The Wave Not Taken

What’s hardest about middle age are the regrets. When you suddenly, alarmingly recognize that your life’s half over, what’s jarring isn’t just the realization that you’ll never have the chance to do everything you’ve planned. It’s the missed opportunities, the choices you might have made, but didn’t—those are what really keep you up at night.

I speak from experience. At 41, I have an enviable life: a job most people would trade a limb for; a warm, intelligent husband whose company I never tire of; a lively menagerie of family and friends; a galumphy dog who makes me laugh several times a day. But even my charmed existence can’t keep me, at times, from succumbing to the demons of “what if.”

Most of the regrets that haunt me in these moments are lost possibilities I’ll never recover. The phone message from the literary agent that I never returned. The dear friend I never properly cherished before his suicide. The years—decades—of easy fertility, when I could have conceived a child if only I’d made it a priority.

But there’s always been one “what if”—small, but surprisingly persistent—that I’ve imagined it might not be too late to remedy. What if, after all this time, I could still learn to surf?

My childhood offered me innumerable occasions to try. I’m the progeny of ocean-lovers: an Australian mother whose greatest pleasure was to stroke gracefully past the breakers of our hometown beaches in Sydney; and an American father who’d spent his own youth as a lifeguard and swimming instructor. They had me bobbing in the waves at Bondi and Manly before I could speak or walk; by the time I was eight, I was body surfing and swimming competitively (and watching local boys catch rollers on their boards). Even after we moved to Connecticut when I was 13, I palled around with kids who wrangled what they could out of the meager surf of Long Island Sound. Male kids, that is.

Because in the 1970s and ‘80s, girls—at least the ones I knew—didn’t surf. And so, very simply, neither did I. It wasn’t as if I gave it a shot and got rebuked, or even that I asked to try and was made fun of; the distressing truth is that attempting it never even crossed my mind.

But what if it had?

That was the question that plagued me as I got older, and saw women’s surfing become a sport in its own right. I couldn’t stop thinking that, with all my water skills, it might only have been my attitude that kept me from becoming another Lane Beachley. Instead, though, here I was, paddling through midlife, feeling like I’d missed the wave.

Although it did occur to me, often, that that’s the thing about waves…there are always more of them.

* * * * *

It was that rationale—let’s call it eleventh-hour hope—that landed me on a crescent-shaped beach in northern Kauai on a recent early morning, as the sun (and my 42nd birthday) edged up on the horizon. Despite the mixed reactions of my loved ones (which ran the gamut from “You go, lady!” to “God, please don’t brain yourself on a coral reef”), I’d signed up for a small women’s surf camp here, with a highly recommended outfit called Surf n Sol.

Nervous as I was, I should have been listening carefully to the instructions that our teacher, Mike, was giving to the three of us in the camp. But my eyes kept darting from his pop-up demonstrations over to my fellow students, both of whom were significantly younger and fresher-looking than me. Out in the gentle swells of the bay, I could already see small figures nimbly balancing on surfboards: children, some of whom couldn’t have been more than five or six. It was only the first day, but already a new “what if” had taken root in my mind: What if this was a huge mistake? A spectacularly effective way to embarrass myself?

When the moment of reckoning came, Mike helped me paddle out to a spot where the waves were cresting. Though I’d trained for weeks at the gym, my heart rattled unevenly in my chest as I pawed my way through the surf. I wanted this so badly. And I could so easily see myself failing.

My anxiety escaped Mike, though. Walking alongside me as I paddled, he observed, “You seem pretty at home in the water.”

Close to tears, I twisted on the board to look at him.

“Listen, I know I’m old, and I don’t have high expectations,” I said. “All I want is to stand up once. Just once. I don’t care if it takes me all week.”

Mike laughed. “All week? You’re going to be standing in five minutes. Now, here comes a good wave—paddle, paddle!”

An hour later, when I finally dragged my board out of the sea, I felt as if I’d been born all over again. It had happened just as Mike said: I’d gotten up and actually surfed on my very first try. I had salt in my eyes and sand in my hair, terrifically sore shoulders, and bruises in places where no one gets bruises (the tops of my feet; my armpits). But I had no regrets. And no easy answer for the new question starting to nag at me.

What if our doubts are the only thing holding us back?