug, his eyes never leaving the screen: "There'll be another sunset. Enjoy your walk."

So much for a romantic stroll on our first Christmas Eve together, I thought as I slammed the door behind me in a huff. On the beach, the salt air was sharp and crisp, but I barely noticed. There wasn't a soul in sight. Even worse, the sun had disappeared into the ocean, leaving behind only a rosy glow in the western sky. My bad timing was my husband's fault, I decided. If he'd come along as I'd planned, all would be well. The sun would be hanging over the horizon where it belonged, and we'd watch it set as we huddled together, our faces bright with love and happiness.

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I trudged over wet sand until I'd had enough. It was my least favorite time on the beach, low tide. Everything had become a letdown on a day I'd planned with anticipation. Just as I turned to go back, something caught my eye. I stopped and blinked. I'd heard about the sandbar but had never seen it. There it was, a narrow strip of white sand stretched like a finger into the ocean. Islanders were always warning strollers away from it, pointing out that sudden shifts in tides create danger.

By the time I reached it, the sandbar stood out even more against the gray water. Then everything changed: The shocking pink glow of the western sky suddenly deepened in color and spread out like a fan across the horizon. Without a thought of danger, I hurried down the sandbar for a closer look, and my mood lifted. It was the blessing I'd come for. I stood at the tip and stared in wonder. The horizon, where vast water met vast sky, was the deep pink of a Christmas rose.

After the glow faded and the sky began to darken, I turned to go and found my feet bogged down in wet sand. The tide was coming in, and I was a good distance from the shore. Already, the sandbar had become an island enclosed in surging waters. Then I spotted what I had failed to see in my rush to view the sky—the soggy finger I stood on was covered in sand dollars. With a gasp, I knelt down for a closer look. On my previous strolls, I'd seen their imprint left in the sand by the receding waves or found broken fragments on the shore. But I'd never seen them alive. It had been the bottom of the ocean; now, at low tide, its sea-dwelling creatures revealed themselves. Not the dazzling white disks that beachcombers often collect, these sand dollars were dark little sea urchins, aflutter with life.

I made my way back to shore on tiptoe, careful not to step on them. My shoes filled with seawater when I crossed the tidal pool to safety and made a sloshing sound as I ran home. The sand dollars had caused me to forget my displeasure with New Husband, and I burst in on the last quarter of his game. "You've got to see what I found on the sandbar," I said. His alarm that I'd gone where angels fear to tread gave way to his avid curiosity, one of the things I loved most about him. This time, he followed me without protest.

In the short time I'd been gone, the tide had changed. I discarded my wet shoes and waded ankle deep into the incoming waves in bewilderment. "It was right here; I swear it was!" I cried. I kept searching as darkness descended, so sure that the sandbar would be visible even underwater. New Husband waited with surprising patience until he reached for my arm.

"Come on, Sweetheart. Whatever you saw is gone. The tide got it," he said.

I hugged myself against the salt-laden breeze and leaned into him. "Sand dollars," I told him. "So many sand dollars. I've never seen anything like it. I wanted you to see them."

"I wish I had," he said, and I knew he meant it. He would've treasured it as much as I had. "I should've come with you."

It was the perfect opportunity for wifely rectitude, a self-righteous reminder of my virtues and his failings. But instead, I gave him a hug, loving him again, and said, "Let's go home."

Later, New Husband surprised me by insisting that I open the gift he'd gotten me instead of waiting until the following day, when family would come for the exchange of presents. "You'll see why," he told me, and opening the box, I did. Pearl earrings to match the pearls he'd given me for our engagement. "More gifts from the sea," he said.

Delighted, I showed off my pearls the next day, and I would wear them many times in the years that followed. But I never did so without remembering our first Christmas together, and the unexpected blessings of a Christmas Eve on a sandbar, where I knelt to marvel at sea creatures. It was a long-ago time when love was bright and new, before the tides of change came into our life and swept everything away, leaving only memories behind.

King's upcoming memoir, Tell Me a Story (William Morrow), will be published in 2019.