One of the health and wellbeing benefits of spending time swimming and surfing in oceans is the sense of washing away our stresses and anxieties in the waves and water. But that’s never really been my experience. For me, paddling out into the water doesn’t wash my feelings away, so much as expose them to me in a way I can’t avoid. If I’m happy, then that becomes amplified into joy. But if there is sadness or stress that I’ve been pretending isn’t there, then it will expand in the water and I’ll have to be honest with myself about those feelings. While washing away is a nice sentiment, it’s very healthy to be honest about the various emotions that are part of our lives. And the emotional aspects of how we feel and experience coasts and oceans are a huge part of how we make sense of the water, sand, waves, critters, and weather that we encounter on any day. If the sun is shining or there are thunderstorms, if the waves beat us down or allow us to glide, if there are birds diving or fish jumping, or if the water is cold and we must encase ourselves in neoprene, how we manage each of these is entangled with how we feel.
For me, the sense of exposure and honesty that comes with being in saltwater has been an important part of how I’ve allowed myself to be immersed in grief, sadness and heartbreak at different times. In some cases, grief and oceans and surfing and community have been so deeply intertwined that they have become the same story; they belong to each other.
This was the case with the drawn-out illness and death of my mother. She died ten years ago today, but she was much beloved and we still miss her every day.
I wrote the piece of work below a few days before she died. It’s much more personal than most of the posts I will make here, but I wanted to share it because each of these encounters and experiences still impact how I think about coasts and oceans in my life and work today.
How we experience coasts and oceans is not straight forward – they include danger and pain and death – but that complexity is why I love them.
Remembered (from 2011)
I remember the surf I had on the day I found out my mother’s cancer was back and she was going to die: the colours, the sunset, the wetsuit, the disbelief, the sadness. I remember the evening light on the water. I lay flat on my board, my face at water level, watching the orange, gold, lilac and silver of the fading day shimmering on the glassy green surface of the sea. It was so beautiful. I think of that day when I surf of an evening. I think of my mother then. That beautiful soft light is bittersweet for me. From that evening, the ocean, the light, the time of day, the water, the waves, my board all wove their way through the following years, so the moments of pain, reflection, sadness and love found traction in my memory in ways that make sense, for me.
I remember the moment when I realised my heart was breaking. When I paddled out into the crowd last summer, thinking I could escape from the fog of sadness. But it didn’t work, nothing worked, and I was frustrated. I remember the too-bright sunlight and the too-full waves feeling like a taunt: See how good things are? See how life will go on, how it is going on? I remember the way the kind words of a friend made my shoulders and tears begin to drop as I sat with her in the salt water. On that day, I stopped trying to fight anything.
With continuing confusion, I remember the times when the ocean failed me. When it failed to offer the comfort, escape and release I had always found there, that I assumed. When it dunked, tumbled and drowned me. When it swallowed me and spat me out. When I walked home covered in sand, more tired, aching and unsure than when I had arrived.
I remember the last time mum came to the beach with me. She insisted on coming to watch me surf, even though I knew she couldn’t see that far. But that wasn’t the point, really. She shuffled to my car and I closed the door after she tucked her already tiny frame inside. When we arrived, I ran up the path to check it was worth it – like there was any doubt – and bumped into an old friend who helped me set her on a towel in the sand and sat with her for a while. In an uncrowded lineup I waited for the one-foot set waves to peel through. A dad was there with four ‘sponsored’ grommets, maybe nine or ten years old, there for a competition that weekend. The kids were awfully behaved and kept dropping in and snaking me, and the two others out. I paddled further down the break, away from them and into a lovely long wave. One of the kids tried to snake me as I surfed, and when I stuck the line, the child screamed after me ‘Fuck you, mate’! Furious, I paddled after him, towards his father. I told him what happened, he told me to get over it. I erupted into words and gestures, pointing to my mother, so small in the sand-dunes, arguing against such behaviour, arguing that I was there to get waves, to escape, not to cop abuse from a child. The father accused me of nearly hitting the boy, believing the bald-faced lie the child had told to avoid getting into trouble. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. They paddled away and I sat in the disappointment of the moment. The shock of the argument, the treatment I was forced to accept. That this was the last time I would share the beach with my mum. I hated them. I think I still do.
I remember the time I surfed the beach break behind my house, alone except for one cute guy. Chatting with him, forgetting the little body that I loved so much, that was wasting into skin and bones not even 500 metres away from where we sat: salty and flirting. I remember watching him and thinking of a million other ways to escape and forget, but choosing instead to catch a wave into the shore and walk back along the track alone. Home.
I remember spending hours sitting on the edge of a north Sydney beach. The beach itself, as a whole, felt familiar, but the pieces of it strange and ill-fitting. Course, grainy, yellow sand, almost-black water, pine trees and over-sized houses crowding the shore. I wondered how I would make it back up the hill and down again to where I was staying, how my legs would get me there? How my heart would get me there.
I remember, more recently, starting to breathe again, finding solace and calm in the ocean once more. I learned to paddle out alone, to say no, to leave the others. I found a way to make the ocean my own in new ways, to surf it on my own terms.
I remember finding how weak I had become. Finding it hard to paddle, to carry my board, to make it out through the whitewater. My body no longer accustomed to the rhythms, demands and requirements of surfing. The things I have been so proud of – being capable, being strong, being able to look after myself – have drifted and weakened and I have learned to accept help.
And now I remember my surf this morning. Tiny and full and gently raining, but I paddled into the water anyway. Me and two old guys and waves a-plenty. I picked off the middle-sized and smaller ones, which were better as they held their form and broke along the shore without closing out. One of the guys was chatty, complimenting my waves and dwelling on the beauty of the morning. When he asked me how I was, without missing a beat I answered ‘Good, thanks’. And I meant it. Feeling good made me think of my mother, alone in the hospital in town, tiny in her bed, like a pile of blankets. Dehydrated, in pain, drugged and unaware. Dying. Really, dying. I wondered how I would feel if I got back to my car to find a message that she had passed away while I had caught waves, surfing? How would I feel about that? I knew then, I would feel fine. She would love to know that I had been happily doing this thing that I love as she slipped away. She’d really love that.
In the coming days, weeks and months I will find solace and calm and love in the salt-water, in the waves. I will remember this too. I will find myself, my heart, my strength, my grief. I will let my tears fall back into themselves, falling along my cheek, onto my chest, legs and board and into the water, washing away. Those tears will take their place in the sea, forever a part of the waves, no matter where I surf. Forever.
: I was swimming in the ocean with a friend when my mother died. I was swimming and crying and marvelling at the beauty of the day, and I returned to the car to find the messages from my sister.]