I grew up in Southern California with a swimming pool in my backyard and an hour from the beach. When I was a kid, I was certain that everything you needed to learn about the world could be taken from the water.
So as a teenager and a woman in my early twenties, I took every opportunity I could to make it to the beach. I had body-surfed the Pacific for years and the ultimate surfing was at The Wedge. Twenty years ago, this place was word-of-mouth among surfers. Today, according to the Internet, it’s well known. There is a rock jetty at The Wedge that makes for singular waves–but they are also notoriously unpredictable.
Most days when I arrived at The Wedge, I watched an ambulance drive away a surfer. As I tugged on my winter wetsuit, I would shake my head. That was never going to be me, but I could see what had happened to “them”. Not me. Them. The best and most thrilling waves were in this place and I was a strong and fearless swimmer.
I have a crystalline memory of the day The Wedge schooled me about life. The waves were maybe six feet and predictably formed. I slipped into the curls, convinced that I was one with the heart’s blood of the world.
Then the waves shifted.
With no warning, I was swimming into a twelve-foot wave, torn between diving or trying to ride it. I went with it and found myself tossed on the crest, staring below. There was nothing but a shallow sweep of water across sand and I was about to meet it.
I hit the floor and didn’t know how to swim up. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know sky from salt water. And when the wave caught up with me, I rolled, sand abrading my cheeks and I begged to get to a place where I could breathe. Spun and disoriented, I imagined my goodbyes and then somehow fought my way accidentally to the surface.
I stumbled through the surf, back to my towel, and then stared unbelieving at the ocean. I stripped off my winter wetsuit next to my Pontiac Sunbird, drove away, and never body-surfed again.
The Wedge had betrayed me.
But looking back now I know that’s not quite right. The Wedge was inevitable. She is the ocean. The Wedge taught me everything I needed to know about grief.
I lost Elsa, my Cooper’s hawk on Wednesday. She was killed after eight months of a hard won relationship. I know that falconry is cruel, because nature is cruel. If you choose to be a falconer, you choose to eschew the laws of civilized life. I chose to be at the whim of destruction. I chose to have to face my grief.
But none of us want to face our grief. It is the ocean of life.
At first I did what we all do. I attended to the busy work of death. I found a favorite t-shirt and wrapped her small body carefully inside. I removed empty perches and bath pans and crates, not wanting to face a blank expanse in unexpected moments. I made phone calls and texted and kept talking so I could convince everyone else that I was just fine.
I pretended like there wasn’t a 12-foot wave coming, because one wants to grieve. But when the phone calls were over and there was nothing left to do, I folded into myself and couldn’t come uncurled.
Elsa was a blow, but that wasn’t why I didn’t want to face my grief. I’ve come to learn that grief is cumulative. Our life’s losses are a symphony that we conduct, every performance more rich and beautiful when we have to pick up the baton.
I own this requiem. It is the grandparents who raised me. It is my first dog. It’s my dear friend Andy. It is Morris, Needle, Bentley, Elsa, friends who have moved and broken relationships. Every little loss is in the swell of 100 instruments.
Grief is the thing that we fear the most. We want so badly to bury our grief with our dead, but our losses are as loud as the life in our blood. Our dead never stop talking. You can choose to ignore their voices, but then you have to shut out the living as well.
And if you ask me, this is far too much to lose. My symphony is not an easy listen, but god damn it’s beautiful.
I promised myself when I started these letters that I would be vulnerable and honest about failure. I told myself that I would be honest about when I got knocked down. I’m knocked down. Not because of a hawk, but because she was mine, a metaphor and a story that is over now. But I’m going to get back up because all stories end.
My loss is small compared to some, if not most. But we all grieve the same and in this, our losses make us equal.
And how can we stand strong for those we love if we cannot believe that what we feel is what others feel? We are all of us travelling on the waves of our cumulative grief.
So I guess what I want to say is that even if I haven’t heard it, even if you don’t want to share, your symphony is a masterpiece. Loss is for the living and it is born on unpredictable waves. We are all of us surfing The Wedge. The ocean is cruel, but it’s beautiful music. Embrace the waves.