The Wave I’ll Never Forget

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Mom would be 56 years old today, and I wonder what her life would have become.

I like to imagine that she would be living her dream: a slow and sunny life on the sandy shores of Florida. But I can only speculate about how her story may have unfolded. She passed away six years ago after a decade of teetering on the edge of darkness.

I know that Mom would not have liked that she was nearing sixty. She was fond of being young and would have resisted the wrinkles, aches, and extra paddling of midlife.

But then again, I can’t even know this with any certainty. What if Mom’s fierce resistance to aging had loosened its grip by now? What if she had a newfound appreciation for the accumulated wisdom in each of her wrinkles? I’m again left to wonder.

Losing someone you love leaves you with many unanswered questions. You’re perpetually suspended in a state of not knowing. That’s a particularly uncomfortable place to be if you have a strong desire to control your world.

The only thing you have to grasp onto is the fading memory of who the person once was. But that memory is an imperfect glimpse at the past that offers no real answers or comfort.

Birthdays of lost loved ones are interesting moments in the grieving process. They can surface memories and questions that don’t come up on other days. And even if you want to live the day like it’s nothing special, people remind you that this day is not ordinary.

On Mom’s birthday, I receive supportive texts from friends and family. They seem to think that I will be in shambles. But so far, that has not been my experience. Mom’s birthday has felt like any other day.

With time, I’ve come to believe that grief does not walk a predictable path. Grief is more like floating down an uncharted river than hiking a well-known trail. You don’t know what will come, when it will arrive, or how long it will last. You float and hope everything turns out okay.

On some days, often when you least expect it, grief will knock on your door with angry fists. And on other days, you won’t even think about the person you lost. In such an uncertain environment, staying sane requires you to learn to let go and accept life as it unfolds.

While Mom’s birthday has not been difficult in the ways that other people expect, I still treat it as a sacred day. Instead of going about my usual routine, I go into the day without any goals, work, or pressure. My only intention is to spend the day as I want.

In a sense, her birthday is a dedicated day for me to float down the river of grief and see what emerges. A few years ago, that float took me on an unexpected ride.

On March 3, 2020, I woke up in Encinitas, California. I drank coffee, grabbed my surfboard, and walked barefoot down Neptune Avenue. I watched the waves from the top of the wooden steps that led down to Grandview, the break where I was learning to surf.

The setup was perfect — small, clean, and uncrowded waves. I zipped up my wetsuit and paddled out expecting to have a great session. The surf gods had other plans for me. I spent an hour missing waves, faceplanting, and banana peeling on the takeoff.

Leaving the dreamy surf a little frustrated, I headed to a restorative yoga class to settle down. A solo lunch and lazy afternoon of reading and looking at the wind-swept ocean followed. As the afternoon progressed, I noticed something interesting. The waves were cleaning up, opening up a window for another session. This time, I would surf without any expectations.

During the first 30 minutes of the session, I scored two beautiful, long lefts and rode them to completion. I then duffed it on a few rights but laughed it off. While waiting for the next set, a fin emerged from the water three feet in front of me. My legs curled up onto my board until I saw fins all around me. 

Dolphins. I exhaled and smiled.

There were at least six dolphins and likely more I couldn’t see. My eyes suddenly darted to the horizon where a large, dark line had formed. A set wave was moving in my direction.

I paddled toward the peak, turned around, and popped up once I felt the board lift. Stoked that I had not faceplanted, I was now racing down the face of a peeling right-hander.

Twenty feet ahead of me, I noticed a fin in the water. A dolphin had joined me for the ride! Time slowed as we cruised together in harmony for the next 20 seconds. When the wave closed out, I took a belly ride to shore while the dolphin rejoined her friends. 

As I sat on the beach, salty tears dripped down my face as little bumps formed on my arms.

I thought back to a trip Mom and I took to Clearwater Beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida. We took a boat out one day to see dolphins. Mom held my arm and giggled as a pod of dozens of dolphins followed the boat and played in its wake. It was one of the last times I saw her truly happy.

Then I thought of the blue sticky note that Mom put on her bathroom mirror a few months before she passed. It read: Clearwater Beach Surf Shop. The note was a reminder of the dream she was working toward. She wanted to work at a surf shop in Clearwater and get a shack with an extra bedroom for me to visit.

I wondered if my recent decision to move to Encinitas and spend my days surfing had anything to do with Mom’s unlived dream. I wasn’t sure. But I did know that being in the ocean made me feel more connected with her, especially when I saw dolphins.

As my mind raced between the past and the present, I knew deep in my heart and soul that it was Mom who had joined me on that wave.

That knowing was absolute. I didn’t need to believe in reincarnation, God, or anything else to know its truth. I felt Mom’s energy and strength flow through me and the body of the dolphin.

It’s been four years since that day, and I’m left to make sense of the experience.

The first question: Was it real?

It’s difficult to know. 

It felt real, but I may be like the child who confuses the shadows of the night for monsters in the closet. Just a grieving man confusing a coincidence for a paranormal connection with his late mother.

I have sympathy for this interpretation. Yet that sympathy doesn’t penetrate the part of me that knows that this experience was real. As real as anything explainable with math or physics anyway.

During my life, I’ve had a handful of experiences that follow a similar rhythm. Something happens, and that something shatters my understanding of what’s possible. As I’ve had more of these moments, I’ve learned that I can either accept or reject what happened, but I can’t explain it. Words and the limitations of the rational mind can’t capture such experiences.

I’ve also learned that knowing the “realness” of these events is not important.

Illusions or not, these experiences point toward something worth knowing. In a sense, they remind us that there is something core to life that we may never fully understand. We can begin to understand it, but not through the narrow lens of science and intellectualism. Its only with faith and humility that we can begin to understand.

Each of these experiences has occurred in wildly different ways. However, they have all given me what feels like a glimpse of the all-knowing interconnectedness that ties reality together.

People use concepts like God, mystical experiences, and consciousness to hint at this interconnectedness. But like my words, these concepts are insufficient. They are only loose approximations of what it’s like to have encounters with the ineffable.

My ability to notice these encounters seems to have accelerated on my 25th birthday. That was the day I held my mom’s hand as she took her final breath. The absurdity and pain of that day seemed to crack open a doorway to more moments like the wave at Grandview.

Before that day, I was bound by mental and spiritual shackles. I would have seen my ride with the dolphin as nothing more than an enjoyable and lucky event. But with my shackles loosened in the wake of Mom’s death, my heart opened to supernatural interpretations of these moments. And with time, I’ve begun to see the wisdom embedded within these previously off-limits interpretations.

As I’ve reflected on my ride with the dolphin, it’s become clear that it was more than a cathartic moment of reconnection with Mom. That experience, with the help of time and reflection, helped me understand that Mom’s love endures even in the absence of her physical presence.

The aftermath of that wave felt like the many times when I was afraid as a kid and received one of Mom’s hugs. Her comforting embrace reminded me that her invulnerable love would always be with me. The wave had a similar effect, reminding me that Mom didn’t need to be in this world for her love to endure.

Today, another one of Mom’s birthdays will come and go. I still don’t know how her story would have unfolded and can’t share new moments with her. I wish I could.

But thanks to that experience on the wave I will never forget, I have something that allows me to rest easy. I know, deep in my heart, that Mom’s love will always be with me.

And what more could a man without his mother ask for?

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