It was the first time I surfed wearing my little bone surfboard pendant with my mother’s initials carefully carved into the back – MJCCB, the first time I dared enter the cold, fall Rhode Island water alone when the tide roared, and the first time my paddle out didn’t necessarily include a paddle in.
Covered in Neoprene from head to toe; boots, wetsuit and gloves, I made my way over the slippery rocks of my favorite break, Deep Hole, and tried to let the rip currents, the thick fog, and the low bellows of the distant lighthouse, distract me from the fact that my mother was going to die. Surfing had diverted me from the struggles of life before, but this time was different. This time, the water could not wash away my thoughts, cleanse my nightmares, or offer me the peace the waves had brought me before, in happier times.
Belly down on my longboard nicknamed Blue Betty, I made my way through the soupy white froth that tried to push me back to the safety of the shoreline, now just a cloudy, thick gray memory.
Ignoring all the signals of impending danger, I paddled out farther and farther, towards what I knew to exist, the safety of the thin blue line.
Wave after unseen wave would rock me, occasionally dumping me into the blackness of the drink. Resting only briefly, treading water holding onto my board, my mind waged war with the keeper of the tides.
Fuck you. No one would hear me yell. Fuck. You.
Dangling over Deep Hole, clinging to Blue Betty, I thought maybe I could just stay there, or maybe, I could just let go.
I thought of that little pendant tucked safely under my black wetsuit and of Mom, fighting a battle with pancreatic cancer that she would not, that she could not win.
The lighthouse in nearby Snug Harbor now sounded more like Noooo Chris than the groans it had just recently expelled warning sailors of the rocks and surfers of the danger of the thick fog.
My nostrils now filled with gallons of salt water, and my arms noodles from paddling against the incoming tide warned me that it was time to paddle in.
Even though my muscles and lungs begged for rest, my heart still needed time. Time out in the frigid Atlantic Ocean on this late October day to come to terms with what was to be, and my heart knowing it was boss, threw my arms out again and again, over and over, into the liquid darkness.
Farther and farther towards Block Island I went, Blue Betty teetering unsteadily beneath me. I couldn’t see it as I usually could, but I knew it was out there, as well as potentially boats, and other surfers.
If anyone was going to die, I needed to scope out the battlefield first. I needed to know and see, what was already written. Her obituary, carefully worded by her to include everyone, had been written days before, and her new light blue sweat suit from Walmart that she wished to be buried in, was carefully placed in her top drawer, until her death. No doctor could save her, no Whipple surgery to prolong her life was possible, and now, not even chemo was an option.
Cancer was a guest that had come before, but this time it would leave with my mother’s laugh, her smile, and the light in her eyes, and all I could do was paddle harder and farther, not knowing if I could have the strength to paddle back in.
Noooooo Chris. The fog moaned.
Exhaustion had set in. Panic did not.
In the darkness of the heavy fog, I could not see the giant wave building, or have any way to prepare for it, or, let it take me under. Before I could decide, before I even knew, this wave, with a plan and a mind of its own, threw me into the air and left me no choice but to paddle in.
Pmpffff. I landed on my belly and paddled in without the option of breathing. The toss had knocked the wind out of me and left a bump on my head that was already pounding and bleeding profusely.
As I sat on the rocky coast with thoughts of paddling back out, I listened to the lighthouse, to the surf, and the fog that although silent, spoke to me. They whispered what I knew to be true. Four months later she would take her last breath while in my arms, and exhale to the face of God.
It was time to go home.
(Mary Joanne Celina Comeau Brooks February 15, 1941 – February 12, 2011)