I was born and raised in San Francisco, a city almost surrounded by water. My brothers and I grew up on busy streets amid sputtering mufflers and broken glass, but we could smell the salty Pacific just a few concrete hills and valleys away. And, like most kids I know, we wanted nothing more than to get wet. Buses brought us to the ocean and the bay, where we plunged in despite the cold. The first minute was the worst; then your skin lost sensation, and you could stay in for an hour.
We’d learned to swim at a young age: in lakes and ponds on camping trips, in the glaring rectangular oases of the city’s public pools, and on the wide expanse of Ocean Beach at the end of the N-Judah streetcar line. There we threw our bodies against the water and let it toss us around, and eventually I discovered how waves peaked and crashed, which ones were so big I’d better duck under them, and which ones were curling just for me. I jumped into those curls, and they hurled me back to shore and spit me out. The thrill always won out over the trepidation. I became enamored of waves, intimate with their push and pull, grateful for the free ride.
By the time I got to high school, I was taking the bus across the Golden Gate Bridge into sunny Marin County. With multiple transfers I would eventually arrive at the white sand of Stinson Beach. The trip took two and a half hours each way, but I made it as often as I could, usually alone. Once, though, when I was fifteen, I went with Dell — a skinny, talkative boy from school who was trying to be my boyfriend. He had a car, or was able to borrow one, so it didn’t take us nearly as long to get there.
Northern California beaches can be treacherous. Powerful rip currents and undertows are common, and signs warn of “sneaker waves” that can crash onto the beach and take you down even if you are just strolling in your jeans and sweat shirt, hunting for sand dollars. At Ocean Beach in San Francisco there weren’t, and still aren’t, any lifeguards, because the authorities didn’t want to give the impression that it was safe to swim there. Stinson was my first beach with lifeguards, and I came very close to needing them that day.
Dell and I had been in the water for maybe forty minutes when I swam out past the breakers to float on my back, eyes closed and ears underwater, the world muted. Dell followed, and when we started to swim in to shore, we didn’t seem to make any progress. It was as if we were caught in an optical illusion; no matter how hard we swam toward the beach, it only got farther away. Then came a tingle of panic as I understood: we were caught in a riptide.
Though I had been educated in the do’s and don’ts of riptides, I had never actually been in one. Tired and cold, I forgot the number-one don’t — don’t swim directly toward shore — and also the number-one do: do swim parallel to the shore until you get out of the rip. Instead I attempted to muscle my way through it. Perhaps the current wasn’t that strong, or maybe I was just lucky, but my feet finally touched bottom right as the lifeguard reached me. I assured him I was OK and pointed toward Dell, who was still out there. The lifeguard dove in with his orange flotation device and came back with my not-boyfriend, who spent the rest of the day wrapped in a towel on the sand, shivering with residual panic.
My own panic did not leave me shivering. I would not admit how afraid I’d been — not to Dell, not to the lifeguard, not to myself. I spent the rest of the day doing what I always did at the beach: tanning both sides of my body, reading my book, and going back in the water whenever I got too hot.
I’d been pushing fear down into my belly for so long it felt natural. At that time my mother, my younger brother, and I were living in a first-floor flat with iron bars on the windows and a metal gate at the door. None of us spent much time there, and I often stayed out late at dance class, at cafes, at other people’s houses — anywhere to avoid that barren apartment.
When I came home late at night on the streetcar, I’d get my key out of my backpack and grip it in my hand, then hold my breath as I walked — with an efficient stride, but not scurrying — the three blocks to my house. My skin would tighten to form a shield around me, my body bracing against whatever it might encounter. Just as I did that day at Stinson Beach, I’d push the fear down to my gut before I could acknowledge it. My belly would ache, but I was determined to do whatever it took to escape that iron-barred apartment and get to the things that made me feel fully alive.
In Kennebunk, Maine, of all places, at the age of thirty-six, of all ages, I learned to surf. I had seen surfers at the beach as a girl, but it had never occurred to me that I might become one of them. My brothers and I were not the sort of kids who owned expensive sporting goods like surfboards and wet suits. Now I waded into the ocean with a loaner board from my friend John, who offered me a few tips, then paddled out to ride the bigger waves while I flopped around in the foam close to shore. A surfboard is surprisingly skittery, like a horse, and it was hard to get the hang of the balance, the timing, and just how much paddling it took to catch up to a wave. It was three or four outings with John’s loaner board before I finally caught one, stood up, and rode it.
A certain smile plasters the face of a beginner who has just ridden her first wave: a mix of astonishment and glee. It’s the look of someone who has taken part in a miracle and cannot wait to do it again.
