Robin, Camila's mom

Surviving Rogue Waves

I live next to the Pacific Ocean. The shore is rocky, sometimes sandy but sometimes treacherous. At a few beaches, there are caution signs where the canyon beneath comes closest to the shore. The sudden drop off combined with a sudden swell can pull an unsuspecting tourist into the water and out to sea.

We call them rogue waves. Lacking the beauty of a cresting wave that curls then breaks, rogue waves act like undertow, their strength hidden beneath the surface. They build in power and volume, developing steep sides and a deep trough. And they come from any direction, sometimes counter to prevailing winds and tide.

Last week, I was reading a novel – Like a Woman by Debra Busman – when I came upon this passage, written shortly after the protagonist saves a friend who had been pulled under and out to sea. Trying to help her friend see the value of her own choices, the protagonist tells her,

“You were out there ninety percent of the time by yourself before I could even get to you. You did everything right. You relaxed, didn’t fight the current, swam only enough to come up for air, stayed calm. You called for help. You made the decision to live.”

I read the passage again.

Busman could have been describing how to survive loss.

Sometimes surviving the death of my daughter feels like surviving a rogue wave. The sudden breaks to the surface can seem more rare than the slow steady pull into grief. Like rogue waves, the shift from above the surface to below, into my sad subconscious, can be a swift transition. Yesterday the shift occurred when I passed a home medical equipment truck on the highway; a few days before, it was seeing someone in front of me who walked like a dancer, shoulders back, toes out: Camila’s walk. Such brief scenes can have the power to bring my loss full blown upon me. Sometimes it seems that around every corner is a rogue wave, ready to pull me under.

But like Busman’s character, I too have to acknowledge the value of my own choices.

One is not fighting the grief itself, relaxing into it. Staying calm even within the vortex of passionate crying or my keen sense of longing for Camila. The image of letting grief move through me comes to mind. There is no point in “fighting the current” in this case. My sense of loss cannot be avoided. It hums beneath everything, touches everything – it is the water surrounding the swimmer. Just as it is essential to “come up for air,” to cook the meal, walk the dog, talk of common things, it is essential that I accept my grief not as a visitor but as a part of me.

Talking to a new friend or an old friend about Camila helps keep her present in my life – and it sometimes brings my pain to the surface, too, which I feel as a good thing. Someone other than me can see it, acknowledge its pull and feel its power. And like anything hard, talking about my loss sometimes seems to diminish its power, making it somehow easier to live with, easier to accept as a part of my life.

That is the “stay calm” part: accepting my loss and this grief as a new form of my parenthood. This is not a transition. The loss of my girl is a permanent loss. But even within that horrible reality, I have choices to make. Again, I come back to my old insight: I can mourn the loss or celebrate the life. I need to find new ways to love my daughter, to feel my parenthood, to remain Camila’s mom. I want her to stay a part of my life. I don’t want just a memory or a melancholy. I want to feel like her mom for the rest of my life. And that takes some doing, takes some more of those deliberate choices.

I choose to talk about Camila. I choose to bring her into the conversation as naturally and as often as she brings herself into my mind. When the topic suggests a story of her life, her attitude, or her experience, I will continue telling it – just as I did when she was with me. I choose to talk about her.

I choose to continue to grow as a teacher, to be the academic my daughter was proud of claiming. I choose to read, to workshop, to discover. I will continue to seek out new ways to grow, to challenge myself. I choose to continue to improve my craft.

I choose to grow in friendships and relationships. I choose to travel, to have new experiences, to live beyond those experiences I shared with Camila. I choose the road, in whatever form it presents itself.

Like Debra Busman’s survivor, I choose to live.

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