The college drop-off, which promised to be heart-wrenching, was surprisingly calm. I shed no tears. I kept my cool. Rocco, characteristically stoic, betrayed his feelings with a smile of resignation that I shared. Neither of us wanted to make the moment dramatic, so we hugged—with just a moment of lingering—and then parted awkwardly. My heart tugged as I said goodbye to my oldest son, though my first thought was, “We are so closely connected, physical distance between us will do nothing to change that.”
My husband, Joel, my younger son, Gio, and I drove back home, chit-chatting much of the way. We were all going to miss Rocco deeply as we four became we three. Our nervous conversation echoed off the well of feelings about leaving our son and brother, a feeble attempt to keep those feelings at bay, much like the Japanese tradition of laughing away demons.
Everyone I talked to that day asked how I was holding up. My connection to Rocco is no secret and anyone who knows me at all knew I would take it hard.
“I am surprisingly fine,” I answered again and again. “I don’t really feel that far away from him and besides, we will be seeing him in just five weeks.” I said it more to console myself than to answer the question, but I believed it. Sure I did.
Then I went for a wave check.
Let me explain.
We live a hundred and fifty yards from the ocean. No matter the season or weather, Rocco and I walk barefoot to the ocean to check out the surf. On some days we perform this ritual once—in the mornings—on others it could be four or five times over the course of a day.
In the two and a half-minute walk to the ocean we take in the sounds from the water before we even see it and try to guess the conditions. Silence is not welcome, as it portends no waves at all. A shushing water sound isn’t good either, as it tells us that there is no period swell, just water constantly pushing towards shore with nothing worth riding. When we hear the crackle and boom of waves breaking followed by momentary respite we know it’s time to catch and ride a wave. This is the most promising of all. When we hear this particular sound, we look to each other and raise our eyebrows: sounds like…something!
That moment of anticipation before the water enters our view is always sweet. What ocean mood will we find as we crest the dunes? Our conversation then follows whether we will paddle straight out or wait for the tide to come in – or maybe wait for the wind to switch directions or slow down.
If the conditions and our timing are good—and living at a shore break in New Jersey means we’re not so lucky very often—we run back to the house to pull on a wetsuit, grab and wax our boards and head back to the beach for a session. This routine with Rocco has driven much of my time, energy and joy in the past decade.
The night of our return home after the drop off, I go to bed with a hole in my heart and a text to my boy bidding him goodnight. That mendacious refrain insists: I am fine, I am fine. I sleep, if fitfully. I feel a dull ache, like something missing, a phantom limb. And while I know exactly what it is, I can’t quite reconcile the feeling.
In the morning I grab my cup of coffee and walk alone up to the beach for a wave check. Hurricane Hermine is working her way up the eastern seaboard and I am excited to see what she brings. Surfers wait for hurricane swells and I know Rocco wouldn’t want to miss this one. I planned to send him photos of the waves, knowing full well that he would have already checked the local surf cam online. But having this self-appointed task calms me.
I hear the reverb of booming water and say aloud to no one, “There are waves!” I walk barefoot along the splintery boardwalk with a forced steadiness I do not feel. The dunes to my left block the view to water, as they have done for the hundreds of times Rocco and I have made this walk together. I turn into the dune path from where I can see the steely greenish blue ocean expanse and horizon line.
That’s when it hits me, like a blow to the solar plexus.
I take a quick inhale and feel a surge of emotion. I check it, mostly out of surprise. You’re okay, I tell myself. I step off the boarded walkway into deep, white sand and I dig my feet towards the shoreline. The waves are crashing loudly. They are disorganized, not surfable, but stunning in their stormy churning. The twenty mile-per-hour wind blows from the north, contributing to the morning’s cacophony. The sight of the ocean swells my heart to match its size, causing it to burst. I dissolve into wracking sobs, mercifully drowned out by the waves and the wind.
I miss my boy. I miss him so much that I cease knowing who I am at this very moment. I was fine, and now I am not.
I sit down in the sand and watch the wild water moving in so many directions, agitated like the wild beating of my heart. My tears flow and I choke breaths of salty air. An intense feeling stirs; one that is familiar but as if from another time. It reemerges now, seemingly out of nowhere: a deep longing. Longing—I realize in this very moment—only ever conjured in the presence of the ocean. For nearly two decades this feeling has been blessedly absent.
