Every trip begins with optimism and trepidation. It’s just a matter of degrees.
We left for Cincinnati with a lot of hope. It’s hard to remember that but we did. There was a time when Sam was sick but she wasn’t sick. She went to school, she rode her bike (kinda) and hung out with her friends. We had no reason not to expect good things from our trip. All we needed to do was get down there, spend some time in the hospital, and then come home.
“Bro, Rasta means your closest friends. You might say hello amigo or something else but when it’s your really good friend then you call them Rasta.”
It’s no surprise that there’s a certain culture around a surf community. But it was a surprise to me that the Costa Rican culture had such a Jamaican influence. Everyone listens to reggae music and there are a lot of dreadlocks. Now, I’m sure there are those here who embrace the totality of the rasta lifestyle in all its hazy glory but that seemed to be of absolutely no importance to Steven. To him rasta was good vibes, a natural lifestyle, and sharing your love with friends. Steven had wild hair and never wore anything but shorts. He looked different, sure, but he was different – in a really cool way. Rasta.
The surf at Playa Guiones didn’t look too menacing when we got to the beach that first morning. The first thing surfers do when they get to the beach is they sit and look at the ocean. They look at the waves, see where and how they’re breaking, and measure the time between sets of waves. It’s a moment of peace and calm before heading out into the energy of the surf.
The beach at Guiones was unlike any beach I’ve been to in that the difference between high tide and low tide was at least 75 yards. When we arrived there Sunday morning it was low tide so when we set up on the beach the waves were a significant distance away. From our perch at the top of the beach, the waves at Guiones looked pretty reasonable. Like this:
The reality is that they were really more like this:
To the eyes distance can make something appear smaller than it is, more manageable. With distance we can see the forest for the trees. Sometimes the mind works like that. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes with distance the mind can make things seem less manageable. Like when your child dies.
Sam nearly died on three separate occasions at the hospital. The first time I was sitting next to her on her bed. Were just talking and hanging out when she seemed to just be staring at me. It wasn’t unusual for her to tire out quickly at any given time and want to go to sleep but it was odd that she kept looking at me but stopped talking. I said her name a few times but she didn’t respond. I realized she wasn’t connected to any of her monitors, which happened occasionally, so there was no way of knowing if something was wrong. I went out to the nurses station and described what was happening and then all hell broke loose. It seemed like every nurse and doctor at Cincinnati rushed into the room. All of the equipment and monitors got moved out and new equipment was brought in. I didn’t know what to do except stand in the corner and pray. It might have been 5 seconds or it might have been five hours. They were preparing to do a tracheotomy when she started breathing again.
Whether or not hope likes it, reality often invites trepidation along for the ride.
As we walked towards the ocean for the first time the waves got bigger and bigger. And louder. This was not North Carolina, even during a hurricane. These were big, long, powerful waves. We walked our boards as far as we could each time bracing ourselves for oncoming waves. When the water got pretty deep we laid on our boards and started paddling. And paddling. And paddling. Every time I thought we’d be outside of where the waves were breaking a wave would hit and push me back starting the process all over again. Steven was helping us as much as he could but by the time we finally got to the outside I was exhausted. And thrilled. This is what I had come here for. To feel these waves and to get on a board and ride their power.
It’s a tricky thing figuring out which wave to ride. It’s an art really. Steven was very, very good at it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be around a better surfer in my life so we were in good hands. As we waited for the right wave Steven positioned Finn’s board towards the shore. As the swell approached us the wall of the wave got bigger and bigger. Steven pushed Finn’s board forward, told him to “paddle, paddle” and then yelled, “stand up!” Finn did exactly that and I saw his head rise up above the top of this gigantic wave. He was surfing. Then my head dipped below in the trough of the next wave and I didn’t see him anymore.
Me? Yeah, not so good. Steven got my board pointed forward and gave me the same directions with decidedly different results. As the wave grabbed my board the whooosh it made was deafening. I did exactly the wrong thing and grabbed the rails of the board and tried to a) stand up and surf and b) hold on for dear life. Those two things are mutually exclusive. As a result I pitched from my board and tumbled into the wave. Although tumbled may accurately describe it, it doesn’t fully capture the experience. When you fall off a surfboard in a big wave you suddenly become aware of the wave’s energy. It surrounds your body and hurls you in all kinds of directions under the water. It also does the same thing to your surfboard which is attached to your leg so your body also feels like it’s getting pulled apart. It’s scary. If you’re lucky you bob to the surface with enough time between waves to get your shit together and get control of your board. If you’re unlucky, you repeat the process. It gets scarier each time you have to repeat the process. Exponentially scarier.
