I’ve had 3 previous opportunities to learn, opportunities that passed me by, however, because twice I had a nursing baby, and the last time I was having a miscarriage.
This summer was to be the summer where nothing would stop me. I would learn to surf. My sister with the Ph.D. would be my teacher - she who had taught my six older children to surf. And I, at the age of 42, having borne ten children, would become a surfer!!
The first problem began at 5:10 am. The problem was that it was 5:10 am. I’d woken up at least three times that night with my four little boys who slept on the floor of the master bedroom in my sister’s lovely home in Santa Cruz, CA. I hit the snooze three times that I can remember, and finally woke up ten minutes before we were to leave.
The previous evening I had tried on a wet suit, which had taken at least ten minutes to squeeze into, and my sister had informed me that it was too big, and because of that I would probably be cold. I don’t like being cold. I would rather be anything but cold, so when she mentioned that we might be able to borrow a smaller one that would keep me warmer from one of her friends, I was relieved and willing to endure the compression of my body into an even smaller rubber-like sheath.
At 5:50 am, we arrived at her friend’s home, where we met her friend’s daughter, a lovely, 14-year-old athletic girl with long wavy, California-bleached hair. She looked perfect in a red and black wet suit, her long hair streaming behind her in the cold morning wind.
My sister led me to her friend’s shed where the wet suits were stored, and handed me a smaller one that she thought would fit me. She told me to just try it on by the side of her truck. I remembered how I had disgusted even myself in the privacy of her bathroom the evening before, attempting to squeeze my body into a larger wet suit, and I then realized that this would not be a pleasant experience.
So I went around to the side of her truck furthest from her friend’s home, thus hopefully avoiding any early morning glances from the father, who would surely reel back in anguish had he seen me bent over in my black skirted swimsuit, my blue-white thighs shoving up at the top of the wet suit which I had only been able to get up to mid-thigh during the first fifteen minutes. Plus I hadn’t had time to apply my make up.
After nearly twenty exhausting minutes, I finally had the wet suit up to my shoulders, but it felt too short, so I had to ask my sister to grab the part covering my buttocks and hoist up as hard as she could. Eventually, after some strenuous jerking on her part, this allowed me to stand up straight and not be hunched over at the shoulders.
After standing still and taking many resting, cleansing breaths after my twenty-minute work-out, it began to feel like both my wrists and my ankles had thick rubber bands around them and I saw that my extremities were beginning to swell up. I mentioned this phenomenon to my sister and her friend, and they said that that meant that my wet suit fit just right. I didn’t mention to them that my neck felt like it was in a vice as well, and that I could feel my ears getting swollen. I was trying not to faint.
It was during this effort that my sister then reminded me that I was going to be driving her friend’s truck while she drove her truck, thus enabling us to pick up all of the kids and take them to the beach. My mind began reeling at the idea of actually driving in this wet suit, as I could barely even begin to walk in it, or think, because of the swelling of my head. I said, “Is it a stick?” And she said, “Yes.” I began laughing, but that didn’t change the fact that I still had to drive an unfamiliar stick shift while wearing a wet suit.
I sat down in the truck and put my hands on the steering wheel, and again noticed how swollen they were, but successfully followed her back to where the other kids had gotten ready and were waiting to be picked up.
We arrived at the beach without further incident, had our pictures taken....
Me and my surfing instructor, my sister with the Ph.D.
.....and then I remembered that I needed to get my surfing boots on. I know there is another word for them, but I can’t remember it now. My new 14-year-old friend told me that they were even more difficult to get on than the wet suit, and as I bent over to force them up and over my feet, my head feeling like it would explode, I had to agree with her. I watched her carefully as she put on her boots for clues about the best way to proceed, and I learned that standing a special way and holding your feet a certain way against the ground facilitated the application of the boots. She became my mentor, unaware that I was staring at her every move. Creepy, I know. Finally, we headed to the beach, down four flights of wet, moss-covered stairs, carrying our surf boards on the tops of our heads, as per my sister’s instructions.
At the bottom of the stairs, my sister told me to turn around, facing the direction opposite her. Then she inexplicably shoved me from behind, forcing me to step forward with my right foot to catch my balance. I glared at her as she said, "Okay, put your leash around your left ankle when you get in." Only then did I realize that she was testing to determine which was my stronger leg. Getting into the water was surprisingly mild, as I knew that it was frigid, and I was grateful for the effort I had made to get on my wet suit and boots. I tied my surf board leash to my left ankle, and following my sister’s direction, began paddling out to sea. My children, who had already been taught, proceeded forward like professionals. After paddling out for a few minutes, my sister, swimming along side me without a surf board, to better instruct the beginners, turned me around to prepare me to catch a wave. She said, “Okay, Jenny, you’re gonna catch the wave after this.... okay...... start paddling..... NOW!”