I grew up with this pining, this dull ache, spending hours staring at the ocean, walking along her shorelines. As an adolescent turned teenager, as a young adult, at twenty and thirty-something, the visceral pull and yearning whenever I saw the ocean’s vast expanse and horizon was as reliable as hunger after a day’s fast. I didn’t know the source of this pull. I couldn’t name it and yet I grew accustomed to this unnamable feeling. And paradoxically, I sought it out whenever possible. I was both happier and more melancholy whenever I was by the ocean. These twin feelings, coexisting in a kind of comfortable dissonance, made me feel as if on the verge of something.
That oceanic feeling was tinged with fear also, as my sleeping nightmares and dreams have forever alternated between ocean waves that threaten to destroy me, or welcoming swells that embrace me. I was either one with Mother Ocean or being swallowed by her. The stuff of my nightmares lived next door to the stuff of my most awesome dreams. As I grew up, I spent uneasy time in water—though drawn to it—fearful of the pull of her currents and the life sustained beneath them. The ocean stirred all of those fears and longings—and yet I craved it like a drug.
Then I gave birth to Rocco and those longings stirred by the ocean disappeared. In their place was something else: Love, but bigger than love. As if an unbalanced weight in the core of my being had steadied, or a vibration quieted, a lifelong hunger quelled.
I nursed Rocco in his early weeks at the ocean’s edge. I walked with him along the beach, holding him close to my heart in a baby carrier until he could walk on his own with me. We would nap on the warm sand, my boy snugly lying across my body, my arms wrapped around him. By the time he was eighteen months I’d overcome my trepidation of the ocean’s power enough to learn to surf. Just the fact of Rocco’s birth released a lifelong resistance to enter the ocean with surrender. By the time he was five, Rocco was surfing as well.
My love for the ocean grew, absent the longing. Although the fear remained I was now drawn toward that fear. It was fear turned into desire: the gift my son unwittingly bestowed on his mother. My love for Rocco was immediate, but it too would grow. There was fear in that love as well. It was a mother’s fear I could not have known before.
In the years that followed, surfing became an act of love that my son and I have shared. Our time together off of terra firma, riding the earth’s energy in the form of a wave, satisfying a deep desire for connection: Mother Ocean and Mother Love, the twin forces that drive so much of who I am and what I do and seek.
When not in the water, Rocco and I walk together along the beach. Sometimes we stay in the comfort of silence, but often we’re in deep conversation. We talk of dreams and ambitions, frustrations and conflict, and often, of love. He came out to me in tears one blustery day three years ago along our stretch of beach. He shares with excitement explanations of the cosmos, as well as discovery of new friendships. He walked slowly beside me when I was recovering from surgery and treatment during my year of battling cancer. I shot photos of him while he surfed when I was too sick to get in the water. I recovered, slowly, with him by my side on beach walks and paddle outs.
And now, as I had been before Rocco was born, I was alone with the ocean and the emotions it stirred. Crying at the water’s edge, the longing of my younger self had returned, unbidden, as a tsunami washing over me. I’d experienced this kind of affecting power when each of my sons were born—Gio arrived just two years after Rocco—but those experiences came as a tide of emotions imbuing me, not overtaking me. The benevolent ocean dream come true.
I now understand this previously unnamed feeling before my sons were born as an inchoate longing for meaning and purpose, found in my life as a mother and enhanced by overcoming my fear of the ocean to enjoy the gifts she brings. I have also learned to accept the dangers and fears inherent in both. Not having wrestled with this longing for so long had fooled me into thinking that it no longer existed inside of me. Its return has knocked me off center, a rude awakening to remind me, after all these years, that my tether to purpose and meaning could be stretched to a terrifying limit.
Now that Rocco is launched into adult life where more of his experiences will be without me—as well they should be—I must recalibrate the cadence and purpose of my days. My younger son is still with me, but he will be going his own way soon. Of course they will always be with me, but they will not be with me in the profoundly physical sense as they were as younger children at home.
I naively believed that I was over that youthful feeling of longing. It is back, and though not quite youthful, still unfathomable. I imagine it will be quieted with a new understanding of my roles: as mother to a child on his own, as a surfer in the ocean without her son. Mother Ocean and Mother Love will go their separate ways for a while, until I can paddle out with Rocco again.