I spent that summer learning to surf small, amiable waves. Then along came hurricane season, and the waves got big. They were also farther out, beyond a wide swath of churning white foam that I had to plow through to get to the smooth water, where the waves were forming. When I first waded in, the force of the surf caught me off guard. So I plunged in harder and tried to push through, adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream. I didn’t know yet that you’re supposed to walk beside, not behind, your board when entering the surf, and to keep the nose of your board facing into the ocean, so that the waves don’t pick it up and smack it into you. You’re also supposed to enter at the edge of a wave, where it trails off, rather than charging into the middle, where it’s most powerful.
Then there are all the things you’re not supposed to do: You’re not supposed to walk against the current with your board flopping around at your side as every new breaking wave tries to tug it — and your arm — away. You’re not supposed to get stuck in the “impact zone,” where the waves are crashing, for a solid half-hour. You’re not supposed to spend all your energy wrestling through the white water such that, when you finally make it beyond the foam, you have no strength left to paddle. You’re not supposed to get swooped up by a hefty six-footer you didn’t mean to take, and then go tumbling down it face first and almost run into another surfer and finally land, gasping for breath, back in the white water. All of which I did.
Somewhere down in my gut a faint alarm was trying to tell me I was in over my head, but I was too caught up in the sheer physical challenge to pay it any mind.
That night I was drinking beer with friends at the inn owned by my friend John when he came over to chat.
“You got a compliment,” he told me.
“On what?” I asked.
“No way.” We both knew I was a sloppy beginner at best.
“OK, not your surfing,” he conceded. “Your guts.” Apparently the bartender, a fellow surfer, had witnessed my battle with the white water. “He said you were fearless,” John told me.
That night in bed, buzzing with beer and pride, I thought about the thin line between fearlessness and foolishness. It was a line I’d been walking most of my life.
Would the bartender have called me fearless when, in junior high, I took a shortcut to school through a train tunnel and had to leap into a narrow alcove to avoid getting hit by the train? How about when I was in high school, and I wanted to get to a party so bad that I sat at one of the worst intersections in the city close to midnight, waiting for a bus while a drug deal went down across the street? Or a year later, when I went hitchhiking alone in Mexico and pretended not to understand Spanish when the truck driver who’d given me a ride motioned toward the mattress behind his seat? Or when he pulled over to pray to a roadside Madonna, and I jumped out and ran into the desert, hoping he wouldn’t follow?
So many times I would take risks that should have scared me but didn’t. When you grow up in a big city with hands-off parents, you become accustomed to harrowing situations. You may even come to feel that the wet plum of fear living permanently in your gut is essential to your being. My mother and father were young, with few resources, and after they divorced, money got even tighter, and supervision got even looser. My father moved across town, and my mother went back to college full time while holding down a job; neither of them had much time for the kids. At eleven I worried about how my mother was going to come up with the rent. Maybe this constant insecurity set my threshold for danger dangerously high. Pushing down my fear was how I learned to step beyond it and try to live my life “all the way up,” as Hemingway says only bullfighters do.
My success at doing this gave me an illogical belief in my own invincibility. Because nothing really bad had ever happened to me, I assumed nothing really bad ever would. Was I fearless or foolish? It was hard to decide, lying there in bed. All I knew was that I could not wait to get up and throw myself back into those waves the next morning.
A few years and a few hundred waves later I was in Costa Rica, surfing at Playa Grande — not a beginner’s spot. The waves there are big, strong, and fast, and you have to be quick, or they will fold over you and shove you under. I stood at the water’s edge and watched the eight-footers for a good long while, trying to learn their tricks. Finally I went in.
It took me a long time even to catch a wave, much less get to my feet and ride it. I’d paddle for one, but it always curled over before I could get my board onto the edge and my feet onto my board. Again and again I got to that critical spot too late. Often I went too far to back out, and the lip folded over, taking me with it — what’s known as “going over the falls.”
That morning I went over the falls dozens of times, getting pummeled, pulling myself up, and going back for more. At some point I realized that I was hesitating ever so slightly at the top of each wave. As my board reached the lip, a very logical part of me was thinking, That’s steep, could be dangerous. A sliver of fear was coming between me and what I wanted. If I was going to catch this wave, I’d have to move past logic and not consider the consequences.
Once I recognized the fear, I refused to give in to it. I brought my board to the edge and forced myself to stand up on it, and somehow I stayed vertical as I whooshed down that water hill and arrived at the bottom still standing. A better surfer would have angled the board back up the wave and ridden it farther, but I was elated to have made it down the face successfully, and I got out while I was still ahead.
On my way off the beach, I walked by a Brazilian woman who had set up her camera on a tripod to snap pictures to sell to the surfers. She beckoned me over with her finger.
“I got some pictures of you,” she said.
“Oh, great,” I said. “Going over the falls.”
“No, I got the one you made.”
This photographer knew what to look for, and she’d captured my one success. Of course I bought the photos. When I looked at them later, I saw no pleasure on my face as I flew down the wave, only fierce determination.
From here the story should proceed to the day when the fearless (or perhaps foolish) woman who has taunted danger all her life tries something too dangerous even for her. Her confidence becomes overconfidence, her audacity catches up to her, and her luck runs out.
