Body Surfing, Birth, and Death

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“Never turn your back on a wave. Jump over, dive under, or ride a wave until the water is so shallow that you skin your knees, but never turn your back on a wave.” This was my Dad’s sterling advice after I nearly drowned playing in the surf. 

When I was six, my family moved to Rancho Palos Verdes, California.  Several beaches were within a fifteen to thirty minute drive from our home. Our favorite spot was Avenue I, Redondo Beach. It had easy access from the street, showers that wouldn’t take the skin off with the sand, fine textured, not too gravelly sand, and the shore sloped gently into the water.  The tang of sea spray mixed with the scent of tanning lotion and fragrant ice plant flowers. 

My first visit to the beach became a game of “keep-away”—keep away from Daddy so that I could keep away from the water. He finally caught me and convinced me to get at least my feet wet. He took my hand and we jumped over the frothy edge of each breaker where it sizzled over the hot sand.  We ran after the water as it retreated and then tried to keep the incoming wave from tagging us. Eventually, my father had me waist-deep in the foaming green water, my skin slick and gritty from salt and sand.

With time I learned to swim out farther into the water and body surf.  First, I had to overcome my fear of strange creatures that might lurk beneath the surface. My friends and I exchanged stories of stinging jellyfish and hungry sharks. We dug for tiny sand crabs that swam in the mud under our sandcastles.  We saw hundreds of harmless sand crabs but never a shark and only once a helpless jellyfish washed ashore in a tangle of seaweed.  My comfort level grew and I ventured further and further into the water, throwing my body against the crashing waves. Later, I learned to conserve energy by diving below the breakers.  Sometimes, while floating in the rolling swells, waiting for the right wave, I searched the sandy bottom with my feet to find the telltale bump of a sand dollar and grip it with my toes.  Some would still be alive, a velvety purple, others were empty shells blanched white, a delicate flower design etched in the porcelain surface.

Catching a wave and riding all the way to shore takes patience and precise timing.  I watched each swell for the perfect moment to turn, and swim furiously toward the shore; hoping to catch the curl at just the right point, avoiding either a disappointing floater, or a terrifying pounding.  

“Here it comes, wait…wait…now…swim.”

The wave would lift me and carry me along its crest.  The churning water suspended my skinny, fragile body and propelled me, roaring onto the beach.  The power of the wave was, for a brief moment, mine.  

That power would serve me years later in the landlocked city of Provo, Utah, when I gave birth to my first child.  As the due date approached, I tried to imagine what labor would be like. I watched fearfully and joyfully for the first signs.  Anticipation and dread were replaced with carefully practiced conditioned responses as early labor slipped away, and I struggled to manage the relentless volcanic explosions wracking my body. All the studying and practicing of Lamaze exercises had not prepared me for the intensity of the sensations as my body readied itself for expelling the infant inside me.  The book said not to just lie in bed. I walked, knelt, leaned on the wall, and finally chose to sit cross-legged on the bed. Relax. Relax. Breathe. Relax. Breathe.

Nurses made concentrating nearly impossible as they took my blood pressure, demanded urine, poked for blood—a string of insensitive interruptions.  Finally, I was left undisturbed, relaxing, laboring: cleansing breath, deep chest breathing, up a gradual curve over the top and down the slope, cleansing breath.  A machine tethered to my belly registered the onset and shape of each contraction. But I felt them first: an almost imperceptible flutter of discomfort, then tightness across the top of my inflated uterus pushing down, cramping around the bottleneck of the cervix pulling up, thinning, dilating and gripping with a saw-toothed steel band of pain.  

As labor progressed the intensity of the pain didn’t increase, just the length of time it lingered.  The peak of each contraction grew longer. The book said not to call it pain. Relax and condition your mind so that contractions will not automatically call up feelings of pain.  Labor is work, not pain. The rhythmic surges pressed from the diaphragm, advanced down the belly, marched through the intestines, and strained open and out through the upside-down mouth of the volcano of my uterus.

 I had forgotten to bring an object or picture to use as a focal point as I relaxed, something to keep my mind from wandering into panic, to help me stay in control.  But a focal point did come to me. It was well ingrained in the memory of muscle and bone. Each contraction must be prepared for, watched for, and caught at the right moment and ridden like a wave…

“Bobbing lightly on the water, my body is supported and relaxed by the surface of the ocean.  I am lifted up, then dropped back on my feet by the wind driven swells. A ripe swell rises, sucking water, building an overpowering green glass wall.  Along the top a white ruffle emerges, the wall bends, and its smooth curl spills into the pull of the earth. Swim too soon and you float over the top. Swim too late and the wave swallows and wrings you out.  Be patient, wait…wait… now turn and swim. The wave pulls me into its roots and propels me up and forward, foam churning around my ears. The ride ends as the wave spreads across the sand, shallow, spent…as I am spent, but the baby is finally here.  The power of the wave is mine again.”

When I was six we visited friends in El Segundo where beaches are surrounded by rocking oil pumps and blasted by jet traffic.  We went to a beach called Playa Del Rey. It sounded like “a place to play.” While the adults set out the picnic, I wandered down to the water.  With a bucket and shovel I molded turrets for a sandcastle, dug a moat, and watched it fill with seawater. I coated my legs and arms with grime. Splashing and kicking to wash myself, I slowly waded further and further into the water.

