Body Surfing, Birth, and Death

My father taught me to never turn my back on a wave. Dive under, jump over, ride a wave until the water is so shallow that you skin your knees. Still, never turn your back on a wave.

When I was six, my family moved to Palos Verdes, California. Several beaches were within a thirty-minute drive from our home. We tried many of them—Cabrillo, Hermosa, Lunada Bay, Redondo Beach—until we found the best one for swimming. The best beach had easy access from the street, showers that wouldn’t take the skin off with the sand, and the shore sloped gently into the water. Our favorite spot was Avenue I, Redondo Beach. Apartment buildings towered above steep pedestrian ramps that funneled the crowds onto the beach. The tang of sea spray mixed with the scent of tanning lotion, sun-baked bodies, and the ubiquitous fragrance of ice plant.

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. When he finally caught me, my dad convinced me to at least get my feet wet. He took my hand and we jumped over the frothy edge of each breaker as it came ashore and sizzled over the scorched sand. We ran toward the sea as it retreated and then turned back to keep the incoming wave from tagging us. Eventually, I was waist-deep in the foaming green water, my skin slick and gritty with salt and sand. My father’s clever method having dissolved my fears in the pleasures of surf and sand.

The waves at our beach attracted avid surfers. Flagged areas separated the surfboarders from the swimmers. Surfboards were longer and heavier back then. A loose board driven by the surf could be lethal. Body surfers beware.

I was ten years old when I first learned how to bodysurf. I first had to overcome my anxiety over strange creatures lurking beneath the surface. My friends and I would exchange horror stories about jellyfish and sharks. We dug for tiny sand crabs that could be found swimming in the mud underneath our sandcastles. We corralled dozens of harmless sand crabs. Never was there seen a shark, and only once did we see a jellyfish washed ashore, helpless in a tangle of seaweed.

I began to venture further and further into the water, throwing my body against the crashing waves. Later, I learned to conserve energy by diving below the breakers. While floating in the swells, waiting for the right wave, I searched the seafloor with my feet hoping for the telltale bump of a sand dollar to dig up with my toes. Some would still be alive, a velvety purple, others were empty shells blanched white, a delicate flower design etched on 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 then swim furiously toward the shore; hoping to catch the curl at just the right point to avoid either a disappointing floater, or terrifying pounding when caught in the crashing foam.

“Here it comes, wait…wait…now…swim.”

The wave would lift and carry me along its crest. The churning water suspending my body and then propelling me onto the beach. The power of the wave was, for a brief moment, mine.

That power would serve me a decade later when I gave birth to my first child. As the due date approached, I tried to imagine what childbirth would be like. I watched fearfully and joyfully for the first signs of labor. Once the contractions started in earnest, my anticipation and dread were replaced with carefully practiced and conditioned responses. Relax. Breathe. Relax. Breathe. Cleansing breath, deep chest breathing, up a gradual curve over the top and down the slope…cleansing breath. Then early labor slipped away and I struggled to manage the swelling tsunami wracking my body.

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. 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 to enhance my concentration, to help keep my mind from wandering into panic. But a powerful focal point came to me, one ingrained in the memory of muscle and bone. Each contraction must be prepared for, watched for, 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. And the power of the wave is mine.”

When I was eight, we visited friends in El Segundo where beaches are surrounded by rocking oil pumps and blasted by jet traffic from Los Angeles International Airport. 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 sandcastle turrets, dug a moat, and watched it fill with foaming seawater. Grimy from sand, I splashed and kicked further and further into the water. The tide gradually drew me twenty yards north of the picnic area.

As turned toward the shore to locate my family, I turned my back to an oncoming breaker. The heedless wave knocked me to my knees and then the ocean-bound water grabbed my skinny ankles and sucked me further and further out. Undertow. Riptide. Those words summon a picture in my mind of my father running down the beach into the water, my arms futilely extended to him, my 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? Desperate for breath clenched my mouth tightly trying to stave off the blackness that engulfed me. Finally, Daddy yanked me out of the surf and carried me to the nearest shower. Swimsuit, hair, skin were clotted with sand. I received a stinging scrub and an urgent lecture about paying attention to my surroundings to never, ever, turn my back 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 crowded beaches. My dad explained that a shift of the ocean currents hundreds of miles away causes the water temperature to rise drastically disrupting 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, Daddy and I walked along the strand and watched the fluorescent sea foam ignited by microscopic life. Microbes stimulated by the churning water, gave off an eerie greenish light. A couple of times on warm summer nights, we went body surfing 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 body surfing 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. My poor shell-shocked brother sat me down and told of the accident and death of my beloved Mother and Father. There was no time to conjure up in my mind 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 over and inside me.

At first the wave rose up in every unoccupied moment and unfilled hour. So I avoided inactivity. I packed my 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 busy-ness to push the wave out of consciousness, to avoid the repeated physical wrenching of the incessant emotional tsunami.

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 grasp only led me to turn my back on grief and let it overpower me.

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 parents 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.

I still feel the tide of grief keenly. Having once had that enormous breaker let loose, I don’t grieve gently anymore. But having turned my back on it, 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, and again knowing that I may never reach the shore.

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