The first wave wrenched the board loose from my fingertips, sending it crashing into my knee and knocking me off my feet.
“You OK, Cath?” I heard someone call from behind me.
“Not really!” I hollered, as someone reached around me to steady the huge stand-up paddle board while I struggled to regain my footing in the icy-cold waters of the Pacific.
My friends, experienced surfers Joel and Rob, appeared at my side, holding onto the board and gently coaching me to wait for the next set of waves to pass before attempting to paddle out toward Second Reef, several hundred yards beyond the shore break.
“You got it?” Rob said, “OK. You’re good to go!”
Gripping the long-handled paddle in one hand, I foisted myself forward (if with less grace than I had hoped) onto the board, while Joel pushed it forward into the momentarily glassy sea between sets.
By the time I righted myself on the board, clambered to my knees and began to paddle, I already was out of breath.
“EPIC!” Rob yelled from a few yards behind me. “You’re a natural!”
He’s a sweet, ever-encouraging friend. But I’m not so sure about the natural part. I’ve never been what you’d call —¿Como se dice? — naturally athletic. God has blessed me with many gifts, but the ability to excel at and enjoy the sporting life is not one of them.
Still I was determined to join the annual July 4 community paddle out in memory of my dear friend, Mark Metherell, who was killed in Iraq four years ago. Mark grew up in the seaside surfing village in Southern California that we now all call home. A former Navy SEAL, Mark was a consummate waterman who surfed Second Reef daily, carrying his board to the beach from his house a few blocks away.
I’d missed the paddle out in years past and had promised (myself and others) that this time, I’d “get my gills wet” and make my way out with the crowd of several dozen other friends and family to the place where Mark spent many happy hours communing with God and nature.
So I dug the paddle into the water and pushed onward toward the group of surfers — some on traditional boards (long and short) and others on SUPs — that had begun to gather near the boiling water above Second Reef.
“Hey Mom!” I heard a familiar voice call from behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw my 12-year-old son, Vasco, stomach down on a long board, deftly paddling this way through the surf. “You can do it!”
The kid was watching. There was no turning back. I had to do this. I would do this, with a little help from my friends and God, to whom I launched fervent and panicky silent prayers of “Help me, help me, help me!”
Just as I seriously was running out of steam, I came upon another friend, Dave, sitting astride his board facing us, smiling. “Take a break,” he told me and a couple of other novice would-be surfers nearby. “You’re about two-thirds of the way there. Rest for a minute. We want you to make it back for the paddle out next year, too!”
I rested momentarily, taking in a few deep breaths and the magnificent scene that was unfolding before me. Up ahead a dozen or so surfers waiting near the reef had begun to form a circle, as is the custom for such memorial paddle outs in surf culture.
A few minutes later, after navigating my way through several impressively large kelp beds, I joined the others in the circle. More correctly, I attempted to join the others in the circle but had some difficulty parking my board. When I started to drift off into yet another kelp bed, Rob hopped off his board, swam over, and dragged me back safely into the fold.
When everyone had arrived at the reef, we joined hands and David — Mark’s best friend, one of my son’s godfathers and a beloved member of our chosen family — invited people to say a few words about Mark and others who likewise selflessly serve our country in the Armed Forces.
David recalled the morning Mark was killed by a roadside bomb outside Sadr City, when Mark’s father and father-in-law arrived at David’s door at 5 a.m. to give him the terrible news. Watching my dear friend remember those moments was heartbreaking. And it also was powerfully beautiful.
Drawing from the deep well of gratitude he has for Mark’s life and friendship, David talked about the time they spent together surfing, about Mark’s character, bravery, kindness, grace, and stalwart faith.
And then he told the group about Mark’s favorite Bible verse from the book of Genesis: The spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
Rob, on my right, and Dr. Gary, on my left, squeezed my hands.
A few more people spoke, giving thanks and praying. Morea, Dr. Gary’s daughter, sang a verse of Amazing Grace a cappella from her SUP, and we sat in silence, listening.
That’s when it hit me: We were not alone out there, bobbing up and down on our boards in the sea. Surely the Spirit of the Lord was in this place. And Mark was there, too, along with those who have gone before us into Eternity, in the Communion of the Saints. We were community, a salt-water church, bound together by friendship, love, and the uncommon grace of sand and surf.
A platoon of pelicans flew in formation above our heads. I could hear the wind, the Spirit literally moving over the surface of the waters. And that great, old gospel song began to play in my mind:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.