The Day I Was Stronger Than I Ever Thought Possible
At the start of that same year, I had been diagnosed with cancer. My doctors had found an aggressive, invasive tumor in my left breast. Three lumpectomies over the course of the next two months resulted in questionable margins. We decided to treat the cancer systemically with chemotherapy before dealing with the localized DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) cells stubbornly residing in my breast.
When I was about to enter my sixth and final round of chemo, we found a second tumor. Between the double threats of the residual DCIS and the appearance of the new tumor, my doctors and I decided to do a mastectomy right away. We will never know if the second tumor was missed in the original diagnosis, or if it broke through the chemo—though I prefer to believe the former, as the latter does not bode well for my future.
In either case, the treatment I'd endured was determined ineffectual so I would have to undergo another protocol of chemo—different drugs, more aggressive—once I recovered from the mastectomy. I had a two-week respite between the end of the first failed protocol and the mastectomy plus subsequent chemo—enough time to get in at least one surf session before being land-bound for another four or five months.
Not much had gone right all year, but on that beautiful New Jersey July day with perfect, light off-shore winds grooming small swell lines of thigh-high wave faces, the universe would conspire to make everything right again, if only momentarily. Rocco and I paddled out through the green Atlantic water together. He stroked easily through gutless whitewater and was sitting on his board in the lineup (just beyond where the waves break) a minute or two later. I struggled. Arms powerless, heart pounding, lungs heavy—my goodness, I thought, this year has kicked my ass. I couldn't do it. Choking back a sob, I turned my sleek, white 9'3" Jim Phillips single-fin board around to head back to shore. My inner voice nagged, there is no way you can do this. As I reached shallow water near the shoreline, I suddenly saw myself as my son might have seen me from the lineup. I looked defeated.
Instead of hiking my board out of the water, I swung it back around to face the small crashing waves. I put my head down (which you never do in the ocean, but even holding my head up took energy I didn't have) and paddled with every bit of juice left in my body. I pushed through past the break. When I paddled up to Rocco, heaving from the effort, he just smiled at me and said, "You made it," before deftly turning and paddling into a wave.
I have to admit: I am blessed with an incredibly generous teenager who doesn't mind surfing with his middle-aged mother. We both started 14 years ago. Rocco was 4 and I was 40. In the beginning, we both stayed on the inside, where we would get pushed by the whitewater to shore. I would position and push him into waves until he was strong enough to propel himself. When I began to paddle out to catch a few open faces, I would keep watch over him in the whitewater from beyond the break. When he was very young, he would cry out of fear for my safety if I stayed out too long, or if the current pulled me too far north or south beyond his sightline.
Then, one day about six years ago, I was taken completely by surprise to find Rocco in the lineup. He'd never been past the break before and it terrified me that he'd got there without my knowledge of his effort. I thought he'd gone back to shore already. "How the hell did you get out here?" I asked when he paddled up beside me. "I thought you went in!"
"It took me half an hour, but I made it." He was very proud, as was I. From that day forward, we paddled out together.
This summer, the tide has now turned. I watch him duck-dive and paddle through enormous breaking waves and drop into bombs I do anything to avoid. When the waves get too heavy for me, I will surf on the inside while he heads for the horizon in hope of catching a big one. It still takes every ounce of faith to not panic when he disappears into the swell or with the pull of the drifting current.
Earlier in the year, I had surfed in Costa Rica just six weeks after the last of three lumpectomies that did not cure me. Cording had formed in my left arm, a result of the fascia healing too quickly, which created a taut string of tissue between skin and muscle. You could actually see the cord beneath my skin attached from my wrist to my armpit, preventing full reach. It was hideously painful. A physical therapist instructed me to exercise my arm to release the tissue: a slow crawling motion with my fingers up a wall while standing sideways against it, up and down, up and down again. This movement was supposed to gently force my arm to stretch and tear apart the offending tissue. That therapy quickly fell by the wayside after a few sessions in the Costa Rican surf. The breaking waves yanked clean any cording. By the end of the week, I had full range of motion. It hurt beyond all polite words can express, but I had use of my arm.
Most importantly, I had fun doing it.
When I returned home, I decided I had to keep surfing during my next round of treatments and surgery. I liked the way it sounded, "surfing through chemo." But that was just hubris. I wanted to prove something to myself. That I would at least try. Failing was okay. Surfing had already taught me much about failure. It had taken me five years of effort to catch my first real wave—or at least one where I exhibited a modicum of grace. (Lesson: Learn to surf at a younger age.)
Before that perfect day with Rocco, my dreams were only realized with one other session in the water. It was during the first protocol, in the part of the cycle when I felt most normal—the few peaceful days right before I entered the next round of treatment.
I managed to drag my board into the ocean off the New Jersey shore across from my house and scratch my way out past the break, where I sat on my board staring at the horizon for an hour. I didn't catch a wave that day—my timing was off, I couldn't paddle fast or hard enough. Still, it was comforting just to be in the ocean with a few surf buddies and my son. My longboarding friend, Jimmy, splashed water above our heads and rejoiced, "There's a reason we call it 'the cure'!" Time in the water was enough: a humbling baptism.
For the most part, during the next two months while I continued treatment, I stood at the water's edge and mind surfed. I bought an SLR camera so I could shoot photos of my son while he caught wave after wave. He was getting stronger with every session, as my body struggled from the poison meant to cure me. There were days when just walking through the deep, fine sand to the water's edge of our local break was enough to exhaust me.
On the day that I caught the best wave of my life, Rocco's smile as I approached the lineup gave me more confidence than he can possibly understand.
One wave was all I needed.
After bobbing in the surf with my boy for a half hour, a sweet little swell line came my way. I swung my board around to face shore and saw Rocco to my left. It was his wave; he was closer to the peak. Surfing etiquette dictates that you cede to the person in best position. If it had been anyone else, I would have given the surfer the right of way, but I put etiquette aside in favor of sharing a wave with my son, hoping I wouldn't kook out and blow it for him. I paddled harder than seemed necessary to catch the waist-high bump and caught the energy of the wave, which lifted and pushed me forward as I popped up, turned and glided along in perfect trim. The wave was slow and forgiving, the ocean uncharacteristically merciful. Rocco slid just 20 feet ahead of me. The two of us rode along until the wave unfolded onto the shore. He kicked out the back of the wave while I tumbled off the board into the whitewater.
Breathless from the beauty of that moment—and from the physical effort—I wept as I headed back out to the lineup. I didn't catch another wave during that session and it was more than four months before I ventured back into the ocean.
In my treatment, the worst was yet to come. While recovering from the mastectomy that would compromise the entire left side of my torso, I endured another two months of brutal chemotherapy—a protocol unaffectionately known as "the red devil." When I was too sick to work, or too tired to move, I would close my eyes and ride that one wave with Rocco over and over again. I ride it still, each time I visit the doctor or paddle out, trying to find peace in the mystery of where the next wave will take me.
Karen Rinaldi is the founder and publisher of the imprint, Harper Wave, at HarperCollins. The film Maggie's Plan is based on her novel, The End of Men, recently published in Italy by Rizzoli and forthcoming in the U.S. next spring. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.