I should have taken the hint the first time I tried to get into the surf, paddling furiously over the breaking waves that keep coming. Each wave I made it over a victory. At one point I even thought I was getting somewhere, only to turn around and see the shore still so close, the other surfers watching the waves. To feel the sand with my foot, telling me I had covered no ground. The ocean had effectively spit me back out. I walked north along the beach a few yards and stood watching the waves, trying to see a way in that didn’t look like I would get pummeled or totally exhausted just trying to get beyond the break.
I hadn’t gone into the water the day before. I couldn’t make up my mind and kept waiting for the tide to change something, something in me, something in the water to call me in. Sometimes the greed of wanting a surfing fix, the bodily high of being in the water, gliding down wave after wave makes for poor judgment or massive indecision. Even though I had stopped to surf on the drive down, my decision not to get in the next day felt like a cop out, driven by fear and uncertainty.
I wanted to get back into my surfing groove so badly. In the last year and a half, since my son died, I could not get into the water. I could not access the solace I knew it would bring me. I was inert with grief. I could not find the energy to load my car with my surf box, filled with a wetsuit, booties, wax and sunscreen, much less strap my board onto the top of my car, something I use to do almost without thinking, rushing like a dog ready for a walk. Now I was mostly numb, every cell in my body shocked, igniting with sorrow every morning as I woke up and re-realized he was dead.
I had stopped on the way down south at San Onofre State beach, an old long board break. The park ranger station was closed, which I took as a good sign. I drove down the rutted road and turned the corner to waves breaking everywhere around the point. It was late in the day, the wind was up but coming from the SE so it was perfect the young guy parked next to me said, smiling when I told him I had driven down from San Francisco. “You smoke pot then, I hear the pot there is woooh, everyone smokes.”
I laughed and told him I was clean and sober. His face fell a tiny bit, but then he told me, ‘That’s good, keep it up.’
I got in and caught a couple waves as the sun began to drop, the water was warm compared to up north. My pop up was sloppy, relying on that intermediate pause on my knees before standing that I used to judge as inferior in other surfers. Here I was crawling up to standing, smiling without even knowing it. The sunset sky was beautiful and the afternoon session cleared away the long drive and gave me a little confidence that I could still surf, even if my form sucked.
As I stood watching the waves at Cardiff a man came up to me and said, “If you’re looking for a way in you might want to paddle over by the lifeguard tower and then head out that way. It’s a little less brutal that way.” He had appeared out of nowhere and started talking into my ear like he knew a secret, like he was the one who knew what I wanted to know to get me safely into the water.
For some reason I took his sudden appearance as a good omen rather than a foolish one, again the greed welling up in my body looking for a way to get what I wanted from the ocean, never a good idea. Why wasn’t he getting in? He said something about a bad ankle and walked away. I watched a little longer and once I saw an opening I quickly started paddling, trying to get somewhere between the sets. I paddled out towards the lifeguard tower like the mystery guy suggested. I was getting out past the break and feeling a little confident. I paused to figure which direction to go when a wave came rolling towards me. I tried to go over the top of it with my board but its force surprised me as it knocked my board straight up in the air. I dove down into the water, letting my board to go, my ankle pulling hard where the leash was attached. I popped back up to the surface and quickly got back on my board trying to get some traction paddling out before the next wave came. I decided to paddle north and the waves kept coming with little or no break between.
I looked at the shore to see if I could ride in on the whitewater of one of the waves without getting too close to the cliff but the current was pulling me over and towards the shore, even closer to the cliffs. More waves broke over my head. I barely had time to get back on my board before another one was on top of me. The next wave that came pushed me down and held me there. I couldn’t figure out where the surface was as my body spun around. I opened my eyes to try and see the sky and watched myself as I took in a mouth full of water. I had reflexively opened my mouth for air, suddenly understanding how you drown, trying to breathe from muscle memory, take something in and hoping it is air. I managed to pop up to the surface and frantically looked round. I saw the cliffs now even closer and I saw a line of rocks that if I could get over to them I would probably be safe. I knew the tide was dropping and more shore would appear. I let the waves push me, mildly hoping my board would not be too damaged by the rocks, but not caring much by then, I just wanted to be out of the water.
I don’t remember exactly how I got onto the rocky lip of the cliff, only that I made it to standing position and my board was still in one piece, although I didn’t look for damage closely, my hands shaking too much to examine it, I felt too traumatized to care. I could look later, when I was safe in the parking lot, having successful avoided a coast guard rescue.