But it did not happen like that. The conditions were benign, the risk almost nonexistent. My accident occurred on a placid August afternoon in Maine, on a beach full of swimmers and waders, where the waves were almost too small to ride. My biggest concern was to avoid knocking into any of the kids splashing around me. I caught a wave and rode till it petered out. Then I dove off my board.
Maybe I was fatigued from the day’s heat, or distracted by a stray thought, or just not paying attention. Maybe the milky-green color of the water made it seem much deeper than it was. When I dove in, I hit the top of my head against the bottom, which was sand, and what is sand but cement without mortar? The skull is dense, so it was my neck — flexible and fragile — that absorbed the impact. An electrical storm raged in my head, and I was about to pass out. But I willed myself to stand up, reach for my board, and walk unsteadily out of the water to my car, each step bringing more pain and the growing knowledge that I had done something very, very bad to myself. An ambulance arrived, and I was strapped to a gurney, taken to a hospital, and given a CT scan. Then another ambulance, another hospital, another scan. The vertebrae at the base of my skull had cracked and crumbled, but somehow the nerves within remained intact. There were bone shards threatening to pierce my carotid artery, but the doctors were betting on the fragments disintegrating on their own.
Four days later I was upright at last, though confined in a horrifying metal brace designed to keep my neck immobilized so the bones could knit themselves back together. That is the miracle of bones: if you keep them rigid after a break, they repair themselves.
The brace was on me for three months: every minute, day and night, awake and asleep. The Sternal Occipital Mandibular Immobilizer — affectionately known as SOMI — was like a set of metal ribs encircling my torso. More metal slats went over my shoulders and around my neck, and rods extended up the front and back to hold my head in place at the chin and the base of the skull. When the doctors first showed me this contraption, I thought, I am not going to get any sleep for three months. They held it up to me like a newborn, and I peered at it with shock and exhaustion and, ultimately, a resolve to love this device, because it was going to keep me alive and out of a wheelchair.
Once they locked me into the SOMI, it was exactly like wearing a cage. For twelve weeks I had flashes of claustrophobia, especially at night, because of the way it was locked onto me, blocking me from parts of my own body. To make it through, I resorted to my old trick of pushing the panic down before it could take over.
The SOMI did an excellent job of preventing my spine from bending or twisting. It also forced me to look nowhere but straight ahead — a limited view I decided was fine once I considered the alternative. When you cannot look down, mere walking becomes treacherous, even on a flat surface. You shuffle along: stretch one foot out to feel for unevenness, take a step, repeat. A simple stroll around the block requires your complete concentration. The mind cannot wander. It must stay alert for potholes, wet leaves, curbs. On stairs I’d grip the handrail or keep one knee against the wall to guide me as the other foot groped for the next narrow ledge of safety. For the first time in my life I was truly afraid of falling.
When you break your neck, you become a kind of messenger of vulnerability, a reminder of our human fragility. People who saw me took in a quick breath and reached, without realizing it, for their own neck: to feel how the bones there stack up, the muscles and tendons sewing them together to form a supple curve; and, balanced delicately on top, the head, heavy with blood and bone. I would come plodding by in my ghastly brace to remind all in the vicinity how easily that balance can come undone. Even my friends had trouble looking directly at me and tended to focus their gaze slightly above and beyond. I wanted to apologize for making everyone so uncomfortable, but the fact is we are not invincible. And perhaps there is some benefit in being reminded of this.
That wasn’t the only reaction I got. Like a very pregnant woman, my brace and I stirred up tenderness as well. Just as people feel compelled to comment on the miracle of that protruding belly, strangers would stop me on the street and tell me with watery eyes how glad they were I’d made it. If they were religious they might say, “God bless you, God bless you.” It felt like my duty to reassure them that I was going to be all right, to let them have their moment with someone who’d been so close to death. Then I’d walk on, leaving compassion, maybe even reverence, in my wake. It was as close as I’ll ever come to being holy.
If you jump in, there is, of course, the chance that you will hit bottom. But the only alternative is not to jump. So the next summer I was back on my board at the same beach where I’d broken my neck. The waves were bigger in the water than they’d seemed from shore, but I wasn’t trying to ride any yet. I just wanted to get close to them, to feel their bob and swell, before I grew too afraid to try. After three months in the SOMI, then a series of progressively less-restrictive braces, I still had a sore neck and couldn’t turn my head all the way left or right, but these limitations were unlikely to go away, and I was just going to have to get used to them. So I slid onto my belly and paddled out, my arms slicing into the glassy water, my board skimming along the surface.
If you are going to break your neck, you really should do it the way I did, without dying or becoming paralyzed or even needing surgery. You should do it in such a way that a year later you are back on your board, staring down at the green-and-white water and wondering about luck and danger and fear, and how the thing that makes you feel most alive can also be the thing that almost kills you.