OCEAN CITY, N.J. — One summer day on the Seventh Street beach, Katie McShane was watching dolphins surface beyond the waves when the baby inside her began to kick. She had doubts about the man sitting beside her, but she guided his hand toward her belly anyway, so he could feel his baby kick too, so he could make a promise.
“The look on his face. He couldn’t believe it,” McShane, 42, recalled. “It was a moment. It was one of those times when I thought everything was going to be OK.”
That was July of 2008. Eric Van Horn was fresh out of an addiction treatment center. Katie had gotten clean about a year earlier and met Eric, a painter from Washington Township, Gloucester County, while they were both in recovery and going to 12-step meetings in Ocean City. Eric grew up vacationing there, surfing off of Seventh Street, fond memories from a happy childhood that bolstered his urge to get sober. Katie said Eric was tall, good-looking. The usual. She was flattered by his attention too, because she’d thought so little of herself for so long.
“What I liked about him,” she said, “is that he really liked me.”
Katie, now an ICU nurse, said she never quite fell in love with Eric. It was more like two broken people who crashed into each other and managed to create something better than themselves. Eric was in treatment at least twice during her pregnancy. She remembered him sweaty and yawning during a child-birthing class at a stranger’s home, trying to soak in the lessons. When he lingered too long in the bathroom, Katie grew angry.
“I just knew he was rummaging around in the bathroom cabinet,” she said.
In November of 2008, Katie had a planned C-section at Shore Memorial Hospital and, just as suddenly, had a panic attack, a surging fear that she’d be doing it all alone. But Eric was there, beside her in the hospital, and something the birthing instructor said must have sunk in: “If she gets scared, talk about the baby. That’s how you’re going to get her through it.”
And that’s what he did. Soon, Sadie Rose joined them.
“Whose eyes do you think she’s going to have? Do you think she’s going to have big feet? Do you think she’ll be smart like you, or good with her hands like me?”
The moment still makes Katie laugh.
“Honestly, he was just making things up and it worked,” she said. “He wanted to be a good dad, he really did.”
Eric was in and out of Sadie’s life early on, then mostly out. He spent more time in treatment centers, in detox facilities, and prison, and homeless shelters over the last 10 years. Mother and daughter live together in Gloucester City, in a home by the swim club. Four years ago, Katie took Sadie to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission to see her father. She’d always been open with her daughter about his illness, but it was difficult, a day they both think about often. That was the last time Sadie saw him.
“Generally speaking, she’s not shy, but she was shy that day. He seemed like a stranger, so she wouldn’t talk to him directly. Instead, she would whisper things to me, for me to ask him.” Katie recalled. “There is no manual for this.”
Still, when she got the phone call at work in April, a call she’d always imagined she’d get, Katie found her armor wasn’t so thick.
“I just started sobbing and people asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I couldn’t answer them,” she said. “I’m still surprised by my own reaction.”
Katie had grown accustomed to matter-of-fact discussions with both Eric and his mother, with whom she was close. She ironed out insurance policies and power-of-attorney to benefit Sadie, and promised Eric’s mother, before she died, that she would handle her son’s arrangements when he died. Eric’s addiction had burned many bridges. He was estranged from his brother. Still, Katie made a grim promise to him one day, over burritos in Northfield.
“You know I’m going to be the one who has to bury you" she told Eric. “No one else will.”
Eric knew she was right. He wanted to be cremated, though, his ashes spread in Ocean City, in the water off his favorite beach. Katie bought Eric socks and underwear and never saw him again. Eric died of an overdose on April 3. He was found in a bathroom stall at a flea market in Tampa, Fla. The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office shipped his cremated remains to Katie, and she made plans to keep that promise.
“I feel like part of recovery is having integrity and doing the right thing for the right reasons, even when no one is watching,” Katie said. “The person who is watching me the hardest is this kid. I don’t know how much she’ll think about the day now, but I’m not doing it for 10-year-old Sadie. I’m doing it for 25-year-old Sadie, for 60-year-old Sadie."
On a Saturday morning in June, the day before Father’s Day, Katie and Sadie walked across the Seventh Street beach in Ocean City, toward the water. They stepped gingerly along the jetty, avoiding the green, slimy rocks. Katie held her daughter’s hand and clung to Eric’s cremated remains in a biodegradable package with the other. The tide was high and going out.
It would have been his 40th birthday.
Katie and Sadie stepped closer to the water. Katie crouched down, face to face with Sadie, and the wind and waves covered up their words, whatever a mother would say to a daughter in a moment like that. They tossed the package in and it floated for a few seconds. Then it sank down, into the dark sea.
Afterward, they walked along the surf alone for a few minutes.
Sadie sat in the sand, making angel wings with her arms and Katie asked her if there was anything she wanted to say. Sadie whispered something about heaven.
No dolphins appeared in the water. The sun couldn’t find a way through the clouds above. Sadie’s eyes were the bluest thing on the beach that morning, pale and rimmed with a hint of yellow, just like her father’s.