As a kid on a summer swim team, I never wanted to be in the final relay. That was the last event of the night, after the sun had slipped past the horizon. My coach would push me onto the dock, where I would gaze down at the murky green water, trying to psych myself up for the race.
But as soon as the starting gun sounded, I would dive in, and by the time I kick-kick-stroked to the surface, I wasn’t thinking about the cold anymore. And that’s why I loved swimming. Once I began moving, everything in the outside world stopped mattering.
When my mom passed away unexpectedly from lymphoma when I was 28, it felt like the dive but without the surfacing.
Growing up, the water had been my refuge. In my turbulent adolescence, my mom had even made a rule: I couldn’t complain about school or friend stuff until after swim practice. Normally, a hard two-hour workout of swim drills would be enough to take the edge off whatever emotions I was feeling.
“Just put your head down and swim,” she would say, stealing the phrase from my swim coach. My mom used it for everything, though, long after I quit the swim team: Disappointing meeting with a boss. Breakup with a boyfriend. Epic fight with a best friend. Over the years I got better and better at hiding my feelings in favor of just pushing through, the same way she did.
Which was why I went back to work three days after my mom died. At her funeral I had mingled with her friends, smiled at their stories. She would have been proud of me. That was head down and swim.
As the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death approached, I booked a surfing trip to Costa Rica. I wanted to be someplace where no one would ask how I was doing or call to check in.
The first few days didn’t go well. My swimming background couldn’t help me balance on a wave or know the right time to pop up from my stomach to my feet. By the end of the first day a bruise bloomed along my ribs, and the tops of my feet had been rubbed raw from the board.
The last straw was three days into the trip. A year before, I had woken up excited and nervous to start the first day of a new job. I’d been annoyed the previous night, when my mother had cut our phone conversation short before I’d had a chance to ask her opinion of my outfit choice. She’d been having trouble catching her breath while speaking, but that was something that had become the norm because of her lymphoma treatment. She had told my brothers and me not to worry about it, the same way she had instructed us not to bother visiting during the times she was in the hospital. She hadn’t even told her own mother she was sick.
That afternoon I’d gotten a call from my father. My mom had been rushed to the ICU. She had a trach tube and was drifting in and out of consciousness. At that moment, I’d known that she would die — soon.
Now the same feelings of anger, fear, and helplessness kept bubbling up. How could I have not known how sick she had been? That phone call, when I’d been upset that she didn’t seem to care what I wore, had been the last conversation we’d ever had.
In the water, I kept falling from my board, becoming angrier each time. My surf instructor urged me to try smaller waves. “I’m fine!” I said. I hated how I was letting my emotions get the best of me. I got into position for the wave, willing myself to just do it.
Instead, the wave overtook me. I tumbled off the board, getting my ankle tangled in the leash. A split second after I finally surfaced, the board bounced up and hit me hard on the lip.
Blood ran from my mouth, and angry tears exploded from my eyes. I hurried out of the water and stormed down the beach.
My instructor jogged to catch up with me. “Want to tell me what’s going on?” she asked.
“Today was the day that my mom….went to the hospital. When her doctor told us she was going to die,” I explained. The flow of tears turned from a trickle to a torrent as the memories from the previous year flashed into my mind: the two weeks between that terrible phone call and my mother’s death. The week afterward, trying to pick out a sweater in a department store, feeling like the wind was knocked out of me when I realized I would never be in that store with my mother again.
The instructor pulled me into a hug. “That’s why you were having such a hard time surfing today. You were struggling with all of that. And that doesn’t work in the water. Because how can you honestly feel the waves if you’re fighting with your feelings?”
She let me go and told me to come back when I was ready. I watched surfers in the distance crest a wave at the intersection of sea and sky. I wanted to be one of them — someone who fell down but could stand up again, who understood that life and its emotions were far more like the troughs and valleys of an untamed ocean than the glassy stillness of an Olympic-size swimming pool.
I reattached the leash to my board and got back in the water. Sometimes I popped up, most of the time I didn’t. It would be obvious to anyone that I was having trouble, but I didn’t mind. Learning to surf was hard — why should it look like anything less?
By the end of the session I was exhausted and teary. I let the tears fall. I needed to experience the pain. More importantly, I needed to realize that showing vulnerability wasn’t the weakness my mom had taught me it was. While her swim-it-out strategy works for getting over the tiny ripples caused by everyday dramas, sometimes life hits you with an oversize wave that’s impossible to ride gracefully. And then it’s all right to cry, scream, and seek support. The tumbles and pop-ups of surfing helped me tune in to my emotions and allowed me finally to surface.