MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – Her love for the Grand Strand and its seashells brought Burnsville, W.V. native Debbie Brown to Myrtle Beach for a weekend visit.
The shell she found on this particular trip will undoubtedly never be forgotten. It was a metaphorical message in a bottle, carrying with it remembrances of a tiny infant who never got to take his first breath.
Brown found the shell on the beach near the 8th Avenue Tiki Bar and Grill. Written on it in black marker was the name "Grayson," the date "3-4-17" and the link to a website.
"I immediately went to my chair to look up the page, thinking a school-aged child was doing this to see how far his shell had traveled and (I) wanted to let him know that I found it and bring some joy to him," Brown said. "Needless to say, that wasn't the case."
Grayson is actually Grayson Ellis Starcher, who was born at 1:45 p.m. on March 4, 2017 to Yorktown, Va. residents Sarah Elizabeth Hall and her fiancé, Jeffrey Starcher.
Hall carried Grayson for six months before giving birth to him following three days of labor. He weighed 1 pound, 5 ounces and was 11 inches.
"He was actually dead in my stomach for three days," Hall said.
It was months earlier, when the parents-to-be went to learn the sex of the baby, that they were told Grayson was missing chromosome 3 and had an enlarged heart that took up a third of his chest capacity.
Doctors prepared the two for the worst.
"They told us we could abort him or go along with it, and I chose to give him a chance," Hall said.
After Grayson was stillborn, Hall's stepmother took photos of her, Starcher and the infant. One of them now hangs on a portion of the wall dedicated to the couple's child, which also features his birth certificate, hand and footprints, and his ashes.
According to Hall, her mother-in-law talked to members of a group called Stories of Babies Born Still about Grayson. One of them turned out to be a member of an online community that remembers "all babies gone too soon" by adorning their names on seashells.
"When I read all about it and the real meaning behind it, my heart just completely felt full," Brown said. "I wasn't happy. I wasn't sad. I just felt fulfilled."
A Facebook page, called Memorial Sea Shell Sign In, has posts going back at least three years that show seashells found on Florida, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina and South Carolina beaches. Many, it turns out, were discovered in the sands of Myrtle Beach.
With Grayson's personalized seashell in hand, Brown took what she called a "long shot" in the hopes of tracking down his parents.
On Sunday, she posted a picture of the seashell to Facebook and a note encouraging everyone to share it so that Grayson's parents "know that he was found."
By early Thursday morning, Brown's post had more than 13,000 shares and over 3,400 reactions.
Hall was alerted to Brown's discovery on Tuesday.
"I didn't even expect anybody to find it," she said. "It was just a shock that somebody found it."
The two corresponded on Facebook and now Grayson's seashell is on its way home, to be with his mom and dad.
Hall is still in shock over the discovery and can't wait to have this one-of-a-kind memento of her son in her possession.
"I am so excited. We both are," she said Wednesday night.
After what she said has been a "very difficult few years" for her and her family, Brown felt she was meant to find the seashell and get it to its rightful owners.
She considers it a "pay-it-forward gesture" after all the kindness that has been shown to her during difficult times.
"I told Sarah that I would see to it that Grayson's shell got back home to her, where it rightfully belonged," Brown said.
Whether by land or sea, that's now where it's headed.