I paddled with all of my might, like a little dog being pursued by a great white, and as soon as the surf board caught the wave, I was flipped upside down and under the water, with my board on top of me. While my wet suit protected my body, I experienced a great deal of shock at how it felt to have my head submerged without warning into the cold sea. I looked back and yelled, “What did I do wrong, Robyn?!?” and she yelled, “You were too far forward on your board!!!” I yelled, “Okay!”, and began paddling back.
After a couple of minutes I arrived at her location again, and again, when just the right wave came, she said, “Paddle.... NOW!” and I did, and she pushed me to give me a little help. The thrust of the sea carried me forward, and I felt as light as the paper airplanes my twins sail through the house, and I was doing it! Yes, I was lying on my board, and not really standing, but I was moving forward, toward the shore! And then...... 2 seconds into the ecstasy, everything just stopped, and the wave continued right on to the shore, leaving me behind. I yelled back to my sister, “What went wrong that time?” And she yelled, “The wave just died!” And I yelled, “Okay!”
This time I was carried further toward the shore, and paddling back to my sister was quite an effort now, especially since I was already completely spent from the wet suit application exertion. Also, I didn’t have on my glasses, so the only way I could tell who my sister was, as there were dozens of other surfers in our immediate vicinity, was to look for a dark head bobbing without a surf board.
I paddled and paddled and was splashed in the face by wave after wave as I tried to make my way back to her. I had thought my arms were strong. I have large, defined biceps from carrying babies and sweeping all day, and folding clothes and washing dishes, but I quickly realized that these are not the same muscles used to paddle while on a surf board. I became increasingly exhausted, and tried paddling with both arms simultaneously, then pinwheel style, then free-style. All of these styles were equally ineffective and exhausting.
Sometimes I would stop to rest, but when I would look up to find my sister, I would see that I had been pushed closer to the beach and the progress that I had previously made had been for naught. Finally I arrived again to my sister for the third time, and this time, when she encouraged me to paddle and pushed me onto the perfect wave, I rode it! Yes, still lying down, but I rode and rode and rode, all the way to where the treacherous rocks are where my sister told me to jump off my surf board to avoid, so I did, and it was amazing to be carried so far by the beautiful force of the sea.
And then I turned to find her again, and she was so far away, that I couldn’t see her at all, only I knew she was there because where else would she be. So I started paddling again. Sometimes, as I intermittently tried different paddling strokes and rested, I would see people who I thought were my kids catching waves and riding them in on their feet. But I couldn’t be sure, because I didn’t have on my glasses. The only time I knew for sure one of my kids soared by me was when I viewed a tiny little body standing in perfect form on a surf board and I heard the ten-year-old girl say, “Mom, look! I caught a wave!” Good for her.
A few more times my sister helped me catch some waves. Most of the time they petered out within a few seconds, but twice more they took me all the way to the rocks, as far as I could go. During my second ride, the ten-year-old girl said, “Mom! Stand up!” But I told her that I needed to get a feel for the waves first, on my belly, before I attempted that. I told her that I would do it during my third wave ride. And I was bound and determined to do so because two years ago, one of my friends, who has a perfect body and a perfect face and works out all the time, told me that I would never be able to stand on a surf board and she knew it to be true because even she couldn’t. And I was going to prove her wrong. But by the time I was preparing to catch my third wave, I was so exhausted, similar to how I feel immediately after the transition phase of labor and directly before the doctor instructs me to now push the baby out, that even had I wanted to attempt to stand up, I knew that it would be impossible. I was at almost complete muscle failure by this point. So I asked my sister how much longer until I had to take her to the lab where she works and she said ten minutes and I said a silent prayer of gratitude, and she pushed me, my belly comfortably on the surf board, onto a wave that took me to shore.
After fighting slippery rocks and tangles of seaweed for five minutes, I finally made it to the stairs and waited for her to come in, where she offered to carry my board. I said okay.
