“We are sturdy beings. But in many ways, we are fragile. We can accept change and loss, but this comes at our own pace and in our own way. And only God can determine the timing.” (The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie)
It was my initial thought to title my September blog “It’s a teeny tiny small world”, but something my 36 year old son Ryan said prompted me to change course. He used the words “shock wave” to describe a certain event that hit the people and town he and his siblings grew up in.
I’ll start somewhat at the beginning to set the scene. I was taking a beach walk in August with my daughter Meghan and for some reason the subject came up of a young man, A.R., who was the same age as my kids and hung out in similar circles. He was described as warm, funny, always grinning; and one particular thing stood out – he was passionate about surfing.
Many kids growing up in our little California coastal town could be described that way, as it was easy to try surfing when most of us lived just minutes from the beach. My kids dabbled in surfing but never got seriously hooked, but this young man, A.R., did.
Whenever the subject comes up about A.R.’s life, hearts swell with heaviness, and we feel terrible sadness, but the thing that tends to blunt the force of grief is the knowledge that A.R. seized onto a whole lot of life during his brief earthly sojourn and he was doing what he loved. In 2008, 25 year old A.R. was surfing in Mexico and was bit by a Tiger shark. He was in a remote area and his desperate traveling companion had to flag down a bystander who put A.R. in a truck to take him to the nearest medical facility, a military hospital 30 minutes away. Some of the details are simply too sad to mention. The wound was severe, and medical help too far away. A.R. didn’t make it despite the efforts of friends, strangers, and medical personnel.
Shark attacks are rare (see here), so when a lovable, smiling young man from a tight knit community dies as a result of a shark bite, it’s as if a rogue wave arrives without warning, crashing with tremendous force, delivering shock and chaos.
The news headlines that ran later were “San Francisco surfer bleeds to death, Surfer killed by shark in Mexico.”
All these memories came flooding back when my daughter and I brought up A.R. while traversing the beach where he learned to surf:
Soon after the walk with my daughter, I flew from SFO to re-join my husband in Palm Desert and get back to retired life. It’s a 510 mile trip from the beach town where my kids were raised to my retirement nook, so who could predict the startling coincidence that would happen next.
I was sitting in the Sun City pizzeria after a golf game chatting with my golf partner K.Y. when a lovely lady with red hair and a southern accent sat down in a chair next to us and began to chat. K.Y. introduced me to her – S.T., a member of our golf club who couldn’t golf due to a shoulder injury but she was joining us for post game camaraderie.
The conversation turned to K.Y. and S.T.’s younger days when both of them hopped in a car and drove cross country to California to seek adventure and new vistas. K.Y. drove from Massachusetts and S.T. drove from Texas. When I heard that the latter drove to San Francisco, I said “I grew up in San Francisco! Isn’t it a small world!” Then she said, “Well after living in S.F., I moved to Pacifica and raised my kids there.” My heart skipped a beat, and I replied, “I’m from Pacifica!” I mean, what were the odds! We exchanged stories about our little town, where we lived, when our kids were born and what schools they attended. She said she had a son my children’s ages, and I said, “Oh yeah, what’s his name?” She said, “A.R.” I paused because the name sounded so familiar but I was caught off guard and it didn’t immediately dawn on me that my daughter and I had been talking about her son only one week prior.
There was something in S.T.’s eyes, a sadness, and then it hit me — I put my hands over my face and couldn’t help myself. I started crying. Tears welled up in her eyes, too. I said, “Oh my God, I am so so sorry.”
S.T. is in a place where she can talk about it; she shared that indeed the wound severing the femoral artery was so severe that had her son received medical help sooner, he might not have survived. With beautiful honesty, she said, “Who do I blame? It wasn’t as if a drunk driver hit him; it was a shark. Am I supposed to be mad at a shark?”
Interesting that I don’t think I ever met S.T. while we both raised kids at the same time in a town of 37,000 people; nor do I recall meeting her adventurous, laid back son, but I could have. 11 years after the death of her son, a grieving Mother has found a semblance of peace.
“Though getting through today might feel like getting through all of eternity, we can remind ourselves that we won’t feel this way forever. We can trust that our Higher Power has a plan for us, even if we can’t see where we are headed.”
(From Opening our Hearts, Transforming our Losses, p. 15)
When I told my son Ryan of this improbable encounter with A.R.’s Mother, he said that his best friend grew up across the street from A.R. and then he added: when A.R. passed away in Mexico, it was as if a SHOCK WAVE went through the town of Pacifica and it’s never ended, reverberating, ebbing and flowing, down through time, over a decade later.
Life is fleeting and precious. We are sturdy and fragile at the same time; tragedy is served up to us and people we know as an unfortunate aspect of life. I’m not going to deny that life is composed of terrible pain and loss; yet, on the other hand, life is the most beautiful thing I know.
It turns out that S.T. lives on my street, one block away, in a retirement community of 5,000 homes. What are the odds? I reached out by email to S.T. and she kindly wrote back, “I guess it was inevitable that sooner or later we’d meet. I’m very happy about that.” What a wonderful turn of events.
To inject a healing musical metaphor, soon after I met S.T., Sun City ukulele teacher Lori introduced our group to a new song (listen here). I wasn’t familiar with the artist or song, but I had to only hear it once and I was hooked. The song’s simple poignancy and relevance brought joy to my heart and some moistness to my eyes. Who couldn’t use a dose of joy that exudes from Keb’ Mo’s song:
“Cause Life is beautiful, Life is Wondrous, Every Star Above is shining just for us. Life is Beautiful, on a stormy night, somewhere in the world, the sun is shining bright.”
Whenever I am back in Pacifica, I take every chance I can to walk at the ocean; in fact, the minute I land at SFO, and drop my suitcase off at the apartment, I’m down at the beach doing a 2-3 mile walk. I breathe in the fresh salt air and feel cleansed and so blessed to be alive.
My grandkids feel the same way about the ocean:
I will close with this: I was walking on beach cliffs this past week with my daughter-in-law Krysti. It was a sparkling September day and I could not contain my gratitude, and while we traversed narrow slippery channels, I shared with Krysti how her husband Ryan’s words, “shock wave” impacted me and how I was going to use that phrase in my September blog.
Krysti turned around smiling and remarked, “Well, there can be good shock waves, can’t there? Such as learning about a surprise pregnancy even though we all thought our family was complete?”
“Yes, Krysti,” I answered, “that is definitely a good shock wave.”
Krysti, mother of 3 boys, contemplating the future, and the addition of a 4th boy….life goes on:
So it looks like my 9th grandchild will be arriving early spring 2020, and I couldn’t be happier.
A.R.: You will never be forgotten. All the surfers and non-surfers on our little stretch of coast and lots of other places will always remember you; and, the exuberant and kind life you lived is your legacy that we’ll pass down to our grandchildren.
With a big shout out to all adventurers, whether you are driving across country to a new life, or catching a wave on a local or foreign beach, may you live your best life and may you be happy, joyous and free. And… may we never forget to treasure each moment we are given.
Submitted with love and gratitude,