Yesterday I took some me time. Drove down to the beach in south Miami somewhere... around 87th st. Parked my mom's car and dropped a few quarters in the meter. It was a weekday, so it was sparsely populated. I picked a spot in the sand and lay my towel out. The water was turquoise. And I'm not just saying that to be poetic. That was the color. Taking a short stroll down the beach, I quickly discovered that even though I knew the water would be cold, I had to get in it. Wearing a tank top and faded cut off sweat pants, (UT hand-me-downs from my daughter), I pulled off my shorts and headed into the water. Navy bikini panties and a tank top in Miami Beach go unnoticed.
I was right. The water was cold. It took my breath away, and I gasped. Then I laughed out loud. It was delightful! With only a slight hesitation, I plunged under the water. Full immersion. Aaaahhhhhh. Surfacing, I lifted my feet off the sandy bottom and floated with my arms outstretched. My toes, peeking out of the turquoise water, were white. I don't mean without a tan (although I do mean that too), I mean white like the white high rise condos in the background white. Shortly before blue lips and shivering, I returned to my warm towel in the sand.
My husband tells people, "No matter where we go, if there's a dog within a hundred miles, my wife will find it." What can say? I'm a dog person. It was a brindle boxer. A female. And she couldn't have been more than 6-8 months old. I was lying face down on my towel. Only a moment earlier, I had awakened from one of those drooling naps that are so satisfying. My eyes opened only enough to see what was directly in my line of sight, body still quiet and unmoving, like the dead.
She was eyeing the beach, looking for a playmate. I purposefully lifted my head slightly off the towel, the movement catching her attention. We made eye contact. I smiled. Her puppy body got that strained "Let me go, daddy! I see a playmate!" look. Shaking the sleep off my sun-warmed skin, I got up and walked over. "Is your dog friendly?" I ask. "May I pet her?" The handsome young man reached out his hand in a firm gripped hand shake, introducing himself. "Captain Kevin Santana... Just got back from Afghanistan... 8 years."
"WOW! You've been gone 8 years?! That's a long time. Welcome home." I clasped my left hand over our handshake, "Thank you! Thank you for everything you do for our country." He smiled as he struggled with an over active boxer puppy. "My wife left me. I came home, and she's gone. I don't know where she is." His eyes half lidded, bloodshot. "Beer?" he asks as he reaches for another can from his knapsack. "No thanks... Wow. That's rough. You got any kids?" He takes a gulp, "We have a son. He's a year and a half. She took him with her."
What do you say to that? I offer meager words of recognition. His puppy, I discover, is named Gooch. "Does she like the water?", I ask. "My lab won't stay out of the water." "I'll show you", he says. "Watch this!", and he jumps up, unhooks her lead and runs into the water, calling her. She bounded after him, loving it.
I stayed about 20 more minutes in their company before I headed back to my mom's condo. In that short time, I learned he enlisted when he was 19 and is now 29. He was a Ranger, Special Ops, part of the K-9 unit. To this I replied, "I'm guessing you've seen some pretty horrible stuff." "Yeah. I don't even want to talk about it", and quickly changed the subject back to his absent wife. I asked him if he was going to find his son. "I'm gonna try", he answered.
"You married? Got kids?" I told him yes, that I had a daughter his age, and that I was in my second marriage. I told him this time around it was a good one, and that there was more joy to be had for him in his life, though I doubt from where he was sitting that seemed like a possibility. "I've never been to war and cannot begin to imagine what you've been through. But if there is one thing I can offer you at 54 it is this: I've learned that I always have a choice. I always get to choose how I respond to whatever is in front of me."
"So, tell me something good about your life right now." Without hesitation he responded, "I've got all my arms and legs." "YES!", I chimed in emphatically, "You've got all your arms and legs... and that's no small thing." I thought of him being Special Ops, K-9 unit. Bombs. No doubt there were some gruesome visuals mercilessly imprinted on his psyche. "Tell me another thing good about your life today, right now." He patted Gooch's hip as she lay curled in his lap, "I've got this." "Yes. You've got your sweet puppy. You've got all your arms and legs, and you've got your dog, the best companion."
A moment of silence passed as we sat there looking out over the horizon of an incredibly beautiful seascape. "What about this day? This amazingly beautiful sky and ocean." To which he paused and said, "I'd almost rather be back in Afghanistan with my men." "I've heard that", I said thoughtfully, "that it's tough for those who have been through the kind of thing you have been through, to make that transition." I sat there with him for a moment more, then said I'd better head back. "If you were staying, I'd take you to dinner", he said. "I'd be good company", I replied. "I think you would", and stuck out his hand. "Captain Kevin Santana", he repeated, and squeezed hard. I squeezed back, "It was good to meet you."
That was yesterday. Today is Veterans Day, and today I am thinking of Captain Kevin Santana and hoping he is allowing some joy in his life today.