When we arrived at the truck, she began giving me instructions on how to get back to the beach to pick up the kids after taking her to work and how I would return to the beach again after taking our 14-year-old surfing companion to soccer camp, and which keys I would need to use and which truck I would drive, and as I was trying to grasp what she was saying as I was struggling to remove my wetsuit, which was now suctioned vacuum-like onto my body, the nausea kicked in. And it wasn’t morning sickness nausea, because I knew I wasn’t pregnant, but it was the kind of nausea soldiers get when they attend basic training and exert themselves under the command of a barking drill sergeant until they vomit. And I had to pee. Really bad. My sister’s friend who lent us the wet suits had asked us specifically not to pee in them, like I was going to anyways, so I really needed to go. Maybe it was the saltwater retention. So my mind was one huge, cold, nauseated cloud and when my sister handed me the truck key, I put it down somewhere and none of us ever saw it again. When we got to her work, she said, “Where did you put that truck key I gave you?” and I said, “You gave me a truck key?” and she said yes, and reminded me under what circumstances she had given it to me. Some sort of recollection began to break through the cloud that was my mind, but we still never did find the key. Fortunately, because my sister is literally a genius, she had a spare key at work, and I was able to use that for the required purposes.
As per our arrangement, I headed back to the beach, wondering if I would be at a stop light when I threw up, and arrived in time to pick up the 14-year-old friend to take her to soccer camp. I had to wait for everyone to take off their wet suits, which fortunately proved easier for them than it had been for me, and load their surf boards into the back of the truck, all the while trying to do deep breathing exercises to avoid vomiting. I met John and the little kids there as they had arrived a few minutes earlier to haul some of the other kids back home, and even though Twin B gave me a huge smile and said, “Hi, Mom!” when he saw me, all I could do was stare at him and the green pus coming out of his eyes from his recent case of conjunctivitis. I didn’t even have the energy to smile back, much less say hello. :(
After what seemed like an eternity, the 16-year-old boy and John tied down the seven surf boards and the 14-year-old friend and I headed off to soccer camp.
As we were traveling, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw that one of the ties looked like it had come undone. I asked her if she thought it was loose, too, and she looked back and said, “Yes. This is not good.” So I slowed down on the California freeway to 40 miles per hour, having visions of huge surf boards being carried up and away by the wind, crashing onto someone’s windshield, and causing a 30-car pile up. It was a stressful situation. I asked my passenger if the exit was close and she said no.
Finally, after an excruciatingly slow, nauseating trip, we arrived to soccer camp. She thanked me and healthily bounded off to camp. I got out of the car and tried to evaluate why the orange strap had come undone.
To spare you the minute details, suffice it to say that I was unable to secure the surf boards safely enough to travel back home on the freeway. I called my sister in her lab and asked her if there was a special trick to attaching the hook into the square where I assumed it went, and she told me just to attach it anywhere. I did, but then was unable to ratchet the strap tighter. I seemed incapable of figuring out the mechanism of the gears that I had seen my husband and son tighten while preparing for scores of trips. I called John to see if he could talk me through how to tighten the ratchet, and he offered to come help me, but I refused, as soccer camp was in an entirely different city. He did the best he could to explain the intricacies of the mechanism and I hung up and kept trying. And then I would rest my head on the edge of the bed of the truck, and then I would look at the cars driving by and understand why no men would stop and help me.... because I was hideously ugly. I was wearing grey sweat pants 4 sizes too big for me, my hair looked like a wet poodle’s, I had no make up on, and I was trying to warm myself with a shiny black wind breaker.
So I kept trying, and resting, and looking at passing traffic until I realized that I’m a total and complete idiot because I can’t tighten an orange strap, and I gave in and called John and asked him to go ahead and come help me. He was happy to do it. I got inside the truck, closed the door to protect myself from the cold wind, and started crying. I cried for ten minutes, and felt better, then John drove up, and to my great relief, discovered a difficult problem with the ratcheting mechanism and only with my strength combined with his was he able to fix the problem and properly tie down the surf boards.
He drove the truck back home, and I followed in my warm and familiar automatic-shift 15-passenger van, and listened to Christian radio, because that was all I could find that wasn’t some annoying woman talking about how much she loves caffeine. And five hours after my alarm went off, I got into the shower and washed all the salt from my body and stayed there for a long, long time, and thought about how I would never surf again.
And I got out and dried off and did my hair and make up, and John ironed a cute button-down pin-striped blouse for me, and I got dressed and felt much better.
And as John and I traveled with the kids to San Francisco, I slept in the passenger seat nearly the entire trip, back and forth, and when the kids asked me if I was going surfing again with them tomorrow, I said, “Nooooooooooooo....oooo....ooooooo....ooo,” and they all laughed, and the 16-year-old boy asked if I would come and take pictures, and I said yes. And I will, right after I stop writing this, and go to bed, and get up again at 5:10.