I followed the angle of the tide and it drew me several yards south of the picnic area.  As I turned toward the shore to locate my family, a breaker washed over me, knocking me to my knees.  The ocean-bound water sucked me further out. Undertow. Riptide. Those words summon a picture in my mind of my father running down the beach into the water and my arms futilely extended to him, my skinny legs too weak to escape the siphon pulling me down the slope into the mouth of the sea.

Before my father could reach me, another breaker rolled me over and over like a pebble in a rock polisher.  I couldn’t tell where up was through the turbulent sand and water. Where was air? My lungs were desperate for breath when Daddy finally yanked me out of the surf and carried me to the nearest shower.  

Swimsuit, hair, and skin were drowned in sand.  I received a stinging scrub and an urgent lecture about paying attention to my surroundings, and always keeping my eyes on the waves.  Bundled in a towel, cradled in my father’s lap, I shivered uncontrollably until I fell asleep. This was the first time it ever occurred to me that my life, or anyone’s could easily and suddenly end.  

The ocean nurtures a rich variety of invisible life in its soupy waters, life that occasionally works a peculiar display of death.  Red tide arrives in Southern California with a stench that clears the usually croweded beaches. My dad explained that a shift of the ocean currents hundreds of miles away causes the water temperature to rise drastically.  This warmth disrupts the normal balance. Protozoans overpopulate and taint the water with secretions that poison other marine life. This bloom gives the surf a reddish hue and the smell of death. After dark, Dad and I walked along the strand and watch the fluorescent sea foam ignited by microscopic life.  Microbes stimulated by the churning water, gave off an eeery greenish light. A couple of times on warm summer nights, we went bodysurfing in the tepid rusty breakers. Every stroke of our arms and splash of our legs invoked a glow: ghostly waves haunted by luminous human wraiths. We relished the deserted beach and bathed in the mystery of red tide.

Many miles inland from the tidal pools and beaches that I explored with my Dad, after bodysurfing through the birth of three more children and going home to share grandpa’s beaches with them, I found a new need for the imagery of the wave.  On Memorial Day 1987, at some point along I-15 outside Scipio, Utah, my parent’s van left the highway, slammed into an embankment, and burst into flames. When I was informed of the accident and death of my loved ones, there was no time to conjure up a metaphor for those words, “they were both killed.”  The wave was simply there: unrestrained, unstoppable. I felt it swelling in my intestines, ripping through my diaphragm, smothering the breath in my throat, and receding only to rise again and again with unrelenting power. It towered above and inside me.

I thought I would ride it out.  I thought life should have prepared me for this crisis.  I had been so lucky, blessed; it was only fair that I have my turn to suffer.  Tragedy had finally caught up with me. After all, I had been taught many sweet clichés about what death brought to those who passed on.   But my superficial understanding only led me to turn my back on grief and let it overpower me.

At first the wave rose up in every unoccupied moment and unfilled hour.  So I avoided inactivity. Workouts at the gym, volunteer work at the school, phone calls to friends, church work, shopping: all normal activities.  However, I packed life full obsessively. I fled from quiet thought-filled moments. Contemplation brought no peace, only the surge and impact of the wave.  The endless minutes of silent darkness before sleep were the most painful. It took continual busyness to push the wave out of consciousness, to avoid the repeated physical wrenching of the incessant emotional tsunami.

I assumed that I could ride the wave, or dive under it—sidestep pain, and escape drowning.  The moment I said, “I can handle this,” I was sucked into the undertow and pinned to the ocean floor.  I became a bottom dweller gazing up through the murky light. I thought I could still see, breathe, move, live: that my life would simply go on.  But I was suffocating. Like the fragile sand dollar the shell of myself remained, but the creature that existed before my parent’s death was gone.  Without these loved ones taking up their intricate place in the ecosystem of my being, I had ceased to exist as the same person. Cut off from the familiar coastline of my former life, I moved in the viscous dream-motion under the wave.

Childbirth required that I maintain carefully choreographed control.  I could ride that wave with just the right responses of relaxation, breathing, and pushing.  But there is no handbook of conditioned responses for grieving. The stages wash over you unannounced and undefined.  And there is no concrete reward to anticipate at the end. Grief seems endless.

To survive the wave of grief, I had to let go.  I had to let go of control and get hysterical weep and mourn with abandon.  I had to mourn hundreds of imagined futures that now would no longer include my parents.  I had to face the wave of pain: touch it, taste it, wade and then bathe in it. I had to talk and talk and talk and talk about thousands of griefs that were part of the loss of my parents.  But that wasn’t all. This enormous loss dredged up hundreds of submerged ones that needed healing. The broken flotsam and jetsam of my life rode in on the tide and revealed itself unbidden and would no longer be ignored.

Finally, I had to go back to the labor of birth.  The birth of a new me. Perhaps that is the most frightening thing about grieving.  Deep down inside we know that we have been shaken to the core and can never, ever go back to being the same person we once were.  This requires an enormous amount of work. Sometimes we think we will never have enough energy to do all that work.  

Now, more than a decade and a half later, I feel the tide of grief keenly.  Having once had that enormous breaker let loose, I do not grieve gently anymore.  But having turned my back on it, and then bathed in it, ridden it to great depths and heights, I would not want to be the person I was before.  I keep learning how to harness the power of the wave, to be born again and again, even though I may never reach the shore

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