Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Ian James Fannin-Hughes has won our writing contest on the theme of Oceans of Possibility with his piece "All You Wanted Was the Ocean."
Ian is an environmental scientist, grower of too much okra, father of human children, and an aspiring fiction writer from the Kansas side of the Blue River Watershed.
All You Wanted Was the Ocean
You wouldn't shut up about the ocean, either of you.
Long before we set the trip in stone, before we showed either of you on a map, before you understood that the ocean was horizon-spanning, endless water. You both talked endlessly about it. Discussions about sharks, great and small, toothy and toothless. Promises of swimming and gathering shells, of hunting the tiny crabs at night. You asked about the ocean constantly, relentlessly, so much that we replayed your question and answer game over and
over and over.
You were excited. I was too. So were your sister and your mom. But most of all, I was excited for you.
I still see you in the hospital, all of us, so unsure of your future. Wanting nothing more than to give you the life you deserve. How little we knew back then, how much we have learned since. You, who had grown so much. You, who had become so resilient, even with the ventilator, the tubes, and the rest. We sheltered you. Wanted to keep you healthy and safe, sure that the best way to do that was to not take risks. Risks, like taking you anywhere near a body of water bigger than a puddle. How quickly we realized you were ready for more.
You wanted to see the ocean. And that was it. So against my anxious nature and better judgment, we jammed into that car. All of us. To go see the ocean.
Was I surprised to find out that you only wanted to talk about the ocean? While we drove halfway across the country? Yes. I shouldn't have been. But that's you. You want to know everything, are fascinated by the world in a way that I try, though more often fail, to be.
You talked about sharks, as usual. Your sister talked about swimming, filling buckets upon buckets with shells. She even talked about the salt, how the water tasted when caught beneath a curling wave. She’d been to the ocean, to the exact same beach before. She assured you she knew it all. But still, you wanted to know more, so much more. We spent three days in that car, packed like sardines between luggage, medical equipment, toys, and snacks. So many snacks. I had my complaints, but neither of you did.
We parked near the shore. I remember when I stepped out of the car and first felt the sea breeze. We couldn't see the ocean yet. Our view was blocked by the scraggly, grassed shoulders of dunes. But we could hear it; the waves, the gulls and terns. It was the ocean! You were ecstatic, and wanted to use your walker to get there. I told you it was a long way, across the boardwalk, and then over the dunes. But you were persistent. So you walked. As far as you
could. Until your walker, laden by the ventilator, got bogged down in sand.
I remember you calling dad dad dad, as you jumped with excitement. You pointed to the waves crashing against the beach. You were happy to let me carry you the rest of the way. We moved faster like that. Your mom and sister were already in the waves, and you wanted nothing more than to join them. As we stood at the edge of the waterline, your fascination got the better of you; you were speechless.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't awed just the same. I hadn't seen the ocean in decades. It took me by surprise, the scale of it. But nothing compared to you. You were still quiet, taking it all in, when I set you down on the sand.
Dad, dad, dad, I want my boots off. You said to me. You can't stand on your own without your boots, those prosthetic braces. You wanted to feel the water. I understood. So I threw your shoes, your braces and socks far behind us, somewhere in the sand. I barely had to help you walk because you were so excited to get there. You walked only a few steps, then you ran! As fast as your little body could, into the oncoming wave. I was with you, though I think at that moment you were too distracted to know that. I felt happiness then, like I haven't known for too long. It was real happiness, no longer diluted by guilt or sadness.
How hard it was, still is, to see into your future. To know what to expect. To fear the worst. To know that life will be hard for you, it shouldn't be, but it will be. But here we were, carefree and happy. I could feel your heart thumping as I held you under your arms. I could feel your breathing through the ventilator on my back. The waves cascaded over your feet as you crept ever forward, determined to become fully submerged. I was awed, not by the ocean, but by you.
Right then, for an instant, everything was perfect. Right then, it was everything to see you in the ocean.
Perfect. It might not always be that way, but that was easy to forget at that moment.
I watched you with joy, the broad Atlantic stretched before us. Its waters ebbed and flowed
across your pale bare feet. You looked straight up at me, that toothy grin, so cheesy.
Let's find a shark! You said. I said, yes, of course!