I managed to get it together and started paddling back out again. It was even harder this time. On more than a couple of occasions I tried to paddle into and over a wave only to be swept back almost completely to shore. The process of getting back outside to Steven was humbling and exhausting and when I got there I laid my head on my board, sucked air, and wondered how I was ever going to be able to do that again. We were only ten minutes into a seven day trip.
The first time Sam came home to Columbus I got to drive her from Cincinnati. She was sick from the radiation that killed her bone marrow and her body had changed. Gone was the beautiful brown hair and her face and body were now puffy from the steroids she was on. But she got to see the friends and family who lined Shelbourne and welcomed her home. I’ll never forget how emotionally overwhelmed she was by the outpouring of love from her friends and family.
The second trip home was in a special ambulance equipped to move medically fragile children.
Finn also struggled getting back outside and I think he, too, was starting to wonder how he was going to keep getting out there. I didn’t realize it though because I was too excited thinking about the ride he just had. The ride of a lifetime to me. It didn’t dawn on me that it could have also been completely terrifying.
Steven set Finn up again and sent him on his way. Finn didn’t make the drop this time and he got thrown into the Guiones washing machine. I got on my board and waited for the right wave to come and when it did I was off…my board again and into the surf. After getting pounded back to the shore I headed back out. No way I wasn’t going to do this. I came all the way to Costa Rica to surf and my arms would have to fall off before I would stop trying. I thought I saw Finn heading back out and started to paddle out myself. I kept looking for him but couldn’t spot him. The waves kept coming and kept throwing me around and I started to worry about Finn. I took solace that he was a much better swimmer than me and I hadn’t drown yet but still each moment I couldn’t see him started to bother me more and more. When I finally reached Steven I hadn’t spotted Finn in quite awhile and I was getting close to panicking – which I have a rule against doing. The first thing I asked Steven was whether he knew where Finn was. “He paddled in, bro.” Relieved, I proceeded to do yet another underwater cartwheel to the shore of Playa Guiones.
“C’mon Sam, we gotta go.”
“I can’t Dad. I can’t get up the steps.”
“What do you mean you can’t get up the steps? Quite messing around and get up here. We’re late.”
“Dad, I can’t breathe.”
“Seriously Sam. It’s only 10 steps. Get up here.”
The risk for most transplant patients is host versus graft disease. The host (the body’s bone marrow) sends out white blood cells to attack the new organ (the graft) it doesn’t recognize as its own. In bone marrow transplant patients it’s the reverse. The graft (the new bone marrow) attacks the host (the patients organs.) We didn’t know it yet but Sam had graft versus host disease. Her new bone marrow was attacking her lungs which was causing scar tissue to build up. She was slowly suffocating to death. She really couldn’t breathe.
I met up with Finn on the shore. He was visibly upset. Really upset. In a voice that was shaking he said, “Dad, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to go back out there. It’s not fun.”
I took a moment and looked at him. He was genuinely upset. It wasn’t an act. I just said, “Don’t worry about it. I totally understand.” He looked at me a little funny and I just said, “Seriously, don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal. I’m scared out there too so I totally get it. Take your time until you feel better.”
I went out a couple of more times and even managed to stay upright on the board on occasion. I wouldn’t call it surfing but at least I wasn’t a complete train wreck. In the back of my mind I was still jealous of Finn and the wave he caught. I really, really wanted to do that.
We loaded the boards on top of the truck and headed into Nosara for breakfast. According to Steven, “Surfing makes you hungry, bro.” That’s an understatement. I’ve never been more hungry in my life. We settled into our seats at Soda Vanessa and let Steven go to work. Finn and I were not feeling that great and were pretty banged up but listening to Steven talk just made us feel better. Steven told us about sodas and rastas, juice and salsa, beach breaks and point breaks, schools and churches, Nosara and Tamarindo. He also introduced us to our favorite Steven saying: “Bro, this is so good. So good.” After a dose of Steven’s spirit and a huge breakfast of gallo pinto we headed back to the condo.
Surfing doesn’t just make you hungry, it makes you tired. When we got back Finn and I showered up and headed to the couch to check emails and fiddle with our phones. I don’t know about him but I was asleep in five minutes.
