Essay By Campbell Balk, as part of a group of essays by students at the Salisbury School.
Appreciation is something that is acquired as you grow older, lessons come along the way that make you sit back and look at life from a different perspective. Most things are taken for granted, the biggest, is that of our life on earth as a human being. We take the presence of others in our midst for granted, expecting them to be around at our disposal. It is not until one loses another, for one to truly realize that life is not to be taken granted for. Thus, bringing an individual an aerial view on the appreciation we should have for not only our own life but the lives of others.
July 17th, 2008 was a day I learned one of the biggest lessons of my life, a day where appreciation for not only my presence but my two brothers as well, was put into perspective for my Father. It was a Thursday morning, I can remember it clearly, I woke up at our cottage in Northern Michigan on Glen Lake, one of the most picturesque lakes in the State of Michigan. I was 10 years old at the time, I crawled out of bed to the smell of the Northern pine trees, and the overwhelming burnt eggs coming from the kitchen. It seemed as if it was another normal morning up at the cottage, the sun was shining, glistening off the lake, the birds were chirping, and the noise of the ripples of waves coming onto the rocky shore filled the house. That is when I realized this was not a normal morning, my father normally would always have Fox News playing on the big screen in the family room, and my mom would always be in the kitchen, drinking her coffee and reading the Glen Arbor Sun, the town newspaper.
My older brother, Keegan, was still asleep as usual, and my little brother, Cayce, was, as always, up at the crack of dawn playing in the sand by the shore. The normalness of my brothers’ actions fit the classic cottage morning, but I knew from the moment I came out of my bedroom that something was wrong because my parents were nowhere to be found. I frantically ran up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom, screaming, “Mom!” “Dad!”, still nowhere to be found. I ran out to the garage and then outside to check the street to see if I could see them on a walk, still nowhere to be found. There was one last spot that they could have been, on the deck outside of the boathouse. I had no faith in them being there, as we only used the deck outside of the boathouse for family dinner at night, but to my surprise, as I walked down the steps from the cottage to the boathouse I could hear my Mother. The deck of the boathouse is on the front of the boathouse, so as I walked down the dock towards the deck of the boathouse, I could hear my mom. As I passed our Navy Blue Cris Craft and two grey Jet ski’s, I realized she was not talking, she was crying. My excitement of finally finding them immediately disappeared. As I rounded the corner, I saw something I have never seen before, my Father comforting my Mother.
My parents love each other very much, and it is obvious to tell that between the two, but I had never seen it with my own eyes, the appreciation and affection my Father was giving my mom was something that I had never witnessed. My Father was holding my Mom, who had her head down, sobbing uncontrollably. As they heard my footsteps on the wood of the deck, my Dad turned to me and I could see that both of them had been crying, and I did not know what to expect as to why this was going on. It was a perfect morning on the lake, the sky was cloud free and we were on family vacation, the happiest place on earth to me, the cottage, the lake, family, what was there to possibly be sad about?
Being the 10 year old I was, I started crying, I did not know as to why they were crying, but seeing my parents crying made me lose it. I had only seen my parents cry one time before that, and it was at my Great Grandmother’s funeral. A death like that was expected, unlike the death in this situation.
Back home at this time, my Mom had her high school best friend, Carrie, staying at our house for the week, watching our two dogs and using the beach of Lake Michigan. Carrie was currently in an ugly divorce, so the week at the Lake with her four kids; Giles, Landon, Chiara, and Alice, was a perfect way to escape the tension and stress of the divorce. We had been family friends with The Howard’s for as long as I could remember, and whenever we would head up to the cottage, being from the city, an empty house on the shores of Lake Michigan was a no brainer for them to not take advantage of.
July 16th, 2008, was the day it happened. A grey, windy Wednesday afternoon, the waves of Lake Michigan roaring between 3 to 4 feet. It was a classic red flag day at the Grand Haven State Beach, visible from our beach, with the whitecaps roaring and the undertow looming, the kids decided to swim, possibly unaware of the danger at hand by not being from the beach town and knowing the strength of Lake Michigan. At the time, Giles was 16, Landon was 12, Chiara was 9 and Alice was 6.
