If I were to invoke surfing as a metaphor – a risky invocation given the prevalence of cheeseball slogans centered around the sport – but if I were to write about the emotional turbulence of the past few weeks in such a way – the result would read like this:
Sometimes I paddle out thinking the sets will be challenging but manageable. Sometimes I push myself into a wave that scares me because it’s bigger or heavier or steeper than I am used to, telling my brain to stop flailing and my arms to keep paddling and my heart to just commit goddamn it as the wave lifts me up from behind and, amazingly, somehow, all the past experience embedded in my body manages to manifest in the drop, landing me on my feet, my weight shifting and my arms arcing up, and I’ve pulled off a bottom turn and the wave and I go on and on together and the experience is like a miracle except one that I’ve made possible by going and going and not giving up and this moment expands the collection of similar moments as the bliss bubbles up unrestrained and whole.
Far more often, I find myself navigating the currents, trying to hang on the corner of the channel, thinking I’m dialed in and then a bigger set appears on the horizon, blocking out the sky as it steamrolls in, standing up farther out than any other has before and everyone is scratching toward it, some hoping to turn and catch their wave of the day, some, like me, just wanting to avoid getting smashed, but that hope is futile because despite all my experience, the ocean is beyond my control – I know it is beyond my control and yet still I despair for a moment as I look up at the now-pitching wave that is coming down like a giant fist on my head. I have never learned to duck dive under the wave – I don’t have the right board for that anyway – and so all I can do is try to hang on enough to keep my board from ricocheting into someone else and in such a way that my shoulder won’t be ripped out of its socket when my strength is inevitably overpowered by the wave that has me tumbling like a rag doll underwater.
I know better than to panic. I know I can hold my breath, that people generally can hold their breath, longer than we think. This knowledge does not completely mitigate the fact that I would prefer, very much, to have my head above water and air coming into my lungs. When I arrive back topside, hand-over-handing the leash to bring the board back to me, I hopefully have a moment to get my bearings, paddle out of harm’s way and back to the channel. But sometimes, that first wave is followed by another and another – all I can do is keep taking them on the head, diving, surfacing, not panicking, until the cumulative power is spent and the ocean navigable once more.
Often these extremes happen within the same hour. I tolerate the despair and work through my fear because that’s the only path to rapture. There are other types of joy in the world – a good game of Frisbee can engross me without all the drama. My nature not that of an adrenaline junkie; I am hooked on the waves, not the fear. But I live in a place where the waves get big, so if I want to surf, staying within my comfort zone isn’t an option.
Still, I could use a breath.
Two weeks ago, Bobby and I received a phone call from a doctor at Santa Barbara’s ER because Nick had arrived unconscious with his blood sugar under 20. Too low to read. If his roommate hadn’t finally alerted to the fact that more was going on than just Nick sleeping off a hangover – if medical attention had happened even an hour later – “I’d be making a very different phone call right now,” the doctor said. The world got very, very small for me that evening. All the long nights of checking blood sugar, giving injections, Starbursts, juice, the worried phone calls, the exhaustion no excuse for lack of parental vigilance because this was my child’s life at stake. Then he grows up and goes off into the world. He’s not stupid, not at all, except that most 19-year-old boys are stupid, especially if they live somewhere full of partying and beautiful girls and who would keep a clear head in the midst of such bacchanal? I plead with him, please. Please, please, please don’t die.
A few days later, Kaylee informs me that she and her friends are impulsively coming up to visit – the first trip home since last Christmas! I buy her favorite foods, ingredients for cookies, tell her to drive safely, watch out for other drivers, there’s so many bad drivers, be careful, keep me posted, I love you.
The next day, I’m offered a job with the potential for great reward and the certainty of much demand. I’m ecstatic for 10 straight hours and then have a moment of near-panic, wondering what I’ve done. I am so comfortable in my current situations; I’ve arrived. Am now I’m leaving? The clear light of morning brings mental clarity. This is what I wanted. This is what I asked for. What a thing, to have it come true.
I spend midweek alternating quality time with Kaylee and her friends and trying to sort out the logistics of the coming changes in my life. Also working – because all the usual stuff needs to get done, especially now. I can’t leave my current project half-assed. (I believe in full-assing all things.)
And then I teach my first class at HSU. I think I know what I’m doing. Five minutes in, it’s clear to me that I do not. I wing it. I say, “Um,” a lot, which I don’t think is a good example for someone whose expertise is supposed to be in communication. The students keep looking at me. I have to keep talking to them. I become intimately familiar with the copy machine. By the third class, I speak with confidence. I am hopeful. But exhausted.
Meanwhile, I’m also spending hours trying to solve Nick’s problems with Medi-Cal/Covered California because he is almost out of insulin. Hours. Medi-Cal, Covered California, California Children’s Services – one useless call after another, each website more janky than the one before. When I finally, finally reach someone who was able to help me, I literally cried. Not that this person could solve the overarching problem of Nick’s Medi-Cal ceasing to be effective for no discernible reason, but at least she was able to remove one of the roadblocks keeping him from being able to reapply. In desperation, I called the Santa Barbara CVS and said I’d just pay for the insulin, all $400 of it, with my credit card because Nick was out and we couldn’t wait for the state to resolve things any longer. But they don’t take cards over the phone. I wanted to scream. Eventually we were able to get a voucher – even longer story – and Nick acquired his insulin. I took a breath. Exhaled. As my rage at those who sabotaged the Affordable Health Care Act abated enough to for me to see straight again, I dropped to my knees, grateful my new job includes benefits.
Friday, Kaylee and her friends leave, along with part of my heart.
By Monday I can’t stop thinking about the filling I had done a couple weeks ago, because the pain in my jaw has sharpened to pain so severe I’m wrecked and sobbing on the futon. I grimace through the next day, finally get into the dentist at 5 p.m. She writes me a prescription for Vicodin, but there’s no dosage specified, which I discover when I take it to CVS. This means the pharmacist can’t fill it. By this time, we’re after office hours, so I am out of luck.
Wednesday, Bobby calls from Santa Barbara, where he’s gone to see Nick, to tell me he was in a fender bender – “I was only in first gear!” – but because the airbags went off, the car has suffered significant damage. I am relieved he and Nick and the other driver are all fine, exceptionally relieved given my always-present fear of my people dying in car wrecks. The car can get fixed. (Bobby’s 38 years maintaining a perfect driving record, however, is ruined.) I fill out the insurance claim.
A couple days pass without drama.
And then today, our peaceful morning turns tragic when our neighbor alerts us to a black-and-white cat that was struck and killed by a car during the night. Bobby and I rush outside to find Chelsea’s year-old cat dead on the side of the road. Bobby’s especially crushed; he was so fond of Errol. And all of this is horrible – that the little cat is dead, carrying his body home, burying him, Chelsea’s grief and her refusal of our consolation over yet another loss. The world is small again and so sad. I was not a terrible parent, but I was an imperfect one, and life was hard, very hard at times. Yet love abounded, always. In this situation, when we should be comforting each other and are instead at odds, I think, Shouldn’t all this love be enough to keep us afloat when everything else is beyond our control?
I will not panic. We can hold our breath longer than we think.
Still. I would prefer, very much, to have my head above water and air filling my lungs.