When I woke back up Finn and I hung out and had a snack. He mentioned to me that he appreciated that I didn’t yell at him when he was on the beach. I was a little surprised but not really. I was capable of telling him to sack up, get back out there, quit complaining, c’mon let’s go. Actually, I’m more than capable of saying something like that. It’s a near certainty that I would. I didn’t this time, though, and it made him feel better. A lot better. And that made me feel a whole lot better. So much so that it was as good as I’ve felt in a long time. After chatting a little more, Finn let on that the feeling he had in the water that morning was one of his lowest points ever. I knew he was pretty shook up but when he put it on those terms I knew it was pretty bad. “Finn, just keep in mind a low point is exactly that. A point.”
A couple of days before she died I got really mad at Sam. She couldn’t get comfortable and kept hitting the nurses button every 30 minutes or so and asked them to move her in bed. I had been staying with her that night so I woke up every time the nurses came in. I had finally had enough and yelled at Sam to quit calling the damn nurses. I’ve lost my temper before but never like that in the hospital with Sam.
In hindsight I think we knew what was happening but Nik and I had decided a long time before that we would put our heads down and work and fight as hard as we could through this. We never thought about losing. No matter how hard we worked or fought however, it was nothing compared to what Sam did. Her body was ravaged by a terrible disease and the cure was even worse. Throughout it all she maintained her dignity and her grace. She was always nice no matter how bad she felt. Complaints were rare. Our heads were down so we didn’t see who was leading us in the battle. It was Sam. It was always Sam. But she was complaining now and I was tired and exhausted and I got pissed at her. But if I could ever have one moment in my life to do over it would be that one. I regret that morning every single minute of every single day.
We had a meeting on the schedule with the doctor that afternoon. These were pretty regular but when this one started you knew immediately that it was the meeting you never wanted to have. Sam’s doctor talked about an experimental procedure that might have some effect but what he was really saying was that there was nothing else they could do. Sam was dying.
We were scheduled to head back to Playa Guiones with Steven later in the afternoon. I told Finn we’d take the cameras and if he wanted to surf great, we could take turns with the camera, or if he just wanted to take pictures that was cool too. I think Steven knew we were in over our heads that morning so he spent some time assuring us that the waves at high tide are much mellower.
As usual, Steven was right. The waves were smaller and not nearly as powerful. Still powerful enough to knock you around but the opportunity to recover was much greater. It was raining which gave the beach and water an awesome vibe. I paddled out a couple of times while Finn took some pictures. Then we switched and Steven had Finn back into surfing. Not just surfing either but surfing on a shortboard which is really, really hard. Finn had a regular surfboard but Steven let him borrow his shortboard. The shortboard has to be Steven’s most prized possession in the world and if you saw him on it you would totally understand why. For him to teach Finn how to ride it was an act of generosity I will never forget. Rasta.
I was thinking, too, about how proud I was of Finn for having gotten back in the water. If he had never gotten back in I would have totally understood. The ocean, and especially the ocean that morning, can kill you so not messing with it is a sane option. But he not only went back in he surfed it. Over and over. He might have been shaken up in the morning but he was bringing it in the afternoon. When it was my turn I started paddling out and I started humming Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
none but ourselves can free our mind…
And I thought how cool it was for Finn to have freed himself from his fear. When I got out to Steven I asked, “You know what song is going through my head right now? Redemption Song.”
“Bro, that’s a great song, bro.”
Won’t you help me sing.
These songs of freedom.
Cause all I ever had
Nik and I had to spend some time together. We needed to spend some time together. There was a lot to talk about. How would we tell Sam’s brothers? What about Kyra and the Bakers? Where will we have her funeral? Whenever we needed to be together when we were living apart we usually met for dinner at the J. Alexander’s in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati so it just made sense for us to go to dinner at the one in Columbus. When we went into Sam’s room she was sleeping. I sat next to her bed and told her how sorry I was for being so angry that morning. I told her I wasn’t mad anymore and that I wouldn’t be ever again. I asked her for her forgiveness and I told her I loved her.
I don’t know if Sam heard me or not. While we were at dinner she slipped into a coma. I like to think she waited and fought and fought until she knew her mom and I were finally ready. She led us until we didn’t need to be led anymore. And then she said goodbye.
I got up the next morning after surfing and made some coffee. I grabbed a cup and went outside and listened to the howler monkeys make a racket. Man, they are loud. I started to sing “Redemption Song” in my head again and quietly cursed having an ear worm. But then I thought of Finn. And then I wondered why I was signing that song for him. He didn’t need to be redeemed. He is strong and courageous and tough and not wanting to drown is a rational desire. And then I thought about that morning with Sam.
And then I realized who the song was for.
It was for me.