At the house there was these 4×4 foam rafts that we would take out and play with, we would wrestle each other on top of them and drag them out really deep and jump off of them. They were great to use for going out deep, but difficult to manage in the waves, as it would push you further and further down the beach. My parents use to give the three of us boys a rule that we could not float past to the parallel of the neighbors steps on both sides of our house, giving us a solid 100 feet each way before we would have to head in and start the process over again. The only other rule for the Lake was that if there were whitecaps, we had to have life jackets on. The rafts made being in Lake Michigan that much more fun, but for Chiara it became one of the reasons for her death.
The four kids headed out, with Alice, the littlest one on the raft, being pushed by her biggest brother Giles into the oncoming waves. Landon and Chiara both walked out, jumping in and under the crashing waves. They played in the waves for a while and began to float far beyond our boundaries, but my parents weren’t there to tell them the rules, so they floated on down the beach, without their life jackets on as well on a whitecap day. The waves were continuous, crashing at the sandbar, where the water was around chest high for kids that age. A bigger wave came in knocking Alice off the raft, and Chiara came to her rescue as she was too little to be able to touch. As she went to put Alice back on the raft, a wave crashed down on Chiara, while Alice was just fine, the strong and consistent undertow of the Lake had pulled Chiara under the raft. That is when everything began to head south.
My older dog, Cally, back when she was more active, liked to run along the beach with us as we played in the Lake, little did we know she was keeping an eye on us. As the waves continued to crash upon Chiara, pulling her up and under again, she stayed under for a longer period of time for Cally’s liking. To my knowledge, she was under the water for more than a minute, until Cally starting barking. Giles, unaware of his younger sister’s disappearance, heard Cally barking, making him realize that he only saw two of his siblings and not the third. He frantically dove under the water, and saw Chiara under the raft, being thrown around by the waves and undertow combatting the rafts presence. Giles grabbed his little sister, and threw her onto the raft, unconscious, she was dragged in as Landon went to get help.
As my next door neighbor, a retired orthopedic surgeon, and lifetime sailor performed CPR, the aero-medical helicopter buzzed above and Chiara was eventually airlifted to the hospital an hour after she was pulled out of the water. Two days later, on Saturday, July 19th, 2008, Chiara passed away on life support at the age of 9.
The news of this catastrophe, as it unfolded over the three days, was one of the most straining and confusing times in my life at such a young age. After learning of the news on the dock that beautiful morning, I remember praying for the first time in my life on my own in my bed that evening. It was all too much for me to handle, one of my first friends in my life, taken away from me at such a young age.
While the loss of Chiara is something that I frequently think about to this day, it is what came after the loss that really changed my life, for the better. Growing up my relationship with my Father, and my brothers relationship with my father was strong to say the least, or at least I thought. My Dad had always had an appreciation for us, but the loss of Chiara, a close family friend taken away in the blink of an eye, really flipped a switch for my dad. I had bonded with my Dad a lot up until then, fishing, him taking me to hockey games, and just being around him from day to day. The loss changed something though, there was more love and affection he showed for us, he started to be around us more, and looking at it from my perspective today, I realize that he realized that he took us boys for granted up until that day. My father, at the time worked at his family business on the weekends sometimes so he could take Tuesday off during the week. After Chiara, he never worked a single weekend again, he wanted to be around us, he wanted to spend time with us and share his love for us. He began planning more trips, started to be more involved in our everyday life, making it his goal to not just be around his kids, but to appreciate us.
For me, the loss of Chiara was a blessing in disguise. Today, my Father still goes above and beyond his Fatherly duties to ensure he does not take us for granted. While I’d give anything to have Chiara still on this earth today, I believe everything happens for a reason, I know she would still be one of my closest friends to this day. Time goes by, and as I grow older, being far away from my Dad while at school, I know his kids are the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up in the morning. Even if I go a couple of days of not contacting him, or vice versa, I know that I am still on his mind, his new level of appreciation for the three of us goes unmatched, the support and endless love he gives to us does not go unnoticed. To take a lesson from this loss, was one of the biggest changes in my life to this day, and I cannot do anything for my Father to show him my gratitude for the change he made to better my life, even more so than it already was. What I can do and what I have taken away from this life lesson, is to appreciate my Father in the same way he appreciates me, but that goes far beyond just my father. It reaches to my mother, my brothers, my extended family, and all of those around me. With loss, I believe in time, there becomes an eventual gain, by taking no one in your life for granted, even those that you see everyday, you start to appreciate yourself more. To realize that life is a blessing with difficult lessons in your life path, it is for the sole purpose of bettering yourself and those around you.
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