I was shaken and embarrassed at how I badly misread the surf and my own ability. I had only surfed maybe a handful of times since my son died. I was out of shape and I wanted something that I wasn’t going to find in the ocean. He was gone and yet so present in an unreachable and painful way, which I was coming to realize is how grief is. When you lose a child, it is never, ever, over or better. It is just different, the volume of grief oscillates but it does not leave, nor should it. It is the new normal of your being. Once I realized that its pain was part of my new reality, accepting its presence was even a little helpful, sort of like getting diagnosed with cancer, but being told it was the good kind of cancer. There was nothing to be done to alleviate the bodily pain of the loss of my son and to try to be better or over it was just asking for the grief and denial to come out sideways. This realization gave me something to hold onto. I was irrevocably changed and I was still here, in this world with a fearsome and beautiful ocean and clouds, and death.
I stood there holding my board underneath my arm, panting and coughing as I looked out at the waves, the water that I tried to breath in making its way back up in rough, barking coughs. I knew I had to get calm and stay positive, fear was not going to be helpful in paddling back to the shore.
I watched the surf, remembering how high the water was on the beach even at a low tide this time of year. I knew I eventually would have to get back in to the water and paddle around the cliff I was perched on and please God, make it back onto the beach. I tried to quiet myself, saying a few prayers, calling out to my son, calling him forth as some kind of comfort, remembering his sweet young face, cheeks red with the summer heat as he proudly ran towards me with a frog he’d caught at his grandmother’s house. I saw his tall lanky man body, the scolding he would have given me, laughing at my predicament and calling me mama, something he rarely did near the end. Then I saw him dead, collapsed in the bathroom with a needle in his arm. When I reach this point I usually stop trying to see him, the fantasies taking a bad turn. I started talked to him that morning from where ever he might be now, watching me and shaking his head. The images fall away and it is just he and I, intangibly connected and stubbornly drifting at the same time.
My body stopped shaking and I keep watching the waves, looking for a lull between the punishing sets. I was waiting for my nerves to collect as much as I was waiting for the tide to drop enough for me to get back in the water, something I did not want to do. Finally I thought I saw my chance and I jumped down onto the rocks, which were smooth and round, the size of oranges and grapefruits, clattering loudly with each in and out of the waves. I hadn’t factored the rocks in as a problem if there was no breaking wave pushing them but as I stepped onto the rocks I was knocked down immediately by the undertow, my foot sinking ankle deep into the clattering rocks, my board flipping in the air and then down onto the rocks. I quickly looked out at the surf and grabbed my board as it landed near me. I hopped up on it and start to paddle hard, first straight out and then over, south towards the beach and the parking lot.
Turns out the beach was just around the cliff not nearly as far as I imaged as I waited there on the cliff stranded and sure I would die alone, trembling, feeling the wet rock wall crumble as I touched it for balance. I kept left and soon was able to touch the bottom with my foot, the sensation a ripple of relief pulsing through my entire body. I let the tide push me further in, lying sideways on my board, my feet keeping track of the ground. I was so relieved to step out of the surf, apologetic and humbled once again by the ocean, the boss, the queen, who might have been trying to warn me when she spit me out the first time earlier that morning.
As I walked along the sand and reached the parking lot I felt a small numb twinge in my left foot. I looked down at my toes and saw that the toe next to my baby toe was limp and splayed wide like a V, dragging along not connecting with the rest of my toes as I walked. It was hard to tell if it hurt or if I could bend it as I was wet and dazed.
It must have happened when I fell into the rocks trying to get back onto my board, getting thrown around with the clattering stones. I definitely did not feel it happen. You usually didn’t need a doctor for a broken toe, you just had to wait for it to heal, maybe a using a little tape to keep the damaged toe stable. My stark relief already minimizing the dangerous position I had put myself in.
A limp toe was but a small price for the morning and what could have happened to me out there. I felt like a lucky woman and a foolish woman. Lost but still living, without my son, the thought of him truly gone still such a shock to me, only I realized that I was getting used to living in shock, with this particular state of shock. The shatteredness of my being becoming a part of me, the reformation happening in my body that does not deny the day he fell or the ocean who is still the queen.
Patsy Creedy lives in San Francisco, waiting with dread for the next wave of millionaires to arrive. She has an MA and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. She worked for many years as a labor and delivery nurse helping women have babies at UCSF. She has published poems in Transfer Magazine, Dragon’s Leap and Inlandia. She has published some nonfiction work and recently completed a memoir about her brother who died of alcoholism. She co-leads an occasional writer’s workshop, “Writing the Way,” at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a board member and speaker for several years at the SF Zen center for the Meditation and Recovery group that meets most Monday nights.