The inevitable rolled over Brittany suddenly, when she saw Ben sitting on the ground of her home, playing with her 3-year-old daughter.
Skyla was struggling with something — mom doesn’t remember exactly what, though it hardly matters now.
“You can do anything,” he told the little girl. “You just have to try.”
“Awww,” Brittany remembers thinking. “I think he just won me over.”
HURRICANE MICHAEL: ‘We’re broken here.’ Mexico Beach reels in the aftermath of Michael
That was about nine months before the proposal. Eleven months before Hurricane Michael. A year until their wedding day, in a shattered square of wood and stone that was once their neighborhood, on the slab that was once their house, blocks from the waters of Mexico Beach.
• • •
Ben Parham is a firefighter. Brittany Medina is a police officer. Her corporal said they should date.
Cops don’t get with firefighters, she thought. Besides, she had come to Mexico Beach from Bainbridge, Ga., for peace. A fresh start.
That was about a year-and-a-half before she took his name.
Ben, 26, proposed to Brittany, 29, on a riverbank in Bainbridge, where her family had scattered her uncle’s ashes. They struggled to find the perfect location for the ceremony, flipping through different Florida state parks.
“We couldn’t really find one,” Brittany said. “And then the hurricane happened.”
• • •
Ben evacuated from Mexico Beach with Skyla the day before Hurricane Michael was supposed to hit the Panhandle. The forecast was getting worse.
They drove to Dothan, Ala., as Brittany circled the city with other officers, begging the holdouts to leave.
Her boss cut her loose. “We have nowhere safe,” he told the officer. “You’ve got to go.”
She went to Dothan to be with Ben and Skyla.
Hurricane Michael came ashore just west of their home city, a Category 4 that blasted the community of 1,200 with some of its strongest winds.
They waited for the storm to pass. Ben and Skyla stayed in the hotel.
Brittany grabbed line cutters and an ax and started to drive back.
• • •
It took 13 hours to make it to Mexico Beach. Somewhere around Blountstown, stuck in traffic, Brittany pulled over and began to cry.
It was hitting her. But the worst was still ahead.
Their house was a green two-story in a connected row of four. They had moved all of their valuables upstairs, thinking they might get a little water.
When Brittany returned she saw almost nothing. No upstairs. No downstairs.
Her daughter’s white bicycle, one tire bent. A toy chest, the back side cracked. Everything in piles, broken.
“Nope,” she thought. “It’s gone.”
She kept moving through the wreckage. “There wasn’t anything else to do.”
• • •
Skyla couldn’t understand why everything was gone.
“We told her the Big Bad Wolf blew everything away,” Brittany said.
The officer kept returning to the slab on her own. Brittany left things there, reasons to revisit. A bird bath, somehow unbroken. Random plates. A painting of the Mexico Beach Pier. Just enough to not say goodbye.
She and Ben decided last month they would get married there. A closing act in the place where they first became a couple.
“We’re going to say I do and that’s it,” she recalled thinking.
They would wear their uniforms.
• • •
Brittany and Ben told a neighbor, who would not stand for such a lack of pomp. The neighbor lobbied to help and recruited others, making the wedding a rallying point for the town.
Orlando photographer Cristy Nielsen had been going to Mexico Beach on her own and was in a parking lot when she heard of the wedding date. “Welp,” she said. “Sign me up.”
Folks donated a dress, a cake, flowers. Someone brought in a tractor to clear the pieces of granite countertop and other debris too heavy to move off the slab by hand. A man used cut up logs and leftover wood to make benches.
“Everybody that was there just donated everything,” Nielsen said.
“You just show up to your wedding,” Brittany recalls being told. “We’ll have it all done.”
• • •
Brittany walked up the road Saturday toward what used to be her house, dressed in white.
Ben waited on the slab in his heavy fire suit.
One of their emergency radios was perched on a recovered night stand, beside a piece of decorative wrought iron she thinks belonged to a neighbor.
About 50 people showed up — mostly fellow city workers and family members.
“We literally invited the whole entire city,” Brittany said. “Come and actually smile. Have a good day. Because we haven’t had a lot of good days.”
The caterer later told her she had once pulled him over. He said she was pretty nice.
Under her tattered black, white and blue police flag — recovered by some National Guardsmen after the storm — she and Ben were married. You could see the water from the ceremony.
Brittany's mother sat in what used to be a room they knew well.
It seemed smaller without walls, but that was the spot.
Brittany remembers Ben lying there, stretched across the ground, telling Skyla:
“You can do anything, you just have try.”
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.