There is an island in South Carolina that is like home to our family.
It's a quiet island with egrets that perch in the tree outside our condo. Spanish moss drapes over trees like a wedding gown just because it can.
Dolphins play in the waters near the condo, and palmetto trees dot the main thoroughfares.
I first stepped onto this island as a teenager. Now I come with a husband of nearly 18 years. Our three girls are there, too, fiercely blazing their way through childhood.
The island is peace. It is home. It is watching the sun rise from the beach, and later, as it falls behind the creek.
Each day, we made our way to the largest public beach for practical reasons: good bathrooms, excellent outdoor showers for washing sandy children and a super-awesome splash pad. The day we lost our daughter, I had never seen the beach so crowded on a 90-plus degree day. We unpacked our towels and snacks, dropped sandals and toys and headed to the water's edge.
We followed a script: play in the ocean, swim out with Mom; Dad plays with the toddler on the beach; chase crabs; head to the cooler for cold grapes and CapriSun; play with cousins; swim back out in the waves with Dad.
Between us, there were four sober, conscientious adults and five kids under nine.
Finally, it was time to head back to the condo for lunch. The timing is important: leave while everyone is smiling and not burned. Not too hungry, not too thirsty. Walk back up to the towels, the cooler, the---
And she was gone. Our nine year old girl. The one with the honey hair that glows. Round green eyes. A little girl in an old soul's mind. The firstborn child.
I noticed it first, although Jonathan was also starting to turn around. Where was she?
"We all walked out of the water together," I kept saying. I said this over and over.
I whirled around and it was like a bad movie where the reckless parent loses a child. But she was right behind me. We left the water together. We walked on the sand toward the coolers and towels, but she never arrived.
I kept turning around. Over and over. Scanning the water, the sand, the hordes of vacationers who crowded around us. The beach was a roar of color and heat and sand. There was no daughter.
Jonathan took off for the splash pad and bathrooms. Maybe our responsible first child seized on an inexplicable desire to wander off and explore. My mother's heart knew this wasn't true. She would not leave us, not at nine.
My sister and her husband joined the search. We had four other littles at our feet, each child wandering their own snaky little paths nearby. I kept looking down at them. Don't lose another one, I told myself. I started to shake and had trouble swallowing. Images of evil leading our girl off the beach came into my head.
And then He surrounded me with love. His presence. His comfort.
When I am at my most stressed or joyous, I find that is when I am the most aware of the Lord's nearness. He promises to be there, especially for those who are staggering under the heaviness of life. There on that beach, I felt what would be most described as "being held" but it's more than that.
Trusting through faith in Jesus is not a promise that everything will be sunshine and roses. But everything about Jesus is hope. He is the resetting of this tilted planet. He is relationships restored. He is bodies mended. Jesus is hope over and over, spilled out in an everlasting embrace.
Our girl returned, suddenly emerging from the crowds of people on the sand. She was unable to talk about it at first. And then the tears came and the explanation: as she walked out of the water with her family, she kept her head down, absorbed in a nine-year-old's fantasy life. She kept walking, eyes on the sand, until she was far away from us. When she looked up, she realized that she was lost.
After that day, a day when my arm wrapped around her body tightly every so often, just because I could, I saw a picture in my mind of a young girl, lost among strangers. While her earthly family panics and whirls in the sand, her Father in heaven sees her like there's no one else. His eye is on her; there is love as he looks upon the girl. With gentleness, he leads her back to that small patch of sand among thousands where her family is undone. And there is reunion.