Dreaming of Blue Skies: David Magee

David Magee

Dreaming of Blue Skies: David Magee
Photos By Wes Frazer + Nicola Harger

Some of David Magee’s fondest recollections are of his young children, years ago, running along the white-sand beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast. Hallie, Hudson, and William, all framed like a photograph within the innocence of youth and under the banner of an endless horizon that made all things feel possible. A core memory, dreamlike, almost.

“Those times were representative of perhaps our happiest moments as a family,” David says, his eyes pressed closed tightly, his head turned away, turned upward, the remnants of pain etched into his features. Almost as if behind those eyes he sees pure joy: his children in the waves, still running, all three, under forever blue skies. Almost as if, were he to keep them closed, he might hold them, all three, still.

That blissful memory has made itself manifest in his journey as a husband, a father, and now as a grandfather as he and his family have now joyfully made it back to that same piece of coastline, even in spite of unthinkable loss.

“I often reference something Maya Angelou spoke about. How you really haven’t been anywhere until you’ve crawled across the floor,” David reflects. “And that’s our journey, and unfortunately, the journey of so many others.”

In the spring of 2013, David Magee found himself on the floor, brought to his lowest, as he held the phone in his hand, telling his wife, Kent, on the other end of the line that their son, William, was gone, his life lost to an accidental drug overdose.

A vision shattered. A loss unspeakably profound.

Finding Clarity in the Face of Profound Loss

William Magee, at the time of his graduation from the University of Mississippi, had a resume that any parent would be proud of. A graduate of a prestigious college preparatory school in Chattanooga, Tennessee; an excellent student throughout his four years in the Ole Miss Honor’s College; and a letterman in track and field, having competed in the 400 meter hurdles during the Southeastern Conference Championship meet.

Bright, determined, and beloved, the young man who had “everything going for him” still held within him an undercurrent of anxiety and a genetic predisposition for addiction that ultimately played a part in his tragic death.

“When you find your son dead, you can go one of two ways with that. You could say, ‘This is it, this is the end of us.’ And I think people would understand that. Or you can double down on pulling your family together. 

And that’s what we did. We threw down the gauntlet and said, ‘We will protect our family. Our family time. Our memories we have together. We’ll protect who we are together more than anything else.’” 

They would reclaim and rebuild their dream, a life of purpose and ultimately a life of joy, together. They would lean into the beautiful memories of the past, of their dear William, and they would march forward, determined to find more beauty in the days ahead. At the backbone of that reclamation was building a life together at Alys Beach.

“I needed creative space to do this challenging work,” he says. “And Alys Beach is the most creative and supportive place I’ve found. Both the people and the environment, but even more so, there’s just a feeling you get when you’re here.”

Dear William 

“In those early days after William died, my wife began to see this dream-in-picture, as we started to emerge, of having this place that brought the whole family together. Our children who survived looked like they were going to be marrying soon, we had this picture of three generations of our family together. Even though our family was completely shattered, we had this image of it coming back together and strangely, a part of us reclaiming that dream was a house at Alys Beach.” 

In 2014, just months after losing William, they gathered at Alys Beach in search of a home. The legacy of family at Alys Beach—a community named for and inspired by the matriarch of the Stephens family—was clear to the Magees from the first time they visited the town. Though it would be another four years, and a bit of kismet, before they established their home at Alys Beach, it seemed as if it had been laid before them as part of their journey the whole time. 

It was here that they would revive their family and tell their story—and for David, an accomplished author, that story is one he knew he must tell with brutal honesty. It was one of heartache and hope in the form of his memoir, Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss. 

Alys Beach was David’s creative backdrop as he wrote the book, supporting him as he worked through his own history of trauma, addiction, warning signs unseen, loss, and ultimately, joy. 

“I needed creative space to do this challenging work,” he says. “And Alys Beach is the most creative and supportive place I’ve found. Both the people and the environment, but even more so, there’s just a feeling you get when you’re here.” 

David describes his creative process as he wrote Dear William at Alys Beach. He liked to start early in the morning with fresh, clean thoughts. A cup of coffee and a walk around town, pausing to overlook the Gulf, meditating on things of truth and beauty, and having life breathed into him with every “hello” from a friend, every inspired detail of architecture and nature. With a clear mind and a prepared heart, he would then head home to write. 

“Every time I settled into my nook to write, it was like blue skies were at my fingertips. In my upstairs bedroom I sat on a daybed that looked out the window. It was white all around me. Out my windows I saw the greenery of Arboleda Park, and the stair-stepped rooftops, and behind it all, those skies,” he says. 

“It felt like I was writing in a cloud. I had to write about a lot of deep and heavy topics. I had to write about how we emerge from that, and so I couldn’t get stuck in the sorrow. I really had to take myself back to the darkest days, and I think if I hadn’t been in such a supportive environment, I don’t know that I could have done it,” David explains. 

“Writing at Alys Beach helped me go deeper, and it helped me to articulate the depth of the ending joy. I knew I was changing my writing career as I wrote. I knew I was doing something important here. I wrote this to change and improve lives—to tell the story of the pain and suffering of a family, but more important, the healing of a family.” 

David explains that when he was a young writer, he knew he wanted to write a book that would improve lives and tell a story that mattered. It was always important to him that his work had meaning, but before he lost William, he didn’t have the full depth of human experience. 

The story David wrote at Alys Beach was indeed one of suffering, but most importantly, it is a story of hope and healing. 

Reclaiming the Dream

David admits that when he first arrived at Alys Beach in 2014, he and his family were finding their way back to their feet after great tragedy. But their journey to where they are now was shepherded in many ways by the place and people of Alys Beach. To David, Alys Beach—both the community and their family home—symbolizes his dream rebuilt, and the work the family has done to get there, together. 

“There’s a saying that family is the root of our socialization as humans. Because of that, family can be at the root of our pain. But it can also be at the root of our joy. And we chose joy. We were going to work and ensure the steps necessary to change the trajectory of our intergenerational family. And that’s the story I wrote. And one we’re still writing, in many ways.”

David describes seeing his living children as parents now, his grandchildren running through the powdery sands, as if it’s a memory relived and reformed. “It brings me to tears, gives me chill bumps really, every time I see my grandchildren at the beach. Our oldest grandchild’s favorite thing is get strapped in his seat on the back of my bike and to ride around and look at the houses.”

Times like these are abundant now for the Magee family. And David recognizes the absolute blessing it is to hear his grandchildren articulate back to him how meaningful this place is. It’s evidence of hard, often grueling work made real and true.

David and Kent are now building a new home at Alys Beach to house their growing family, and at the same time, they’re building loving and important memories for their family. The life they’ve built here symbolizes hope and three generations of healing and of breaking bread and of celebrating life together. Not surprisingly, the name of the Magee home at Alys Beach is “Blue Skies.”

“Kent named the home. It was the name of our first home at Alys Beach and then we carried it over to this home now, too. When we first got here, we’d been through such a heavy and dark time of loss, and we were bound and determined to move our family into a season where blue skies ruled the day. We made that decision, we drew a line in the sand, and we’ve done all we can to live up to that.”